Home (and Hectic) for the Holidays

Vegetables

Chop your own veggies to save a buck.

Celebrating the holidays at home means you get to sleep in your own bed, avoid traveling with bored children, and wear your pajamas all day if you feel like it. It also means you get to cook the entire holiday meal—all by yourself. (Yay).  Keep your sanity and your budget intact by planning in advance and getting creative.

 

  • Make a menu. Decide what you want to serve well in advance of the holiday so you can start watching for discounts and planning your strategy. Thinking of turkey? Check your local supermarket for turkey vouchers handed out at the register. Determined to make your own gravy? Chicken broth often goes on sale around the holidays. Can’t live without yams? That makes one of us.

 

  • Take inventory. Check your pantry for items you might already have in stock. While you might not have a frozen ham lurking in the back of your freezer, chances are good that you have canned vegetables, pie filling, or maybe even a few cans of cranberry sauce in your cupboard. If funds are low  grocery prices are high, shopping from your own pantry helps keep your feast affordable.

 

  • Recruit the troops. If you have company coming over for the holiday meal, ask them to pitch in. You’ll still have to foot the bill for the main dishes, but most guests are happy to bring along a few pies, a salad, or beverages. To avoid duplication, assign each guest a specific dish to bring. This allows guests to provide food that matches their dietary needs, which comes in handy for diabetics, vegetarians and celiac sufferers. It also means you can dump your most-hated task on an unsuspecting guest. Not that I would ever do that.

 

  • Work smart. Buy things on sale beforehand that can be frozen or refrigerated until they’re needed. Make dinner rolls from scratch for mere pennies instead of buying them from the bakery. Chop vegetables for the relish dish the night before, and you’ll have a veggie platter ready-made for the holiday without paying ready-made prices. Did you know that most “baby carrots” are really just baby-cut carrots? They’re ordinary carrots cut down to little nubs, then packaged and sold at a huge profit. Make your own carrot sticks, for heaven’s sake.

 

Plan early, use what you have on hand, put in a little work, and before you know it you’ll have a delicious, homemade, affordable holiday feast—but you probably should change out of your pajamas before you ring the dinner bell.

Priceline Hotel Bidding for Dummies

Hotel Sign

 

Priceline is one of those sites that seems like a great idea, if only you could figure out how to use it. Sure, you might have to jump through a few hoops and take a few chances, but you could save big on your next hotel by using Priceline. Here’s how:

1. Do your research. Know which part of the city you want to stay in. For example, if you’re going to New York City, do you want to stay uptown, midtown, or downtown? East side or west? In the outer boroughs? Where can you walk safely at night, and where will you need a bodyguard and pepper spray?

2. Go to http://www.priceline.com/ and click on “Name Your Own Price.” Click “Bid Now” under the Hotels tab. Enter your city, dates of travel and number of rooms needed. Don’t freak out, you’re not actually bidding right now, no matter what the tab says. You can stop at any point before you put in your credit card number, so go ahead, jump in. Experiment.

3. Choose the number of rooms carefully. Priceline guarantees that each room will accommodate two adults. You might get lucky and get a room with two beds, but it’s not guaranteed. If you’re taking your family, you might want to bid for multiple rooms at the same time to make sure everyone has a place to sleep. Priceline also will not guarantee a non-smoking room, but I’ve always been able to call the hotel and request one after my bid was accepted, except one memorable trip to Disneyland. We were on the smoking floor, and it wasn’t pretty. We pretty much smoked a secondhand cigarette all week long, so you do take your chances.

4. Look at the city map. Large cities are divided into several areas, or zones. Small cities might only have one or two areas. Small towns usually aren’t covered by Priceline, but there’s no harm in at least checking. Podunk, Idaho might be on their list, who knows?

5. Select the areas you want to stay in. In our NY example, let’s select Midtown East, Midtown West and Times Square, because this theoretical trip is all about the Broadway shows. If you select each area separately, you can see the level of hotels available. Today, Midtown East has no 5-star or 1-star hotels, but has everything in between. Midtown West has 1-star through 4-star hotels, but no 5-star hotels. Times Square has everything, from 1-star through 5-star. If you’re determined to stay in a 5-star hotel, you either have to stay in Times Square or choose a different area. The more you limit your options, the more you limit your possibility of getting a bid accepted.

6. Decide on your star level. My own rule is to stay above 3.5 stars if possible, unless I’m staying in an area that only has lower stars available. It’s not that I’m anti-Motel 6, it’s that I’m anti-bedbugs, rats, ghettos and muggings. There are no guarantees, but your chances are better if you’re in a more upscale neighborhood. And with Priceline, you can afford to be!

7. Place your bid. You will have to enter your payment information at this point, so make sure you’ve selected the exact date, star level and area that you want. Now, this is where it gets tricky. You can only bid once every 24 hours, unless you’re willing to add more areas to your bid. So let’s say you bid $50 for Midtown East at 4 stars (which I can guarantee will get rejected, by the way. Midtown for $50? Dream on). The bid is rejected. You can wait 24 hours and bid again, or you can add an area. Well, we’re in luck, you’re equally happy to stay in Midtown West. So you up your bid to $55 and add Midtown West. The bid is rejected. You go up to $60, and add Times Square. The bid is rejected. Woe is you, you’ve used up all three areas you’re willing to stay in, so you’re stuck waiting another day to bid, right?

Wrong! You can get free rebids, because while Priceline can move you up to a higher-star hotel, it cannot move you down. All you have to do is find an area that has no 4-star hotels available. Add that area, and you’re essentially still bidding on the three areas you want because you can’t get the 4th area. Nifty! In this case, let’s add Coney Island to the bidding list. No, we do not want to stay in Coney Island. Ever. But it only has 1- and 2-star hotels, so as long as we stay at 4 stars, we’re safe from Coney. Raise the bid and try again. Rejected.

Continue with this pattern, adding other free rebid areas: Long Island City, Madison Square Garden, Queensborough Bridge, Upper East Side. None of them have 4-star hotels, so you can use all of them to continue bidding without having to wait a day between bids. Bear in mind, if you choose an area that has no 4-star hotels, but does have a 5-star hotel, you could still get a hotel there, because Priceline can move you up to a higher level. If you’re determined not to stay in an area you’re using for a rebid, make sure it only has hotels lower than your selected star level.

8. ALWAYS check each zone separately every time you begin to bid. Today, Long Island City doesn’t have any 4-star hotels available, but tomorrow it could, and before you know it your Broadway dreams have been replaced by a long slog on the Long Island Railroad. Once the bid is accepted, there’s no going back, so check the city zones religiously.

9. Rinse and repeat. If you use up all your free rebids, try again tomorrow, but consider not being a cheapskate. Seriously, hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan go for hundreds a night, so you’re probably not going to get into one for less than about $90, and probably more than that, at least at the 4-star level. I got a beautiful room in Midtown East for $140/night, and I considered it a bargain. The rack rate for the room on the hotel’s website was over $500.

10. Get an accepted bid. See which hotel you got. Look it up online and see how much you saved.  Dance on the table. Then start packing.

Apple Slab: A Lousy Name for a Yummy Dessert

At least, I’m assuming it’s yummy. It has all the ingredients to be yummy, and though I haven’t made it yet, I can practically taste it. It’s basically an apple pie made in a cake pan, drizzled with a decadent, tempting glaze. I just found this tutorial and had to share, because anything that sounds like a piece of concrete but tastes like a piece of heaven is alright in my book. Go here for the full tutorial. Return and report on how much weight you gained just from looking at the pictures.

Taking Your e-Reader Old School

Do you have an e-reader yet? A Kindle, Nook, or some other device that lets you read electronic books? I got a Nook Color several months ago, after much wringing of hands and swearing I would never, ever, ever give up my real, paper-and-ink books. And the truth is, I kind of love it. I stick it in my purse and have a variety of reading material available anywhere I go. But I still love my bookshelves filled with my longtime friends, their bindings and cover art and typesetting all part of the reading experience. The Nook can’t replace that, any more than it can replace the new book smell.

I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I believe — in fact, I know — that traditional books and e-readers can coexist in perfect harmony. They do in my house. I reread my old books, and sometimes buy new ones, just as I did before. What I find I’m using my e-reader for is when I want something a)cheap, b)fast or c)extremely portable. I find indy authors or sales on Nook books that I ordinarily wouldn’t buy. I want to read something but don’t want to wait for the library hold list. I am going out of town and want to take a stack of books without actually physically taking a stack of books. I’m making peace with both worlds.

If you’re struggling with the whole idea of an e-reader, or you hate the sleek, techy look of them, or you want the experience of holding a book in your hands, or you want to maintain your literary cred, take a look at these out-of-print book covers for e-readers. They’re brilliant. They’re a perfect marriage of old and new. Vintage books covers for the book lovers among us who just can’t quite give up the traditional reading experience. The only downside? If you read on the subway every day, your fellow travelers might start wondering why you’re on month four of Catcher in the Rye.

Creamy, Cheesy, Sinful Chicken Enchiladas

My sassy husband requested chicken enchiladas for Father’s Day this year. He likes this recipe, which I don’t make very often because…well, you’ll see. It’s just not an everyday sort of food. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the slow cooker for a long time. Like, all day. These cooked for 8 hours. If you try to lift one out of the pot with a fork, and it just disintigrates, you know they’re ready. I cooked these with a little chicken broth for flavor and moisture. Totally worth opening a can. Yum.

Shred the chicken with two forks. Just rip it apart. Take out your frustrations. This looks like a lot of chicken, but don’t freak out. I cooked a whole huge bulk package. I’m freezing most of it for later.

Put 2 1/2 to 3 cups of shredded chicken in a large bowl. Add 1/3 cup green onions if you have them (I didn’t have any. Alas).

Add 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese. Mine is a Monterey/Colby mix. Still good.

Add 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese. You don’t have to buy the cheese shredded, by the way. You can grate it yourself. I was just really busy. And, yes, lazy.

Pour 16 ounces cream of chicken soup in a separate bowl. I use Campbells.

Add 1 1/2 cups sour cream to the soup. Look, it’s light! Your waist thanks you.

Add a small can of diced green chilis. Don’t worry, these aren’t spicy. Just flavorful.

Mix the soup, sour cream and chilis together and pour 1/4th of the mixture into the chicken mixture.

Pour 1/2 the soup mixture into the baking pan. Spread it around like a bad rumor.

Spoon the chicken mixture along the center of a tortilla. Sneak a bite. Yummy.

Roll the tortilla into a heaven-filled tube.

Place the tortilla on top of the soup mixture in the baking dish.

Repeat until you’ve used all the filling. I got six large enchiladas out of it.

Spoon the remaining soup mixture over the top of the tortillas. Do you like white food? Because this is really, really white food. Look at it. I wish I had green onions.

Sprinkle 1 cup cheddar cheese over the top of the enchiladas.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Take it out of the oven. Salivate.

Sprinkle sliced olives over the top. I used one of the cute tiny cans.

Let it settle for a few minutes, then serve. Do not use your scale for at least three days afterward.

Goodnight, Sleep Tight, Watch the Bedbugs Bite

Bedbugs used to live in trashy havens of squalor. Then they figured out they could travel, and they took up residence in upscale New York City hotels. Now they’ve really got the travel bug (get it? huh? huh?) and they’re bringing their rashy, itchy fun on the road. Wherever you stay this summer, chances are you could end up at a hotel with bedbugs. Frommers has a great article on how to prevent bedbugs from ruining your vacation, what to do if you find them at your hotel, and how to keep them from hitching a ride home with you.

You’ll need plastic bags, a flashlight, a vacuum, a steam-cleaner and a hot wash/dry cycle for your clothes. Read all about it HERE. Is anyone else feeling itchy right now?

Grilled Bananas: Not Just for Apes With Barbecues Anymore

The good folks at Dole (no, I’m not a rep, I’m not a shareholder, and I’m not being paid) have a video showing fruit lovers everywhere how to grill bananas for a sweet summer treat. Here’s a hint: it involves two steps. 1. Put it on the grill. 2. Take it off. But go ahead, watch the video anyway, because it will make your mouth water, and I gotta say, a grilled banana with a little caramel or chocolate sauce sounds like a fabulous treat to me.  And with fiber and potassium and only 100 calories (plus the sauce, darn it), it’s practically health food! I know what I’m doing at our next cookout.

It’s Never Too Late for Spring Cleaning

I know it’s June. It’s summer. I’ve completely missed the whole Spring Cleaning dealio. But since my spring fever drowned in week after week of torrential rains, I’m just now coming out of the gloomy doldrums, ready to give my house a swift kick in the seat of the pants. I’m re-posting last year’s two-week Spring Cleaning Challenge, with links to the original posts. Come join me!

 And that’s it, folks. Ready, set, CLEAN!

Luscious Lemon Bars

Luscious. Simple. Make them. Today.

P.S. They taste better than they look.

  • Soften me in the microwave.
    Soften me in the microwave.
  • Add a dash of salt.
    Add a dash of salt.
  • Measure 1/2 cup powdered sugar.
    Measure 1/2 cup powdered sugar.
  • Add 2 cups flour. Try to get it all over the counter.
    Add 2 cups flour. Try to get it all over the counter.
  • This is a pastry blender. Best. Invention. Ever.
    This is a pastry blender. Best. Invention. Ever.
  • Cut butter into dry ingredients. Don't use a spoon. Really. You need a pastry blender. Or a couple of butter knives if you're desperate.
    Cut butter into dry ingredients. Don’t use a spoon. Really. You need a pastry blender. Or a couple of butter knives if you’re desperate.
  • Now it's all crumbly and soft. Perfect.
    Now it’s all crumbly and soft. Perfect.
  • Pour the crust into a 9x12 pan.
    Pour the crust into a 9×12 pan.
  • Press it down firmly with your fingers.
    Press it down firmly with your fingers.
  • Yeah, like that. I hope you washed your hands. Bake it in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
    Yeah, like that. I hope you washed your hands. Bake it in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
  • While the crust bakes, start the filling. Put 2 cups sugar in a mixing bowl.
    While the crust bakes, start the filling. Put 2 cups sugar in a mixing bowl.
  • Add 1/4 cup flour.
    Add 1/4 cup flour.
  • Crack 4 eggs into a separate bowl.
    Crack 4 eggs into a separate bowl.
  • Beat them senseless.
    Beat them senseless.
  • Add 6 tablespoons lemon juice. Mine is bottled. You can squeeze yours fresh if you want. I don't want.
    Add 6 tablespoons lemon juice. Mine is bottled. You can squeeze yours fresh if you want. I don’t want.
  • Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients.
    Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients.
  • Mix them all together with a hand mixer. You can use a whisk if you're really strong and a little masochistic.
    Mix them all together with a hand mixer. You can use a whisk if you’re really strong and a little masochistic.
  • Ding! Pull the crust out of the oven. All the finger marks made little browned ridges. I meant to do that. Yeah, that's it.
    Ding! Pull the crust out of the oven. All the finger marks made little browned ridges. I meant to do that. Yeah, that’s it.
  • Let the crust cool for a few minutes, then pour the filling on top. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Pull it out and let it cool.
    Let the crust cool for a few minutes, then pour the filling on top. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Pull it out and let it cool.
  • Sprinkle powdered sugar on top, cut into squares, and watch your hips grow. If you want your topping to look better than mine, shake the powdered sugar through a sifter or sieve. Showoff.
    Sprinkle powdered sugar on top, cut into squares, and watch your hips grow. If you want your topping to look better than mine, shake the powdered sugar through a sifter or sieve. Showoff.

If you can’t read the captions/instructions, you’re probably seeing this blog through email or a blog reader. I’m trying out the gallery function, but it’s temperamental. Click to the actual blog, and they should show up. I could fix it, but it would mean redoing the post and frankly, I’m not that motivated at the moment. I think I ate too many lemon bars.

Menu Planning for the Organizationally Challenged

It’s no secret that I am a procrastinator. And I have a hard time making decisions. And I’d rather be sleeping or reading a good book than…well, pretty much anything. But alas, my human body requires food, and my kids can’t live on peanut butter forever, so I have to plan meals whether I want to or not. For a little help getting started, or some inspiration for your tired and boring meal plans, click on over to Primrose Schools  for a little course on Menu Planning 101. There’s a video as well as several links to get you going. Don’t let family dinner become obsolete (or inedible). Believe me, I know whereof I speak. You don’t want to walk my lonely path.

I’m going to work on it myself. Tomorrow. Probably. I can’t decide.

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