Monday, October 31, 2005

Cooking With Tomato

Tomato often does not provide the variety in eating that it could. Tomatoes, a fruit most often considered a vegetable, are a very diverse food. Most people stick to eating them in slices, perhaps seasoned with a little salt, or chopping them up for salads. Eating tomatoes in this way, however, causes you to miss out on the subtle acidic flavor of this delicious fruit.

Another easy way to cook tomatoes in to fry them. Fried green tomatoes are the best option out there. You can try frying with red tomatoes, but it is not as simple. Green tomatoes are firmer, making them easy to hold up to the heat. You will need to heat up vegetable oil about an inch thick in the bottom of a skillet, bread the tomato slices (about 1/8-inch thick), and then drop them in the grease. Do not leave frying tomatoes as they will burn quickly.

Tomatoes also are great for egg scrambles and other skillet dishes. You can put these dishes together easily. A typical scramble would be an egg scramble. You would get an egg started and then add in sausage, ham, or bacon. If you use bacon, it should already be cooked. Then you will just add in some seasoning and put the tomato in two to three minutes before you remove it from the skillet. You can play around with this recipe. For example, you could use tofu as the foundational ingredient, or you could add cheese.

Casseroles also make a great place for tomatoes. Any good casserole will have at least one vegetable and a variety of flavors. Tomatoes will cook and get softer when they are cooked, but they add such a sweet flavor to the casserole that they are worth it. You can combine chopped tomatoes with a can of tuna, a can of cream of chicken soup, eight ounces of sour cream, and some spices. Cook the casserole for about half an hour for a delicious treat. If you want to make a bigger meal of it, then you can add in green peas for another veggie.

Many pasta dishes also contain tomatoes. While spaghetti and lasagna are the obvious choices, you can mix tomatoes with many other pastas. A good example is to make an Alfredo fettucine and add in cubed chicken. Then you can toss in broccoli florets and cubes of tomatoes for about five minutes before it is done cooking.

Overall, tomatoes are a great dish when you are looking for something quick and healthy. Plus they are easy to grow in hot or cold climates. You can add them to any dish, and each plant will give off a score or more of the fruit. That means that you will be able to get the fruit from your backyard and then serve it to your family that night. You cannot have a fresh fruit than that, and tomatoes are hearty enough that even the gardener with the greenest of thumbs can manage a tomato plant.

By Julia Mercer

Decorating My Home

When my husband and I moved into a new city, we decided to lease a home. We know that we will need to live here only two years or so before we are off again, so we wanted something cute. We are nomads, and as such, we have purchased items to fit each place we have called home.

This house is a restored home. It is beautiful, and we were excited about its "character," but we have found that the textured paint over plaster that we called character cannot have any wall hangings. After a few frustrating days of trying Velcro strips and wall adhesive, we gave up. This process, and the pain of having purely white walls, made me wonder about how to decorate without needing to hang anything. I came up with a few ideas that can be useful if you are in this situation.

One option is to get pieces of cardstock, poster board, or backboard. You will need to be detail-oriented about this process, or it will not turn out well. Cut the board into circles, squares, and triangles using objects you have lying around as patterns. Then you can spray paint the boards to the color that will match your room. You can use various wall tapes to hang these posters, and you can have them laminated if you would like a nicer look.

Another choice is to hang hooks at various points on the ceiling. You can purchase brightly-colored cloth and cut it into 6-inch strips. Then you will hang the cloth in the hooks, leaving some breathing room between hooks so that the cloth hangs low. While the walls may still be white, the ceiling will attract attention. Children, in particular, will love this design.

A good photo mural is another possible solution for blank walls. You will need to purchase a large piece of cloth that will cover an entire wall. You can use cloth tacks to hang the cloth to the wall. Then you will position your photos at various places. You should use large and small photos alike and make the mural a visible sign of the people and things closest to you.

A final option for the more bohemian among you is a stained glass wall. You will need to gather up yards of four or five different types of cloth. Cut four- to six-inch squares of each type of cloth. You can sew these pieces of cloth together with a basic stitching; you do not need a sewing machine or a purely straight stitch. Put together enough of the cloth to go the height of the room. Then you will use cloth tacks to hang the strips of cloth, making your entire room appear like a stained glass window.

These choices are not the best, but they are neat and creative. People will remember your home when you make these designs. Plus each design is very colorful and will make your home feel brighter and more whimsical. Although you may find it odd not to be able to hang pictures, you can make your home beautiful nonetheless.

By Julia Mercer

Reasons To Love Cooking

In my quest to give up restaurant food and to learn to relax, I have come to enjoy the fun in cooking. When I was younger, I viewed cooking as just another chore, akin to ironing my clothes or cleaning the bathroom. Now, though, I have learned to appreciate cooking, and I want to share some of my reasons with you.

First, cooking is about relaxation. The reason I hated cooking was because I tried to rush home from work and get something on the stove. Once I learned to plan my meals in advance and stopped viewing cooking as the more boring thing I did everyday, I discovered that it can be relaxing. I can start working, have a glass of wine, and create a beautiful meal.

Cooking is about fellowship. I grew up in the Deep South, so this shouldn't be a surprise to me. Still, I have been amazed at how much I enjoy talking to my little guy in his high chair or spending time with my husband with no pressures to get anything else done. We can talk while we chop and laugh at our faux pas. Cooking has become a source of bonding in my relationship with my husband.

Experimentation, too, makes cooking fun. Now that I have been cooking "real" food for a year or so, I am confident enough with tastes and textures to experiment. When I started, I would get out a cookbook and follow the directions to a tee. If it said 1/3 teaspoon of black pepper, you had better bet I got out my measuring spoon and put exactly 1/3 teaspoon in. Now, I may not put pepper. I use my recipes as a guide and then add in my own ideas. I also just "whip something up" from what we have in the pantry and the refrigerator. We have discovered fun meals that we will never be able to duplicate just from leftovers.

Cooking is heart-healthy. Facing a serious medical condition at the age of 25 has changed my perspective quite a bit. I am no longer carefree. No longer do I view the time to get healthy as something I plan to do later in life. I have realized that my health is important now and establishing healthy eating habits is necessary for life. On a diet permitting no processed foods, I have learned to make for myself delicious meals all from scratch. I have learned to try new foods. If I cannot have beef, then I must replace it. Learning how is part of the fun.

Cooking really is a cathartic experience. It puts me closer to the earth to chop up fresh fruits and vegetables or to make bread from scratch. The time I put in is not that much more than the time it takes to make some much-less-nutritious meal. It certainly does not require the time commitment of going to a restaurant. The benefits of cooking have won me over. I can now fire up the ovens with the best of them.

By Julia Mercer

Making Pickles

If you find yourself with leftover cucumbers or zucchini squash at the end of the summer, try out these pickle recipes to give you a little variety for the winter months.

The first recipe is for dill pickles. Slice two pounds of Kirby cucumbers and put them in a colander. Salt lightly and refrigerate for two hours. After two hours, remove the cucumber slices and rinse them.

In a medium-sized pot, bring three cups of water to boil and add in two cups of distilled vinegar, one tablespoon of dill seed, and four chopped garlic cloves. Once you had added all of the ingredients, stir them together and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes.

While the mixture is cooking, chop two bunches of dill and combine them with the cucumber slices in a bowl. Once the brine mixture is done, pour it in with the cucumbers. Allow it to cool for about an hour and then store it in canning jars.

You also can make bread and butter pickles for a tasty treat. For this recipe, you should gather these ingredients: two pounds of cucumbers, one medium onion, two tablespoons of salt, two cups of cider vinegar, one cup of sugar, one tablespoon of yellow mustard seed, and 1/2 teaspoon of celery seed.

Slice the cucumbers and onion; then add salt. Toss the three ingredients together and allow them to chill for an hour. Remove them from the fridge and rinse them off.

In a saucepan, add in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. After four minutes of simmering, remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture begin to cool. Meanwhile, transfer the cucumbers and onion to a large bowl. Pour the mixture over the veggies once the mix has started to cool. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before putting in airtight containers.

For a special treat, you can try pickled red onions. While it may sound a bit odd, give it a try and you may find a new pickle that you love! Slice two pounds of red onions and follow the same salting and chilling method you used for the above pickling recipes. Once the onions are done with their chilling, bring three cups of cider vinegar to a boil.

Quickly add in 1 1/2 cups of sugar,15 black peppercorns, four cloves, two cinnamon sticks, six allspice, two red chiles, and two bay leaves. Once the complete mixture comes to a boil, remove it from the heat to allow it to cool.

After half an hour, bring the onions to a boil with the mixture. Separate out the onions and let them cool. Then pour the brine solution over them. Once the entire mixture is cool, can the pickles.

These recipes will help you get started in pickling. You must remember, though, that they are good for only about four weeks. You are not putting any preservatives in them, which makes them wonderfully healthy, but it does not provide any protection against spoiling. Be sure to refrigerate each jar after opening and enjoy.

By Julia Mercer

Host The Perfect Thanksgiving Celebration

With the holiday season kicking into full gear, you need to know that you will have a happy Thanksgiving coming up. It is no fun when you are dreading the event because you know that it will mean endless hours of cooking, cleaning, and more cleaning. Try working ahead of time to make this year's Thanksgiving fun for everyone.

Find out ahead of time how many people are coming. There will be some uncertainty in the number - maybe Cousin Jim is coming and maybe not - but you should have a fairly accurate headcount. If people are reluctant to commit, explain that you need to plan, which you cannot do without knowing how many people.

Then sit down and plan out your menu and cleaning schedule about two weeks before the big day. You should give yourself about a week to clean and cook. While that may seem like more work, you will be doing less each day, meaning that you will not be overwhelmed the Wednesday night before with all of the work you have to do.

Once you have a schedule in place, go out and pick up any decorations you will need. If you plan to use Thanksgiving napkin holders, placemats, or new centerpieces, now is the time to pick up these items. You will have them in your home to fit them into the cleaning schedule, and it will be easier if you already have them on hand. Work your grocery shopping - which needs a list! - into your weekly grocery run so that you do not have to make an additional trip for it.

A week before the big day you need to start cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. While I say that, you should not try to get your house spotless. There is no need because it will not stay that way, and well, frankly, no one will really notice. You should, however, work on polishing up the silverware, getting the china ready, and preparing the dining room. You also should do the major cleaning work that will need to be done.

The key is to have the major cleaning done by Tuesday. That way, your Thanksgiving Eve is not filled with the cleaning duties. Your job on Wednesday needs to be maintenance cleaning. You will want to wipe down bathrooms and vacuum on this day, but you really should have completed other tasks before then.

Before you go to bed Wednesday night, you need to think about the cooking. It is likely that the turkey will need to cook overnight, and you should get that in. You need to think about the rest of the food, too. You want to be able to get the food on so that it is ready when people arrive (or at the set eating time), and you want to save time to set the table while it is cooking. You should work out which dishes need to start at what time so that you will have everything ready. Also be sure you include everyone in clean-up so that you are not stuck with that duty, too.

By Julia Mercer

Doctor-Ordered Diet? Yuck?

I went to the doctor last week. Despite being young and in previously good health, I am finding that my medical problems are mounting. My doctor has now put me on a diet, which has made me toss my food plans and start over.

I will admit that I spent a few days being sad and depressed when I got the news. Now, though, I'm looking at it as a new adventure, which I hope can be encouraging to others who are under required dietary changes. I took a great shopping trip with my son to see what new foods we will be able to eat.

The diet I'm on is a variation of the DASH diet. It is intended to lower blood pressure. I am supposed to be on a low-sodium diet as well. I can have no beef and virtually no processed foods.

My first question on my trip was how not to eat beef. Yes, I'm a red-blooded American, and beef is an important part of my diet. Were I more affluent, I would never eat ground beef, but I do. I made two amazing discoveries, however, that will work with my diet and increase my cooking possibilities. The first fabulous find I made was ground turkey.

I remember my mom switching to ground turkey for a while when I was a kid, but as an adult, I've never used it. I was shocked, and now I'm a convert! The one-pound packages of turkey I found cost about 30 cents less than the ground beef. Plus, the beef had 30 grams of fat while the turkey had only 5 grams!

Just that purchase alone would have made my day because I can now use the ground turkey anywhere I would have used beef. We tried the turkey tonight with tacos and were really happy with the result. After the initial bite or two, you cannot tell a difference.

When I went by the painfully small health food section, I decided to stop. I experimented with vegetarianism in college, but I lived in the dorms in those days. I just picked from what was available. I decided to check out the tofu, however, since my doctor said that I really should have only one or two pieces of meat per day.

The tofu, too, was less expensive than I'd expected. It was the same price as the ground beef, which really surprised me. I also have been looking into using tofu, a soy-based non-meat product. Because of tofu's makeup, it takes on the flavor of whatever it is being cooked in, meaning that I can use it in chili and stir-fry without anyone even noticing. (Well, okay, they may notice, but they won't complain.)

I am now excited by the possibilities of learning to cook with turkey and tofu instead of beef. While I have a long way to go to reach my dietary goals, I feel so much better knowing that one quick trip to the grocery could net such significant gains in making my whole family healthier.

By Julia Mercer

Cooking For The Games

I love football season. I absolutely love it. I often tell my husband that he is a lucky man to have a wife who says, "stop working! The game is on!" Football is part of our existence in the fall, and we love it.

In the past, we have had drinks for the games and maybe picked up some Chex Mix or tortilla chips and salsa. This year, though, I have been at work planning game day foods. We spend each Friday thinking about different appetizers or dips we would like to try. Then we experiment with them. So far, we have worked on perfecting our spinach and artichoke dip. It is a classic recipe for us, but we had changed it so much that we did not like it as much as we used to. We realized, though, that the key is using blocks of cheese cut into cubes to melt into the artichokes and spinach.

Plus we have made several sausage dishes. We have had sausage balls twice - because they are so tasty. We also made a makeshift sausage dip that we discovered by accident when we had to throw some ingredients together. These two recipes we have shared with others, and they seem to be a big hit. We have changed them a little each time we have had them in an effort to make them special to us and something we can serve to other people, who will be impressed!

This weekend we tried hummus and pita bread. We have also experimented with horseradish dips, homemade nachos, and meatballs. The fun part of this experimentation is that it adds a new element to the game. Instead of just watching the game, which is fun in itself, the whole day becomes an event. We pick up the ingredients on Friday evenings, and then we check the listings for game times the next day. We have a schedule for both the eating and games.

We have to get up early enough on Saturday to have the food going by the time the noon games start. So we are up and at 'em, cooking for our own personal tailgating party. The hardest part of the whole process is that we do not permit ourselves to sample the food before the games start. And of course, we save the best foods for the biggest game of the day. Once we have started the day, we move a round table we have into the living room and pile it with food, paper plates, and napkins. Then we can just graze throughout the games, making for a perfect day.

We have enjoyed this new tradition because we get to spend so much quality time together. You can talk about a lot going on in your life while you are chopping onions or rounding meatballs to bake. The fellowship part of cooking for the games nourishes the soul. Like other forms of cooking, it is the love that goes into the food that makes it so delicious. Oh, and victory doesn't hurt!

By Julia Mercer

Cooking After A Restaurant Addiction

I have an addiction to restaurants. I love to eat out, but unfortunately, I loved it too much during my carefree college days and am now paying for it in astronomical credit card bills. Still, I crave the feel of restaurants although I cannot afford it.

One of the things I have learned over the past year as I have been trying to pay off my debt and get to the point where I can feed my addiction again - literally - I have discovered the joy in cooking.

One of the reasons I discovered that I enjoy to cook is because I realized that I was paying more for one meal than it would take to budget-feed myself and my husband for several days. We have very low-priced standards when it comes to cooking at home. When we really started looking at not spending money, I had to admit how much I like restaurant food.

I have learned to start getting over it by trying to replicate this food at home. It is not difficult to do as I had imagined. If you were trying to replicate a five-star restaurant (or sadly, the grease that is fast food), then you would have more difficulty. If, like me, you are trying to make food that tastes like your average restaurant chain, the process is not quite so difficult.

Most chains, and even many locals, have websites now. You can go online and read up on your favorite recipe. While you may not be able to replicate "special sauce" or some other ingredient, you can get the basics down. Bourbon chicken or tequila lime steaks are not mysteries. You can learn to make these foods on your own. What is even better is that you can cater them to your desires! If you make a meal you have had at a restaurant and decide that you think a little grilled onion would make it better, go for it. You may find that you enjoy these foods better.

I also discovered the irrationality in my food addiction. I would go out and spend $30 on one meal but bargain shop at the grocery store. One way to make restaurant-quality food at home is to discover that by not spending money going out, you can increase your grocery budget. Instead of getting the cheapest lunch meat you can, which is high in sodium and cholesterol, you will be able to afford the butcher's nice, clean cuts. Then you can make that roast beef au jus at home and have the same quality of meat without spending as much. Once I realized this inconsistency in my thinking, cooking at home began to make a lot more sense.

It is a year in, and I have learned that some days I simply will want to go to a restaurant, and I have to permit myself to do so. Most days, though, I can make myself happier and calmer by cooking restaurant-style foods at home and avoiding the hassle and cost of the restaurant experience.

By Julia Mercer

Getting Your Husband To Cook

While I try to be very gender-neutral in most articles, I will assume that this issue applies mostly to women. Many wives or partners find themselves always responsible for the cooking and wanting to know how to get their husbands to help them out. My husband is whipping up tacos and fried plantains while I write and telling me to come to the table or they're eating without me. Ladies, I'm here to tell you that I have the answer to getting your hubby to help out at mealtime.

First, you cannot complain about his cooking - at least in the beginning. When you have convinced your husband to take over a night's meal and he makes hot dogs and French fries, grin and bear it. Yes, you may have slaved over a hot stove yesterday, but he's just getting started. If you really want someone else to take over, you have to let him get comfortable in the position.

Before you get to that place, though, you need to be prepared to ask him. Many women expect their husbands to help out but don't tell them what they want them to do. Say something very specific. "Look, I get tired of cooking every night. Can you start cooking one night a week? I thought Tuesdays would be good?"

Give him a chance to give you a thoughtful response. Even if he says no, you can probably convince him if you find out why. If he doesn't think he has the time, offer him some recipes that will take little work from him. If he doesn't know how to plan out a meal (yes, it seems obvious to women but frightening to many men), then help him. You can even volunteer to plan his first couple.

Work with whatever his hesitation is to fix it, even if that means you have to cook as a team his first couple of tries. It may be best if you are prepared with two or three simple recipes, and make them dishes you have made before, such as spaghetti or baked chicken. Don't make him feel intimidated by the process; keep it simple.

Once he has agreed to cook, then you need to be prepared to eat whatever it is. This point goes back to the first point. More importantly than making sure that you don't comment on his choice, even if it's pizza, is not criticizing if he really made an effort. He may have tried to bake pork chops, but they came out more like pork jerky. Don't snicker or comment on it, even in fun. If you want your husband to help out, then you don't want to make him feel bad his first time out.

Getting your husband to cook really is just a matter of making sure you are sensitive about the issue. Once he gets the basics down, he may even be willing to branch out and try new recipes. He may even volunteer to cook more often. You never know until you ask.

By Julia Mercer

Selecting The Perfect Dining Room Table

Purchasing a new dining room table can be a fun experience. It is important because the table, for many families, is a gathering place. It is the center of your dining room, so it will frame what goes in the rest of the room.

Before you begin shopping, take some time to examine your dining room. How many people will sit at the table on an average day? How many people will need to use it on holidays? You can get a leaf if there is a big difference in numbers.

Then look at the dining room. Measure it. How big can the table be and still provide enough room to walk around or to serve food? Do not just "eyeball" it. Break out the measuring tape so that you can go to the store with the maximum measurements in mind.

You should also sketch out the dining room, complete with markings for the doors and windows with their measurements. A good salesperson can use your sketch to help you decide if a certain table would work or not or to make suggestions.

The key decisions you should make are the shape of the table. If there are only three of you, a round table may work. You would need an oval or very large circle for eight people. Most people choose rectangular tables, but there are plenty of options out there.

You also will need to know if you are looking for a wooden finish or a metal or other type of finish. If you get a wood finish, be sure to ask about cleaning it. Some finishes will require more maintenance work, such as oiling, while others will be fine with the occasional sponging. Tell the salesperson if children will be using this table or not; that may make a difference the type of finish you want. Opting for a metal table means checking on the paint. Will it chip easily? If so, will you be able (and willing) to repair it or live with a table that needs work done to it?

Once you have found the right table, measure the distance between the legs. You may want to use the chairs that come with the table, but many people decide to get chairs separately. If you are going to do that, you need to know how big the chairs should be. If there is a 48-inch gap between the legs on one side, and you need to fit two chairs, make sure they will go there comfortably. When you are looking at the chairs, measure from the point farthest out, which may be the back not the legs. Leave some wiggle room for people to get in and out.

Like many other areas, purchasing a dining room table means doing a little legwork, no pun intended, before you make the purchase. You will have this table for a while, so be sure that you get one that you will be able to change or tolerate for years to come.

By Julia Mercer

Make Your Vacations A Decoration

One of the worst things about vacations is that we cannot bring them home with us! It is difficult to recapture to feeling of a vacation once your nose is back to that proverbial grindstone. You can bring parts of your vacation back with you as a reminder of a relaxing and fun time in your life.

One option is to create a wall hanging shadow box. You have to think ahead if you plan to make this decoration. While you are away, you will need to gather items with at least one flat side that can hang (so they cannot be too heavy). Try postcards as a first step. Also look for flat stones from places you visited and sand dollars at the beach. You can cut out a picture of the place you visited from a brochure or use the part of the map to show where you were.

If you cannot find enough flat-sided objects, then you can get small white boxes to use to put other objects in as long as you can determine a way to attach the object to the box. Once you have gathered the items, you will need a shadow box. While you can make your own, it is simpler to buy one if you are new to crafting.

Measure an area of a table that is the same size as the viewing window on the shadow box. Then you can work to arrange the items you have gathered before you put them in the box. They will be more difficult to move around later, so get them right here first. Once you have determined how you want to design the boxes, then you can begin attaching the items to the shadow box and hang it on the wall. If you have a large area, such as a family room or basement, you can add a shadow box for each vacation so that you will have a visual reminder of the places your family has been.

Another quick way to remember vacations is to purchase postcards while you are there. The best part of using postcards for decorations is that they are so cheap. Get lots of them to use for decorating and scrap booking back home. Try to find postcards that are 4X6 or another standard size. Once you get home, you can purchase clear frames and hang them, making them a unique display of your adventures. If you want them to look more formal, you can get a wooden frame or try putting them in a matte so that they can become a bigger part of your room’s décor.

Vacations are a blast, and there is no reason that you cannot bring home some of the excitement. The key is to plan ahead. You cannot come home and try to throw something together. Be sure that you get what you need when you are there. On a rough day, it will be uplifting to look at the vacation decorations and be transported back to a time when you were having a great day.

By Julia Mercer

Make A Portable Buffet Table

If you need room in your dining room but don't have it, you can try to find an old quilt rack to convert into a buffet. These racks are basically a wooden frame that people used to hold their blankets before the days of industrial dryers and neighborhood regulations. You will have to keep your eye out because they are from the first half of the twentieth century, but if you can find one, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Since these racks are so old, you will need to sand it down before you begin. Take some time on the sanding and re-varnishing. The beauty of this design is that you can fold up this buffet and store it in a closet, but that means that there are nooks and crannies that need your attention. Once you have completed the re-varnishing, give the rack some time to dry.

You will need to fold it as if you were using it. Measure the space that you have to put in a plank of wood. You will use this wood as the tray. When you get the wood, go for quality. You will be putting trays of food and possible hot pots on the wood, so you need something thick and sturdy. Once you get it home, you can sand it down and paint or varnish it. You can go with a varnish to match the rack or to spice it up, paint the wood a deep color.

Most racks are about six feet tall, so you should be able to put two shelves on the rack without any problems. Once the wood is complete, try it out. You want to make sure it will hold before you have guests over. Put some dishes on it to see how it works.

Then look at the space possibilities. You may be able to hang mug hooks on the rack, for example. Try to think of additional ways to use the space. You also may be able to plan for wrapping vine around the top and bottom of the rack’s frame so that you will be able to decorate the rack for your guests.

Again, the best part about this piece of furniture is that it is not permanent. If you have a small dining area or you need a makeshift place to put food, simply pull out the portable buffet and set it up. Clean up is easy, too. Unless something is spilled, you just fold it and put it away. It gives you the opportunity to treat your guests more formally but maintain open areas in your home for everyday living.

These types of finds are ones you will have to keep an eye out for. You can look at antique shops, yard sales, and auctions. You never know when someone may be getting rid of something that you can turn in to a nice piece of furniture for your home! In this case, the saying is right: one person's trash truly is another person's treasure.

By Julia Mercer

Let The Kids Decorate For Thanksgiving

While you have dreams of grandeur when you are thinking of your Thanksgiving celebration, your kids may not be looking forward to it like you are. You know that Thanksgiving is about cleaning up and cooking for your family. For your children, it can be about boredom and not being able to touch anything. Fix that problem this year, and you will have a Thanksgiving the family will love.

Allow your children to do the decorating for Thanksgiving. While you will not have perfect decorations, they will show your children's hard work, which can be even better. The children can make Indian corn napkin holders with your supervision. You will need to gather squares of felt. Then hot glue 12 popsicle sticks onto each piece of felt, leaving about an inch on each side of the felt. These sticks are the lines of corn. At most craft stores, you will find large bags of buttons. Pick one up and let the kids glue buttons onto the popsicle sticks for the kernels of corn. Allow the project to dry, then fold the felt into a circle, and glue the flaps together.

A second project the kids can do is a gobbler breadbasket. You will need to use your breadbasket, or pick up one, for this one. Allow your son or daughter to trace a light bulb onto a piece of construction paper. Then he or she will cut out the light bulb; it is the turkey’s head. Use the construction paper to make circle eyes and a triangle beak as well as the gobbler.

Now cut a 2-inch strip of construction paper that will line the outside of the breadbasket. Glue the gobbler head onto the center of the strip. Now, you will need to help your child to make feather shapes. Show him or her how to make one and then use it for a template or make them on her or his own. Once your child has made a few feathers, you will need to attach them to the strip of paper. You can staple or glue this bit of decoration.

You will need to fold over the strip into a circle so that you can slip it over the basket. Then glue or staple it together. Once that is done, you can attach the feathers to the strip so that you are making a turkey tail. Slip this decoration over the breadbasket, and it will look like a turkey!

You can experiment with other Thanksgiving decorations or even let the children make Pilgrim hats to wear, allowing your children to experience a fun Thanksgiving. Remember that this day ultimately is about family, and your children should not dread every year's Thanksgiving celebration. Allowing them to make the decorations will give them something to be proud of and to show off to your guests. It will make the whole day a more enjoyable one for your family, and who knows? It may just start a new tradition for your family's Thanksgiving celebrations!

By Julia Mercer

Customize Your Child’s Room Decor

When you want to design a room for your toddler or small child, do not just think about all of the cartoon characters you could use. Try to incorporate your child's personality into every nook and cranny of the room so that you can make it feel like a room made just for your little one.

First, you can allow children to help you with the decorations. Even a four or five year old can assist you with some parts of decorating the room. if you are adept at sewing at all, consider making custom shams for example. You can go to a craft store with your child and let him or her pick out the perfect craft items to hot glue onto personalized pillows. You can put lettering with the child’s name or initials to make the pillows even more personalized.

Use your child’s artwork as the decoration for the room. Instead of trying to find posters or other decorations, use up some of those drawings on the fridge. Pick out a few that complement the colors you have chosen for the room and get to work. If they need smoothing, keep them between the pages of a large book overnight. Then put them in a frame and hang them. Your child will love seeing her or his artwork as part of the room.

With a child's room, your imagination is the limit. You do not have to stick to solid colors for the walls. You and your child can stencil letters, polka dots, or other objects on the wall. Or you can permit your child to paint a mural scene on the wall. Let your child have a go at creating the perfect decorations.

Ask your child to pick out what is bothersome about the current room set up. Maybe your daughter cannot reach her own hair bows. Then make room for a vanity with a center for her bows. Perhaps your son has trouble with those jeans you keep up in the closet. Buy cubby boxes for him to use. Your child will be much more likely to keep his or her room clean if doing so is easy. Consider putting peg boards up at your child's height to hang scarves, book bags, and other items.

Make a decorative bulletin board. You can use cork squares covered with fabric and put on the wall in strategic places to keep down childhood clutter. Even kids have papers, but with this system they will have a place to put them. Also consider adding a marker board or chalkboard so that your child can write and erase in her or his room. This addition can cut down on paper clutter as well - a win-win all around.

The bottom line is that you should let your child be part of the design of the room. While you do not have to use every suggestion your six-year-old makes, you can consult her on the color scheme and what she would like to see in her room. Remember that this space if your child's to use, so make it something she wants.

By Julia Mercer

Add Some Pizzazz To Your Candles

Candles are a wonderful accent piece for your home. Unfortunately, many people believe that they have too many candles. They receive them for gifts or pick them up on occasion, and before long, the house is overrun. Plus, many candleholders are plain. One way to stay happy with your candles is to make holders of your own that will accent your room and make a perfect way to keep candles.

The first candleholder is a beeswax variety on your basic glass candleholder. You will need to select a glass candleholder to use for this design. Get something perfectly round with a good base for the best result. The holder should not be too thin, or the candle could get too hot and start to melt the beeswax. Then pick up beeswax paper at your local craft store. You should be able to find the paper without much trouble and be sure to get colors that accent the room where the candles will go.

Once you have your materials, you will need a pencil and a ruler. Place the beeswax paper around the candleholder and mark the spot with a pencil. Use the ruler to create a straight line and then cut the paper. Beeswax paper naturally bonds to itself, so all you need to do is fold the paper around the candleholder. It should fit snugly. Then use your fingers to press together the ends of the paper. Put in the candle and light it. You will find that the paper seems to glow with the candle flickering behind it, so even a plain white candle will seem magical.

The second design is for votive candles, but you can, of course, use your imagination to make it work for your candleholders. You will need to gather a hot glue gun with plenty of sticks, glass rocks from a craft store with one flat side, and glass votive holders.

While you are letting the glue gun rev up, start creating a single-line design with the rocks. When the glue is ready, you will hot glue one rock and place it along the bottom of the votive holder so that the bottom of the rock is level with the bottom of the holder, but make sure that you will still be able to sit the holder down. Complete the bottom circle of rocks from the design you created. Then do the same on the top row. The result is a beautifully customized votive set that you can enjoy.

These candle ideas are only two of the many out there. Candles can be a beautiful addition to any home. They add light and elegance when needed, and they can brighten your mood or permit you to be somber. Candles can be scented or created for aromatherapy, and they are available to help any emotion you have. There are candles of all shapes and sizes, but don't forget that you can experiment with their accent pieces, too, to create a beautiful design to decorate your home.

By Julia Mercer

Pasta With a Kick

When it comes to pasta, I admit that I am not much of a connoisseur. I am usually content to just eat spaghetti with meat sauce or even just macaroni and cheese. Rarely do I venture out and try pastas that are any more exotic than that. For example, I never eat pasta with white sauce or with wine in the sauce. Nor do I eat pasta with seafood in it. Then, a few weeks ago, I went out to lunch with a friend of mine at a local Italian restaurant and she convinced me to try something called Arrabbiata pasta. After listening to her tell me how much I would like it, I gave in and ordered it. Boy, am I glad I did! I am hooked on this stuff now!

As I said, I am not much of an expert on pasta, so I don't know if I'll be able to describe Arrabbiata pasta in a way that does it justice. First of all, our waiter told us that it means "angry pasta" or something like that, which is actually a pretty fitting name for it. You see, Arrabbiata pasta sauce has a great kick to it. The sauce is very hot and spicy, and has such a wonderful flavor. To tell you the truth, I had always thought pasta was a rather boring dish before. I certainly don't feel that way anymore!

Arrabbiata pasta is usually made with penne-style noodles, which is my favorite kind of pasta to begin with. As with all pasta dishes, the sauce is what really separates this variety from the rest. Arrabbiata sauce contains a mixture of crushed peppers (either red or cayenne), tomatoes, garlic, salt, and black pepper. Many Arrabbiata sauces also have bacon bits in them. The peppers are obviously what gives this type of sauce its kick, so you might want to stay away from this particular dish if you are not a big fan of peppers. That being said, I usually don't care too much for spicy foods myself, but find that I am able to handle Arrabbiata pasta without any problems. Sure, I have to drink an extra glass of water or two at dinner, but that's about the extent of my "discomfort". In addition, different restaurants would of course have slightly different Arrabbiata pasta sauce recipes, so one place might have a much hotter version than another. The key is to find a restaurant with the version that you like best; don't give up if you run into dishes that are either too bland or too spicy.

Arrabbiata pasta sauce is also available in jars at the grocery store, so you can whip up your own version at home, too. I've heard that this kind of sauce works great with any style (shape) of pasta noodles, so go ahead and experiment if you want to. Furthermore, I've heard that Arrabbiata sauce is wonderful on rice as well. I haven't tried that yet, but it sounds interesting and I can certainly see how that would liven things up.

So if you are looking for a pasta dish with some extra pizzazz, try Arrabbiata pasta. It definitely packs an unexpected punch!

Versatile Pork Chops

For some reason pork chops usually stay in my freezer longer than anything else. They look good in the store and I buy them, then they just sit there in the freezer looking at me for a few weeks. I am not exactly sure what the problem is but I suspect it has to do with the lack of pork chop recipes I have saved. That is why I'm currently in the process of looking for chop recipes and I am amazed at how many ways there actually are to serve them!

To make Oniony Pork Chops, start by trimming the extra fat from your pork chops and browning them in extra virgin olive oil. When they have browned, mix 1/4 cup of dry onion soup mix (any brand) with 1 cup of water and then pour it over the pork chops in the pan.

Simmer the chops in the skillet (cover it first) for about 45 minutes until they are done and tender. After that time, add a 6 ounce can of evaporated milk and 4 ounces of fresh mushrooms that you have sliced. Mix 2 tablespoons of flour into 1/4 cup of water and combine it with the juices in the pan. Cook on low heat until the sauce thickens and serve with your favorite fresh chopped herbs on top.

The preparation for Breaded Pork Chops begins the same way, by trimming extra fat from half a dozen center cut pork chops. Next beat 1 cup of evaporated milk (skim will work well if you are watching fat content) with the white of one egg. Add the pork chops to the milk and egg white and let it stand for 10 or 15 minutes.

In the meantime, crush 1 cup of flaked corn cereal and mix it with 1/4 cup of dry bread crumbs, salt and pepper to taste, and pinches of garlic powder, dry mustard, chili powder, oregano, and paprika.

Spray your baking pan or large casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray. Take the chops from the milk one by one and coat them with the crumb and spice mixture. Put them into the spray coated pan and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven. Bake for 20 minutes and gently turn the chops over. Continue baking until finished which, depending on the thickness of the chops will be an additional 20 to 30 minutes in most cases. Make sure the pork is thoroughly cooked but without getting "leathery" from over-baking.

As a note of interest, this method will work well for fish fillets or skinless chicken breast tenders also. Adjust the amount of time in the oven accordingly if using chicken or fish.

Still another great new way to serve pork chops is to barbecue them. Again trim the extra fat from 6 or 8 chops and season them with salt and pepper. Combine 1/2 cup water with 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 tablespoons dry mustard, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, and 4 tablespoons chili sauce (ketchup may work as well). Pour this mixture over the pork chops and cover the baking dish with foil.

Bake at 375 degrees for at least an hour. Remove the foil for the last 20 or 25 minutes. Check to see when the chops are finished. Baking time will depend on the thickness of the chops. They need to be thoroughly cooked, especially since it is pork, but you don't want to over-bake them to the point where they dry out. For thinner chops, an hour will be good, but for thicker meat, you may have to bake them longer. Don't be afraid to cut into them to check the doneness of the meat.

dELiAs Online

By Christina VanGinkel

If you are midway through your holiday shopping, which is about the average answer you will get from anybody you question on how far along they are with their holiday gift shopping, you may be approaching the 'tough to buy for' people on your list. I often shy away from giving clothes as gifts, even to my own children, as it can be hard to figure out their wildly changing tastes in clothes, but other times, there just is no other alternative. I have a friend whose daughter I have always bought 'a little something' for each holiday season. It started when she was just a baby and has progressed through to her pre-teen years. At a total loss as to what to purchase her this year, I asked her mother for ideas. Her response was to be her clothes. That she is one of those pre-teens who already believes they are a teenager and she is madly in love with clothes.

When I responded that I would not have a clue as to her styles or tastes, her mother responded by inviting me over on a school day to take a peak through her closet to get a feel for what she likes. As soon as I saw her wardrobe, I knew the perfect store to shop. The only problem was that the closest outlet they had was several hours away in a mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which meant no quick weekend or after work shopping trip to that store. Then I recalled that I was sure they had an online storefront. I knew just where to go to find their online counterpart too; I went right to and was soon shopping

This store has a huge selection of tees that are set to please any pre-teen or teenage girl. They also have all the latest fashion in jean wear. Instead of traipsing all over town looking for the perfect pair, just head to for a big enough selection that you will be able to find several pair that any young girl on your shopping list will soon be naming you the best gift giver of the year! If they are more into cords or twills, dELiAs has a fine selection of those to choose from also.

If you are looking for Hoodies, one of today's most popular clothing items among teens of any age, you again will not be disappointed. They have a selection that includes all the years' favorite colors and fashions, including zip fronts and pullovers. If you need the latest in boots, shoes, outerwear, even dresses, they also have a large selection of each of those. In addition, their accessories collection is as full of choices as the rest of their departments. They have a wide range of belts, bags, hats and gloves, and jewelry. To top off their huge collection of clothing and accessories, they also have a complete department just for dressing your favorite girl's room, with everything from furniture and curtains, to complete bedding sets!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Finding the Perfect Desk Chair

By Christina VanGinkel

An office chair is one of the most important items in you office, maybe the most important of all. The average person who works at a desk spends far too many hours with their backside perched in its seat, and if it is an uncomfortable chair, it can mean long, miserable days, followed by long, miserable backaches. There are guidelines to follow when in search of a new chair to use at your desk, and the first and most important one of them all is that it be comfortable while sitting in it for long lengths of time. With all the advancements made in this most utilitarian of items, there is no reason why anybody should have to stand up from their desk and be uncomfortable. How you sit in your desk chair will also weigh heavily on how comfortable you are in it. If you recall all the times your parents or teachers told you to sit up straight, remind yourself of those warnings each time you sit down to begin your workday. Bad or poor posture will bring you down pain lane no matter how comfortable a desk chair you invest in.

Some features that you should definitely consider when shopping include:

An adjustable seat height, as different projects may require that you sit at your desk in different ways, or you may need to be stretched out a bit more after a long weekend of lazing about at home.

Swivel seats can be important if you have an L shaped desk, or have a large desk area that you spread your work out all over. By being able to swivel the whole chair, you will not be so inclined to stretch and possibly pull muscles.

Unbelievably, not all desk chairs have sturdy caster wheels, but for the sake of simple convenience, you should consider them a must. Look at how they are attached, and if they appear sturdy and likely to hold up through lots of wear. If you have more than one desk in your office, as many people do, the ease of moving your chair from one area to another without having to lift the chair will also save you from any possibility of pulling or straining muscles because you had to carry your heavy desk chair across the room.

The fabric or material covering on your chosen chair should reflect both the style of your office, and how you use your office. If nothing more than a suit and tie hit your chair, go for any good-looking, quality fabric that catches your eye. If your desk chair is situated in an office that sees the likes of art products, sandwiches, or any items whatsoever that could stain or tear a chair's coverings, take these factors into consideration before laying down your cash for its purchase. You want to buy a good-looking quality chair, but one that will hold up to any extra abuse it may suffer in your busy workspace.

Shop sensibly, shop smartly, shop right here at, and you will be assured of finding the perfect chair for your space.

Some Potential Benefits of Chlorella Consumption

When it comes to "super foods", one of the best varieties out there is Chlorella. Chlorella is a single-celled green alga plant that is all-natural and is safe for human consumption. It is very dense in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, nucleic acids, and antioxidants, making it one of the healthiest foods around. Chlorella has been around for literally billions of years, but it wasn't until the 1900's that scientists started examining it as a food source for people. Since that time, however, it has been heavily researched and studied, and there have been many health benefits associated with the regular consumption of Chlorella. Let's take a look at some of the things that this incredible food can do for the human body.

First, Chlorella can be useful for heavy metal detoxification. Harmful metal substances enter our bodies every single day of our lives. For example, some people have excess amounts of mercury in their bodies as a result of dental fillings. Other people might live in areas where the drinking water isn't as pure as it could be and contains trace amounts of metals such as lead. Whatever the source, these metals can cause a variety of problems, from something as simple as headaches to more serious illnesses.

Studies have shown that Chlorella can actually bind to metals and usher them out of the body through regular waste elimination channels. Therefore, if you make Chlorella a regular part of your diet, you can effectively reduce the amount of metals in your body over time.

A second potential benefit to consuming Chlorella is that it can strengthen your immune system. It is known that our bodies have certain cells, such as Beta cells and T cells, that are active in protecting us from bacteria, viruses, damage, etc. Chlorella works to stimulate the production of these important cells in your body, which in turn increases the protection that you receive lessens your susceptibility to colds and other common health problems.

A third potential benefit of Chlorella consumption is that it can improve your digestive system. These days, it can be difficult to steer clear of refined, processed foods that are full of artificial everything. We generally give in to our time limitations and convenience needs and eat stuff that we know isn't good for us. This type of diet eventually takes its toll on the digestive system and leads to many different problems. But Chlorella has been shown to eliminate a lot of the "bad" bacteria in the intestines, which in turn helps make digestion more efficient and regular.

These are just a few of the many potential benefits of Chlorella consumption that decades of research have uncovered. Although Chlorella is a naturally occurring food, it must be specially harvested in order to be consumed. Therefore, many people choose to take it in supplement form since it is just easier to do it that way. Most health food stores or natural food stores carry Chlorella capsules, so you'll have no trouble finding this food if you want to try it.

Jewelry Storage

By Christina VanGinkel

Do you remember your first jewelry box? I do. Mine actually played music, Swan Lake I believe, and was cardboard covered with a ballerina print vinyl. It also had a tiny plastic ballerina that popped up and would twirl to the music when the lid was opened. I wish I still had it, not necessarily to keep jewelry in, but just for the memories I am sure it would invoke, as just thinking about it makes me recall things like charm bracelets hanging heavy with charms, and mood rings that I was convinced would tell me who my true love was the minute I walked by them.

Today, I store my jewelry a bit differently. My jewelry box is larger by far, and is lined with a tarnish free lining that is supposed to keep my items tarnish free for up to twenty-five years, and keep my gemstones clean and shiny. I also keep a few special items, such as a strand of pearls that have been passed down to me from my mother, in separate lined pouches. I do this more because my mother always told me to keep the pearls separate, so whether this is necessary or not, I am unsure, but they always seem a bit more pearlescent when I first pull them out to wear than I think they would be if I just placed them directly in my jewelry box.

While the size of my jewelry box is small, it is more than adequate for my needs, as I have a very limited number of jewelry pieces. My daughter on the other hand, has a large collection of jewelry pieces, and it grows yearly. I believe that storing her items properly is important, and I have been researching a few different styles in consideration of buying her a gift this Christmas to store all of her lovely pieces and keep them looking as fine as the days she received each one.

The one that I am most impressed by is called a Jewelry Safe Keeper. It is manufactured by Stacks and Stacks, and is Rosewood in color. It is made with what they call escalating drawers. You can open it and see all your items at once, as the drawers open in an escalating fashion. The manufacturer's description states that it will hold 72 pairs of earrings, 70 rings, and more than 60 other pieces including necklaces and watches. It also has a bottom drawer to hide away special or sentimental items. It is li9ned with the same tarnish free interior as my smaller jewelry box, and though the one I looked at was finished in Rosewood, it is available in a more timely oak finish.

If you know a jewelry lover, or are one yourself, this is an ideal item to keep all those treasures tarnish free and shining as brightly as the day they were first made. Quality jewelry is enduring and should be provided a place to be stored that will allow it to age undetected to the eye. If I decide to get this for her, or a similar one, I think it will be the perfect place for my mother's pearls to be kept for the next generation.

What Are Super Green Foods?

When it comes to food, most of us would like to eat healthier, more wholesome items that can really benefit our bodies in the long run. So we try to make sure that we take in plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables every day (or at least whenever we can) because we know that these kinds of foods have the vitamins and minerals that we need. Of course everyone knows about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, but by comparison, not many people know about the benefits of a class of foods known as "super food" or "super green food". So let's take a closer look at this category.

Even if you've never heard the term "super green food", you've probably heard of some of the foods that fall into this category. They can generally be found in most health food stores, so it's not very difficult to give them a try. Things like kelp, chlorella, spirulina, barley grass, wheat grass, and more are all considered super green food. These foods occur naturally and are suitable for human consumption. In addition, they are packed with the nutrients and proteins that our bodies need the most.

Though these foods might appear to be different on the surface, they do contain fundamental similarities. For example, they contain a lot of chlorophyll and other antioxidants. These antioxidants are effective at building up your immune system and warding off viruses. Some people even believe that certain antioxidants can help protect against cancer, though I don't know if those claims have been sanctioned or otherwise supported by independent scientific or medical review boards. Either way, there's no doubt that antioxidants do help your body in several different ways, so you really can't go wrong by consuming foods that are rich in them.

Another fascinating characteristic of super green foods is that they not only contain many of the essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins that we need in order to stay healthy, but they also contain these nutrients in the right ratios. You've undoubtedly heard that you shouldn't eat too much of any one food, no matter how good it is for you. When it comes to nutrition, balance is the key. Well, with super green foods, you really don't have to worry about the whole balancing act. It seems that nature has taken care of that for you!

Super green foods are usually available in powder or supplement form, making it very easy for you to add these essential nutrients to your daily diet. Some people have reported dramatic improvements in energy levels, mental clarity, and overall health after consuming super green foods for a few months. So if you've been feeling lethargic and have been dragging around for a while, it might be time to improve your diet with the addition of super green foods.

If you're looking for an all-natural way to become healthier, why not do some more research on super green foods for yourself? You might discover that this kind of thing is exactly what your diet has been lacking, and you might end up feeling better in the long run!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Shopping for Appliances

By Christina VanGinkel

My daughter purchased a new refrigerator and stove Thursday. He husband chose to forego the shopping excursion and instead said he would not mind if I went along with her in his place. As they usually make all their large purchases together, this was a bit of a surprise. His reasoning was that I had not long ago had to purchase a refrigerator unexpectedly and had managed to find both a nice one and at a good price, and my daughter had been with me for that purchase. He figured the two of us together could do just as will with this duo purchases, not to mention he had no idea what she was looking for in either department.

We started out the afternoon with three stores in mind. We planned to check inventory and prices. Inventory on hand was important as they were only going to be home for a few days before heading back south for work, and she wanted to be able to get them installed before they left. We even went so far as to bring my husband's truck so if possible, we could actually take possession of the items the same day.

She also had several options that she knew she wanted as far as the stove and fridge both went, and planned to add these into the comparison factor as we shopped, along with the overall cubic size of the fridge. She wanted a digital timer on the oven for baking, what with an active two year old in the home, and the fact that she loved to bake and would use the feature regularly. She also wanted a glass view in the door. For the refrigerator, she wanted glass shelving and drawers, with at least one drawer being temperature controlled to keep her vegetables fresher longer. They live quite rurally, and being able to keep food fresh longer would mean that she would have to make fewer trips to town. When shopping for items such as these, knowing what you expect to get from them 'use wise' is important. She had taken the time to think out how she uses her appliances and what she wanted different in these new appliances in comparison to the old ones she had been using.

She was also not intimidated by the salespeople at all. She walked in knowing what questions she wanted answered, what features she was looking for, and she had a price for each appliance in mind, already having done research online. She also boldly asked at each store we visited if they would offer any type of discount because she was buying two appliances at once. If you are wondering if she received any discount, she did, nearly twenty percent overall.

She ended up purchasing from the first store we stopped at, but she still was surer of her purchases after double checking prices and quality at the competitors. One store would not offer any discount, and the other store was more expensive even with an overall larger discount. If I learned anything at all, it was that when shopping for large appliances, it pays to shop around and research your intended purchases as much as possible beforehand.

Unusual Popcorn Flavorings

When you think about popcorn flavors, there are several that immediately come to mind. For example, freshly popped kernels drenched in melted butter is the first thing that I think of. Others might think of caramel corn or cheddar cheese flavored popcorn, as these two varieties are also very popular. But there are many more flavors than just these three traditional ones, which is good news if you're a popcorn fan. Here are some of the more unusual ones that I've tried over the years.

Curry Popcorn
I think curry is one of those spices that you either love or hate; I know very few people who can sit on the fence as far as curry is concerned. So the same thing would hold true for curry popcorn. If you like the way curry smells and tastes, then you will love curry popcorn. I discovered this flavor when I lived in Japan. Though most people immediately associate curry with India and Great Britain for obvious reasons, few know just how popular it is in Japan as well. You don't have to travel all the way to Japan to try curry popcorn. The next time you get set to pop some kernels at home, simply sprinkle curry powder liberally over everything and you'll be able to sample this treat on your own.

Cappuccino Popcorn
When I was in high school, there was a gourmet popcorn shop located two blocks away from campus. I used to stop by there at least once a week to check out the new flavors. One of my favorites was the cappuccino popcorn, which I unfortunately haven't been able to find anywhere else. This is definitely one of the best-smelling, best-tasting varieties of popcorn I have ever had. The taste wasn't overwhelming at all. It was light and perfect, so definitely give it a shot if you ever come across it.

Butter and Soy Popcorn
Butter and soy sauce flavored popcorn is standard fare at a majority of Japanese movie theaters. I grew to like this kind of popcorn so much when I lived in Japan that I used to stop by the local cinema to pick up a box of it even when I had no plans of seeing a movie (the concession stand was located near the lobby of the theater, so I didn't need a ticket to buy something from there). I found that the soy was a great complement to the popcorn, and I still get cravings for it to this day.

Jalapeno Popcorn
I first tried Jalapeno popcorn over at Navy Pier here in Chicago. There is a popcorn place over there that sells this variety and one of my friends swore by it, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was wonderful! I've had several versions since then, but the Navy Pier version was the best because it packed a lot of flavor while not being so hot that I couldn't enjoy it. Now, whenever I go to the Pier, I always make sure to stop by and get some Jalapeno popcorn.

Clothing Shopping Online During the Holidays

By Christina VanGinkel

I am one of those people who love getting catalogs in their mailbox this time of year, who browse at their leisure, love all the deals being offered, such as free shipping, then, when it is time to order, I go online to be sure they have what I want in stock. I have been shopping this way for the past few holiday seasons. I have been a catalog 'junkie' for as long as I can remember, and the realization that almost every paper catalog arriving in my mailbox had an online twin was quite the revelation when it came. No more sitting on the phone waiting for customer service, or risking that the representative helping me would misunderstand me when I was giving an order number. This possibly due to the small lisp I have from oral surgery I received decades ago, or that the item I was telling them I wanted was being drowned out by a screaming toddler or the blaring of my older son's current music choice. I can order online with confidence that they understand the order, and that what I want to order is in stock and ready to ship.

The most recent catalog to arrive at my home that has an online counterpart is the L. L. Bean Holiday catalog, complete with its free shipping offer, no minimum purchase required. The free shipping applies to any catalog purchase, or online purchase, and is valid throughout the holiday shipping season. It is also valid in their retail stores. So, if you make a purchase, and would like it shipped somewhere, your local L. L. Bean store will do exactly that for you, free of charge. That has to be one of the best holiday shopping deals I have seen this year! That I have been a fan of L. L. Bean's clothes for years is just a convenient byproduct of this great deal. My favorite pair of jeans for years was the most comfortable, best fitting pair that came direct from them with their label branding them as jeans they wholeheartedly backed. So when this catalog arrived, I was all set to browse the entire catalog, but mostly their jeans, I actually ended up returning to the page that offered their Fleece PJ's for kids and their adorable animal paw slippers.

I found several pair of the fleece PJ's that will be perfect additions to my grandson's Christmas morning, and I just could not pass up the adorable moose slippers. I did manage to find something, just a little something, that would be perfect for my own holiday morning, and that was the Bean's very own silk underwear. I added them to the list I leave out for my husband to shop from each holiday season. To make it easy, I bookmarked the site, so he could quickly browse each of the sites I have so far added to my list. If he behaves himself, I may even point out a few stores there that he might find a little something for himself.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Child's Room to Grow In

By Christina VanGinkel

Decorating a room for child that will soon grow from infant to toddler to active preschooler can be approached in several different ways. Each stage of your child's life could call for a total makeover, but unless you have money to burn, this is probably not the approach to take. You could leave the room relatively the same, but a preschooler is not likely to appreciate billowy clouds and a diaper-changing table. Creating a space that can grow with your child from pre-delivery all the way to school age is possible, if you just take the time to construct a plan before beginning.

Right from the bare walls, choose a color that will grow with your child. If you are going to use a room border along the top of the wall, or at chair height, choose one of the newer brands that can be removed as easily as it was hung. This way, you can keep the paint and just swap the trim. Go with a good quality paint that can be easily washed, so that it will live up to sticky fingers and even the occasional crayon masterpiece.

Ceiling fixtures and light switch coverings should be of good quality, but neutral in design. Look for items that you could easily picture accompanying a bedding set for an infant, all the way to a school-aged child. Timeless pieces do exist, and you may pay a bit more for them upfront, but it will save you in the long run over replacing them each time you change a few minor details in the room.

Consider furniture that will grow right along with your child. There are cribs that with just a few strategic switches turn into very attractive daybeds. Dressers that convert from edged diaper changing stations to mirrored vanities, along with closet systems that can be converted from low hanging rods and shelves for young children to a closet organization system, perfect for a budding teenager do exist. It may take a bit of extra legwork to find them in the first place, but they will be well worth the search.

Window treatments are best kept to the basics, with blinds or plain curtains. They can be livened up with a valance geared toward the specific age. It will be much cheaper to replace just a valance then the complete window covering! On the other hand, install a plain set of curtains, which can be livened up with tiebacks that are age and style specific. This way, the curtains will grow with the room, but each stage will look as if you spent a large amount of effort finding the perfect curtains. Again, quality to begin with will keep them looking new through the years.

While you may think that neutral colored walls and curtains, along with timeless lighting and light switch covering will make for a drab room, the exact opposite is true. You will have created a backdrop that will be able to highlight whatever furnishings and colors you have chosen for your child's current needs and wants.

Holiday Snacking Overboard

By Christina VanGinkel

I am a perpetual snack eater, always have been, and probably always will be. With the holidays approaching, this can mean trouble for a person such as me who is constantly watching their weight. It seems that no matter where I go, people have placed food items about for others to 'have just one'. Offices are terrible, with nearly everyone making something to share, or bringing in a little something their spouse made. Grocery stores seem to step up their samples, offering filled cups of this or that to tempt you before you get to the checkout. Even the library is not safe, with whole trays of cookies and chocolate covered concoctions laid out for visitors to take a few. (It does not help that our librarian's mother is a woman who bakes some of the most delicious treats I have ever been fortunate enough to try!)

This reminds me of all the little informal get together parties that everyone and every place seem to host this time of year. I have been invited to no less than five separate 'home' parties in the last two weeks, one selling toys, one selling Home Interiors, and three different ones that were selling baking supplies including packages food to shorten your time spent in the kitchen. All of them had displays of snack foods out for their guests to enjoy, and each of the three food parties had snacks, plus they each cooked a dish while everyone was their. Snacks are bad enough, but actually smelling the food as it cooked was just too much. Even someone with the best of intentions cannot say no to fresh baked beer bread with a choice of dips!

I am also one of my own worst enemies when it comes to the snack wars, as every recipe I see in a magazine, or mix I come across online, I just have to try. I am as bad as everyone else is, fully intending to 'share' my creations, but I also keep my own fair share at home, which the majority I indelibly eat. My favorites at this time of year are the ever-popular Chex Mix, baked with a fair share of nuts and pretzels. I also love the 'Puppy Chow' mix, also made with Chex Mix cereal, but coated with powdered sugar, peanut butter, and chocolate.

If you are like me, the only bit of advice I can think to share is to try to be sensible when you are offered yet one more, one more of this, one more of that! Hold out for your favorites, and always keep a bit of something on hand, especially in an office setting, that you can snack on without guilt when something is being passed around that you know you should not have. Or have one, just one! Sometimes denying the first one will backfire and you will compensate by having several. If you know this is your normal reaction, give yourself permission to have the one. The holidays will be gone before we know it, and we can always hit the treadmills come January!

Getting Kids Started Crafting Jewelry

By Christina VanGinkel

Creating jewelry has been an integral part of my life for a very long time. Throughout the years, I have both taken classes and taught. Some of my most gratifying teaching experiences have been with kids. Children seem to be natural at making jewelry, possibly because they have a lot less inhibitions in general than do adults. So, when a friend asked me for some suggestions on what to purchase for her eleven-year-old daughter, my response without hesitation was to purchase her a jewelry kit, maybe even two, as once she got going, she would want to be able to make as many items as she could. To come up with some solid names of products to provide her with, I of course went to my favorite jewelry stop online, and typed in 'jewelry supplies' in the search box on the left hand side of the main page. I was not disappointed.

One of the best finds I discovered through this search was the Sea Glass and Wire Jewelry kit, by Creativity for Kids. It comes complete with all supplies required including the most basic jewelry tool, a pair of pliers. Your child will be able to create several pieces of stunning jewelry with the included sea glass by practicing their wire wrapping skills.

From the original search page, I also clicked on the 'Toys & Games' link that came up on the left hand side of the screen. From there I discovered the My Own Sweet Time - Create a Watch kit by Creativity for Kids. It not only comes with all the supplies required to make three bracelets, it also have everything your child will need to make her very own watch. The watch parts are stainless steel and water resistant so you can be assured that after your child spends the time to create the watch, they will be able to actually enjoy wearing it.

For the younger kids or those who want to see some quick results, start them out with the Mod Bracelet kit by Creativity for Kids. It comes complete with six bracelet blanks, two wide and four thin to decorate with all sorts of embellishments, from stickers to rhinestones.

If you make jewelry yourself, instead of purchasing a kit, go through your own supplies and make a kit of your own to give them. Start with some beads and stringing material that will be easy for your child to handle. If they are ready for tools, add their very own set of needle nose pliers and a spool of wire. Put it all together in their own box to keep their supplies organized and handy to use. Your child will not only love the gift itself, they will appreciate the time you spent putting it all together and sharing some of your own bead supplies with them. For the gift finale, include a card redeemable for a set of lessons from their own private instructor, you! Better yet, sign them up for a class, along with yourself, to learn a technique that you both would enjoy.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Linen Closets

By Christina VanGinkel

A linen closet is standard in many homes, but surprisingly not every one. Creating a linen closet out of a hall closet is an option, and one I recently put to practice. Our guest bathroom is just off the living room, as is a hall closet meant for guests. We have never used it as such, but more as a place to store off season coats, and those shoes and boots currently being worn, yet those I do not want piled up at the door. While I would have liked to continue to use the space for shoes and boots, I found no clear reason why the off-season jackets could not be stored elsewhere, namely the closet in our spare room, otherwise known as my scrapbook space / toy room / overall storage space for any item that does not otherwise have a spot in our home! The shoes and boots could again go by the door, now that the entry has been redone, as there is plenty of space to put a shoe organizer, or even a different bench with built in storage just for items such as these. I have even shopped for such a bench already, though in truth, I have yet to find one I truly like. The first bench that I had there was removed because it just did not do the space justice.

As to the transformation of the closet into a linen closet, we started by emptying the space completely and taking measurements to be sure that the space did not just become a place to pile up towels and toiletries; I wanted to be sure that we knew how much space we actually had at our disposal. After taking the measurements, we were better able to shop for both shelving and an assortment of open and covered containers. I also knew I wanted to leave one shelf open to accommodate oversized bottles of laundry soap and shampoos, and other items that I could save on if I had the room to store their larger than regular containers. To ensure that we did not have a weight issue, we chose to place this space at the very bottom, thus bringing back the possibility that we would continue to use the closet to store some shoes and boots, though not all that had been stored there before. While the space may not accommodate my son's waders, the first shelf is high enough to tuck a few pair of boots next to the laundry detergent!

By using a shelving unit whose shelves could be adjusted, we ended up not only with room for towels, toiletries, and oversized laundry soap bottles, we also added enough space to store extra bedding, including a few quilts and blankets that I have been shuffling around in my closet space for years. We found the solution to our scenario by shopping at I just typed in 'closet storage' in the search box at the top of the main page and had numerous options to choose from at my disposal.

Decorating your Holiday Table

By Christina VanGinkel

Having guests over for the holidays is a great way to show off your cooking skills. It is also a fun way to put your creative side to work, by creating table decorations to liven up your holiday table. I have an easy to make decoration that will look as if you spent hours assembling it, but when in all reality, it can be put together quicker than what it will take you to read how to do it.

You will need a grapevine wreath approximately twelve inches in diameter. If you have a long table, you could also purchase a few smaller sized wreaths, each approximately eight inches in diameter, to decorate in a similar manner, and to place off to each end of the table. You will also need craft wire, pliers, and glue. (For a Thanksgiving table you will need an assortment of die cuts intended for scrapbook pages or card making geared to Thanksgiving. For Christmas or New Years, just choose different die cuts and fabric.) You will need craft wire covered in either coordinating fabric or pre-coated in a color to match your chosen die cuts. The wire will need to be three to four times the width of your grapevine wreath. For the centerpiece, this means you will need a piece of wire thirty-six inches to forty-eight inches in length. With a pair of craft pliers, attach one end of the wire to the underside of the wreath by creating a small fold in the wire over a sturdy looking piece of the grapevine. By hand, lightly wrap the wire around the wreath. End the wire in the same way you attached it at the beginning, being sure to attach it to the underside. Glue the die cuts directly to the wire in no particular order. If you intend to use the centerpiece throughout the fall months, you could choose to use an assortment of die cut leaves. If you are throwing a big Halloween party, decorate with ghosts and witches. For Christmas, depending on the rest of your decor, you could use an assortment of red, green, and white die cuts, or for a more elegant look, go with just gold or silver ones.

To finish off the centerpiece, set an assortment of coordinating candles directly in to the center of the wreath. Sprinkle a bit of glitter or an assortment of themed confetti across the table. This is such an easy centerpiece to make, yet so fun to use, you will find yourself creating one for every holiday that comes around. After the big dinner, go ahead and leave this out on the table to help keep your house celebrating long after the get together. If you are short on storage space, be sure to only glue the die cuts to the wire, unwrap, and reuse the wreath for the next holiday. I liked the first wreath I made so much, I actually laminated the die cuts to be sure they would hold up year after year!

Preparing your Furnace for Use

By Christina VanGinkel

Our daughter and her family arrived home very late yesterday evening. They have been working in the state of Mississippi for the last several weeks. When they left for this current job, the average temperature was still in the high seventies. It is now around thirty. To make sure they did not arrive home to a very cold house, my husband and I drove to their home and removed the air conditioner window unit that they use during the summer months and lit their propane furnace. Their house is equipped with both fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Within minutes of lighting the furnace, both were going off.

Sometime during the proceeding summer when the furnace had not been in use, a hair tie and a small toy had somehow become lodged in the furnace, and both were melting and emitting both smoke and noxious fumes. While the emergency was relatively trivial in comparison to what it could have been, with us calling someone to come over and clean everything out, followed by us opening doors and windows to clear the smoke, fumes, and smells, it reminded us just how serious turning on a furnace for the first time each fall can actually be. Whether a furnace is old or new makes no difference either, as even with a brand new unit, outside occurrences can affect how the furnace runs, such as with the hair tie, and toy.

Having a furnace serviced by professionals and having your ductwork cleaned should be on everyone's yearly maintenance list. Filters should be used and they should be replaced regularly. Our own home has floor vents, and when we replaced our flooring this past spring, we installed new registers along with the flooring. With the registers came a pack of filters to slide right into the top of the vents to help cut down on debris falling into the ductwork system. Our furnace itself also uses filters right inside the doors. They are easy to get at, and easy to exchange. If your furnace filters are not so obvious, ask a professional, when they are there doing your yearly maintenance check, to show you the correct way to change them and if your furnace uses a specific type or size, ask them to mark this down for you to ensure that you are using the proper replacements.

A few small steps such as these can go a long way towards making sure that your furnace is in proper working condition. Be sure to also purchase and install correctly the recommended number of fire and carbon monoxide alarms, placing them about your home in the recommended numbers and places. If you are unsure where to place them, or how many your home needs, a quick call to any fire station's non-emergency number will usually result in someone coming to your home to walk you through their proper placement. You can never be too safe when it comes to dealing with your furnace, and it will always pay to err on the side of caution!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Grocery Shopping Then and Now

By Christina VanGinkel

Grocery shopping has become something of a trial lately, no matter where you live, as a direct result of the many hurricanes that have hit the US coast this year. Figuring out what fruit and vegetable are in not only season, but also what has not been affected by the storms, is one aspect that has arisen. Also finding certain products on the store shelves that we have learned to take for granted is another, as many areas outside of the directly affected areas have had their shipments rerouted to the worst hit areas to make sure that those people living there have the simple basics at hand. Coffee singles for example, the kind that look like tea bags, are not as easy to find in my neighborhood. I am assuming that the reason behind this is simple. If you have no coffee pot, etc., the chance of getting a single cup of coffee made is much greater than finding a place to brew a whole pot.

Prices are also somewhat higher on certain goods, in part due to the rise in gasoline prices to ship the many products to your local store's shelves. This all got me to thinking about how we have all come to take for granted store shelves filled to capacity with every type of food imaginable. The luxury of walking into a grocery store and being able to pick up fresh fruit no matter the current growing season, and several different kinds of the same fruit at that, such as both yellow and white peaches, and more types of apples than I even know the names of, not to mention exotic fruits such as pineapples, coconuts, mangoes, and kiwis, has not always been so, not even for the immediate past. I am what most would refer to as middle aged, and I can clearly recall shopping with my mother and only being able to buy certain fruits at certain times of the year. If a fruit was not in season, we always had the luxury of running down to the basement to see if there were any jars leftover from the previous season's crop that my mother had taken the time to 'put up'. During the holidays, it was such a treat to get an apple and an orange in our stockings, because we did not have them available year round as we do now. The luxury of some of the simplest things was just coming into their own, such as 'frozen' pizzas and other boxed and frozen goods. While the first frozen pizza had come about during the Second World War, it was some time after that before they became a common staple of nearly every teenager's diet.

So if you are one of the many being indirectly affected by the recent tragedies down south, remind yourself that store shelves that are a bit sparse are nothing in comparison to those living in the effected areas, and still far much better than what a typical store's shelves were just a few short decades ago. We thankfully live in a country that has been quick to recover, to the point that many of us will not even notice the small lags in product availability that I have mentioned.

Storing Off Season Clothes

By Christina VanGinkel

Everyone has heard the phrase 'Spring Cleaning', but it would often be more correct to refer to it as 'Seasonal Transformation'. With the change of seasons comes the need to pack away certain items and pull out others. Each room has its own specific needs, and some are subtle, such as a bathroom undergoing a quick change of its shower curtain, rug, and possibly towels to reflect the season at hand. Other rooms require a much more dramatic, but less noticeable change to the visitor's eye.

Bedrooms are one such room. With the arrival of cooler temperatures, our lightweight summer wear must be packed away, and our warm sweaters, woolens, and fleece take their place. Sandals and slip-ons are exchanged for sensible shoes and boots. Even our under things are often swapped for warmer gear, with our briefs or lacy bits being replaced by long johns and thermals.

If you dread this task, start this season to make the next reversal easier. It can be tempting to pack away your off-season gear as quickly as possible by jamming it into the back of your closet, or tossing it into a few under the bed storage boxes, but a bit of organization and pruning now, will make the next seasonal swap much easier and less dramatic on your nerves. Before packing away any seasonal gear or clothes, take out anything you did not wear during the season currently at end, then make either note of why it was not worn or used, and determine if this is something that will pass. (Such as a ski jacket that never hit the slopes because nether did you!) On the other hand, if the item should be donated or tossed, such as that lovely sweater you received as a gift from a favorite aunt that is more in her style than anything you would ever wear. If an item needs to be cleaned, do it before storing it away. A quick glance at the item may cause irreparable damage, especially if a rash determination that it looks clean and can probably wait till next spring means it results in you pulling it out come nest season only to reveal stains that exposed themselves while the item was stored, irrevocably damaging the fabric. Keep in mind that not all stains are immediately visible to the eye, especially stains that are human by nature, such as sweat. If something was worn, clean it before storing it.

By limiting what you pack away to items that you actually use, the following year's swap will go much quicker. Knowing that everything is clean and ready to go will also make the transition much easier to swallow. By repeating the simple task seasonally on all clothing and gear that is going into storage, you will create a much more balanced affair each time you need to swap one season for the next. Be sure to properly store items also, in bags or closet areas made for long-term storage. Plastic garbage bags and cardboard boxes can result in moths and other insects and dirt creeping into your clothing.

Breakfast Doesn't Need to Become Mundane

I remember hearing when I was in elementary school that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day." I believed it then and I believe it now. I never really got to test it when I was a kid because my dear mother always had a hot breakfast ready for us all before school, but in adulthood I've skipped breakfast or had too little and the morning just seems to drag along. After a while the blood sugar gets low and we feel even worse, so it is a good and valid reason to have a hot breakfast.

That said, if your breakfast menu has become mundane, realize that it does not need to be that way at all! There is truly no reason why it has to be eggs and toast or oatmeal or cereal on weekdays and pancakes or French toast on weekends! The possibilities for exciting breakfast foods are endless.

One way to spruce up the breakfast table is to serve homemade pancakes. Not only can you add all kinds of fabulous ingredients to the batter, but you can serve pancakes with an array of sauces and toppings. Never again will you need to top a plain pancake with plain syrup. This suggestion works for waffles, too, although they are a bit more difficult to make.

One pancake recipe that is good with an apple or bacon topping is for Cheddar Cheese Pancakes. Start by combining 1 1/3 cups of flour with 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 1/4 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon.

In another bowl, mix 1 1/3 cups of yogurt (plain, not flavored) with 1 1/2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese, 2 tablespoons water, 2 tablespoons brown mustard, 2 teaspoons oil and 2 large eggs. Combine this with the dry ingredients and mix well.

When your griddle or pan is heated (use cooking spray or butter, whatever you generally use), make the pancakes measuring about a quarter cup of batter mixture for each pancake. When the top is bubbly, turn them to the other side and cook until finished.

Another way to make sure that breakfast doesn't become boring for your family is to serve breakfast burritos sometimes. What you put into them is your own choice, but you will probably want the base to be some form of scrambled egg mixture.

So what will you mix into the scrambled eggs? Use your imagination and add whatever ingredients the people eating the burritos will enjoy. This may include something like diced tomato (fresh) or salsa. Melt cheese over the top and add things such as your favorite herbs or diced ham or sausage.

When it is time to assemble the burritos, use a regular flour or whole wheat tortilla and roll it up after the egg mixture with melted cheese has been put into the center. If you want to serve it with (or add it to the inside of each burrito) guacamole or sour cream, it will make the breakfast burritos extra special. Try a different added touch each time you serve this recipe.

For one last idea spark, try wrapping a sausage link inside of a pancake for another fun breakfast.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Finding the Perfect Holiday Platter

By Christina VanGinkel

A large serving platter is on my list of wants for the upcoming holiday season. For years, I had made do with two smaller platters that were passed down to me from my mother years ago. Then a friend gave me two more from her own collection after having dinner at our house one evening and noticing that as far as serving ware went, my cupboards were greatly lacking. As I have recently been cooking for a growing number of people, now that my two oldest children are grown and starting families of their own, and I prefer that people actually sit down at the table together to eat a meal, and not just grab something and go, this may actually be more of a need than a want. However, the one in particular that I want is definitely not in a 'need' category by any stretch of the imagination.

You see, I stopped in an antique store the other day, a small local start up actually owned by a friend of a friend. I made two small purchases the day I was there, but have wanted to go back each day since, to see if a particular platter is still there, or if some other braver soul snatched it up. With a price tag of over one three hundred dollars though, and as small a town as the store is in, plus it not yet being a high tourist time of year, (no snow for skiers just yet), chances are it is still there in all of its blue willow glory. Even if it was though, I know that there is no way I would buy such an extravagant piece. Still, I was quite taken by the design. Not one to let things such as this go, I decided I would go to one of my favorite shopping sites online for anything related to food, or the serving of it, that being, to see if they had anything in comparison to offer. Lo and behold, I typed 'blue willow platter' into the search box on their main page and was provided with quite a selection of different sized platters in the exact design, and several other just as beautiful, of the antique one I had fell in love with. Well, actually, I do not know if the patterns are an exact replica, but they are definitely close enough to delight me. I also noticed that they have both new and used items that show up through the search, with a new one that I hope to have soon on my own table serving up the Thanksgiving turkey next month. It is the Enoch Wood & Sons Blue Willow (Older) 14" Oval Serving Platter (2" RIM), and at less than one hundred dollars, it is by far a much better buy as far as my pocket book is concerned than the antique one.

If you are looking for a must have piece to complement your holiday table this year, be sure to check out's search tool, as they will most likely have just what you are searching for.