Pasta Night Disaster

Tricking your kids is a skill that the best parents have. When you can control their habits, you can rest assured that you are doing your job. These parents sleep better at night knowing that they are doing right by their offspring even though it takes ingenuity. I love how moms “hide” veggies in sauce. Even the most stubborn picky eater won’t know. The dominant taste of the mixture hides what they find abhorrent. Who knows why kids universally hate vegetables. You coax them and play airplane and any game you can to get them to down these vitamin- and fiber-laden plants. Now with the sauce trick the process is much easier.

I got the idea for a pasta dinner for my young nephews and nieces who adore any kind of carbs. Their favorite is the corkscrew style. So be it. I decided to whip up my own version of what I see in jars on the shelf in every supermarket. It will be the usual tomato with spices added to perfection. You can “doctor” up anything in a can or jar if you have a well-stocked pantry. Most cooks have everything from coriander and cumin to oregano and thyme. You don’t need to keep fresh goods on hand although I, myself, have some small potted plants on the kitchen window sill. I can use fresh veggies or frozen and I find that both work very well with homemade sauce. I go for the real thing because they have that extra pinch of flavor.

It sounds good so far, right, but not so! It seems that everything went wrong from start to finish. I overfilled the pot under my faucet. I’d selected a Grohe faucet after reading reviews that said they were one of the best you could buy! I expected better from this old friend but he ran amok. After adjusting the water level and soaking my shirt, I placed the heavy pot on the stove. I got a cell phone call and looked away for what seemed a minute. I looked back and the vessel was boiling over. There was a pile of water in the burner and the gas flame went out. Okay, calm down. I wiped it up and proceeded with my chore. In went the corkscrews and I sat for a moment to catch my breath. It was just enough time to fail to notice that the pasta was in too long. It came out terribly overcooked but the kids were coming in a half an hour and there was no time to make a new batch.

Disheveled and in a near panic, I opened the front door. A flurry of activity ensued. Somehow amid frolicking kids I got everything on the table. The overcooked pasta was topped with near-burnt sauce (I won’t even go into that part of the meal). I hoped that as children my nephews and nieces wouldn’t notice; but they did. They gave me a look and kept quiet but I could see disappointment on their faces. Pasta night was a huge failure.

Overdid It

I love to cook and eat. You can’t call basic sustenance a hobby, but I do feel that following food trends and researching the newest eateries in Vienna is a kind of pastime. It is not a huge town, but there are places not to be missed. America is now a nation of foodies and it extends to every nook and cranny of our vast country. Even a small town in Virginia can attract top chefs. My kids are the beneficiaries of my knowledge because I love to drag them along and teach them about ethnic cuisine. These days it is all about spices, novel concoctions, creativity in preparation, and artistic presentation. Bland food is out and chili peppers are in. If you don’t know a jalapeno from a Fresno, you are in trouble.

I never regret living in a small town, implying that I must be missing out on worldly and cultural things. We have traveling theater and artists/musicians, and the food here is sublime, so it is a false assumption. Food is innovative, boundary-breaking, and tasty to the max. We have everything from Ethiopian, Thai, and Danish to Polish and South African. I can rattle off a few key dishes of each type. The plethora of offerings is because people expect good food these days when they go out. If they could make the same things at home, then they would. They want their palettes to be titillated by the cuisine of the world in local restaurants. No matter that most people are average citizens. They have developed a taste for foreign fare. You could say that the world is becoming more cosmopolitan and small towns like Vienna are hooked into the outer sphere.

Given the availability of good food, you probably are thinking that I do not cook for my family. You would be wrong. I love to do it and collect unusual and challenging recipes all the time. I am glued to the food network when I am not busy. Recently, I did a huge shopping and had to carry out four or five loaded bags of groceries. It was not food for a month as it appeared. I wanted to stock my pantry, but also offer a few upcoming dinners of note. Each one would require a vast number of ingredients. My kids helped me unload the bags and placed fresh produce and canned goods on the kitchen counter. I had to rush off and lie down. I had strained my back. This happens now and then such that my husband gave me a back massager like this one for Christmas last year. I dropped everything, taking time from a busy afternoon, to find it stowed in the front guest closet. I couldn’t wait to plug it in and find out if it is still in working order.

After a long session with the massager, I felt better and more able to arise and start cooking. I didn’t want to disappoint the family because of a tight back. I had enough relief to finish the job in style. It looked beautiful and inviting on the table.

A Surprise for My Husband

When my husband fixed up the basement as a “man cave,” he was just ecstatic. Now he had a place all to himself with no one to bother him about errands and chores. Ha! What men will do to watch ball games on TV or…

My mate is a good guy so I am happy to indulge his whims, whatever they are. Apparently they can be shared since he often invites his friends over for a beer and a bowl of nuts. I think ball games and beer are the American pastime; they certainly are in Vienna, Virginia. We are a microcosm of the entire country—a small town with a big beer appetite. Just watch those great super bowl ads and you will understand the passion. Companies spend millions to feed the desire for more brew. The consumption of this wonderful beverage is amazing. It is a billion dollar business. My husband contributes his fair share along with his football buddies. If you don’t drink beer, apparently you can’t watch the games. Ha! Forget the wine, lemonade or soft drinks—pansy stuff.

When it came time to get him a special gift for being my soulmate, I selected a mini beer fridge from Crack a Cold One, of course.  I didn’t have to wrack my brain. He didn’t need another electric tool or appliance. He doesn’t wear ties that often and his hobbies are limited. Men don’t go for decorative items or jewelry other than a watch. In any case, I have already gotten him the things he wants the most over the years. The new plasma TV was tops on his list. After that, it became simple. I watched him climb the stairs time after time in the middle of an engrossing game just to get another beer. He needed to have a fridge in the man cave so he wouldn’t miss a single play. It was going to be a surprise. When it arrived and was ready for installation, he beamed like a kid. Although he had wanted one for some time, he thought he would have to make the effort. I did it for him and he was ever so grateful. I enjoying gift giving when I get such a good reaction.

While a mini fridge sounds small, it can hold quite a bit—at least enough for a couple of days or more. He isn’t a pot-bellied fanatic. He loves his favorite brands but he is happy with two or three at best during the course of an afternoon. I think he gets so enwrapped in the game that he forgets to take another sip.  Sooner or later, his attention is awakened. I love watching him enjoy the beer with pretzels or chips when I dare to descend into his private realm. While I enjoy beer as much as anyone, I don’t stop for long. When it comes to the sacred man cave, I have nothing but respect!

My Favorite Coat

Running around with the kids doing errands, grabbing lunch, shopping for dinner and all the other parental responsibilities keeps me hopping—and tired. I don’t have time to do much for myself at home. When you are on the go, you look for shortcuts. Let me tell you about my latest trick to avoid the dry cleaners. I don’t need to wait in line to spend a bundle on a very expensive service.

The washing machine is going strong most days with all the kids’ stuff, so I just toss one or two personal items inside along with the rest. It doesn’t matter what is in the load: towels, sheets, pajamas, jeans or filthy tee shirts. Why dry clean anything since the kids mess up everything I own. If you are a mother, don’t bother to buy anything fancy unless it is for that rare date night. Even then, I don’t buy anything that isn’t machine washable. I do have one exception. I have a beautiful coat I bought before my kids appeared on the scene. I try not to wear it often to keep it pristine, but I threw it on the other day when it was a bit cold. It was chilly weather as in down parka; so, this lightweight gem was perfect for a fall day before the real stuff sets in: sleet and snow.

The kids begged me to visit their favorite food truck a few blocks away, so off we went. I love the food as much as they do, and we grabbed one vacant table big enough for our entire gang. Unfortunately, a table of chain smokers was nearby. When you think about second hand smoke, you don’t often consider the impact on your clothing. Good fabric soaks it up like a sponge and never lets go. I was pretty unhappy about the odor when we got home. My favorite coat reeked. Even the kids made comments. I had to take it to the dry cleaners, but other chores stood in the way, saying aggressively “choose me.”

So, forget the dry cleaners. I will have to deal with the problem myself using old-fashioned ingenuity. Surely there are ways to freshen up nice fabrics without harsh chemicals that destroy the pile. I found this page which had some tips – I thought I could probably take care of the matter in the time it would take to drive and park. First, I placed the coat on a hangar and set it on the back patio hanging from a convenient plant hook. I would let Mother Nature do her handiwork. Later that evening, the coat was better but there was still a telltale odor of smoke.

Now it was time for perfume or spray. I chose Febreze “lite and airy” scent and aimed the nozzle over both sides of the coat front and back. I stood a foot away so as not to dampen the fabric. Instantly, the smoke was gone. Miracle worker is this product! You can use it on furniture, bed linens, rugs and the like. Save on dry cleaning when you are exposed to smoke.

Supporting our Local Fire Department

My husband will be the first to tell you that I have a ‘thing’ for firefighters. For my part, I don’t argue. I like to say that it is because I have a large amount of respect for anybody willing to rush into a building that nearly everyone else is screaming and running away from, all to save a stranger who might not even thank them. And that’s true. Of course, the fact that they are often pretty cute is a factor. But I try not to focus on that part when Hubs is around, haha! I’m just kidding. My husband is the best.

Anyway, before I go off on a tangent about firefighters in uniform (sigh), let me tell you about our local fire department. They’re great. I mean, all volunteer fire departments are pretty wonderful (so now you have people running into burning buildings who don’t look for thanks OR pay? Who are these people?) but our local department is very near and dear to my heart. Why am I dedicating a post to them, you ask? Did my house recently burn down or my cat get stuck in a tree? If you knew me in real life, you’d know that my tone is waaay too calm for that to be the reason.

No, it’s because they have a great food festival!

For the past six years now, our volunteer fire department has been putting on an event called “Taste of Vienna” (it is also the name of this blog; that’s how much I like it) and it is everything great about food in Vienna. Lots of different restaurants, and lately food trucks too, come together to sell food all in one place and the proceeds benefit the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department. So you get to eat and help out a good cause within the community at the same time! So much winning, folks, let me tell you. Last year the family basically rolled home, that’s how good the food was and how much we ate.

Of course, there is entertainment available while you’re taking in the sights and smells of all that delicious food. Or so I’ve heard. I’m too easily distracted by the smell of Famous Dave’s and Blackfinn. But from what I hear from other people who can focus on more than one thing at a time, there are performances and music throughout the event. There’s usually face painting and a moon bounce for the kids to play on (the moon bounce I can vouch for. Personally, the way my kids eat at this thing, I keep them away from the moon bounce. It sort of feels like the human equivalent to mixing Mentos and cola, you know? And yes, I am saying that from experience. It wasn’t my kid but I still can’t get it out of my head every time I see a moon bounce.)

It’s typically held on the last Saturday of April, which can already get a little hot here in Virginia—what with it being the south and all, and it’s outdoors rain or shine. It’s a free event, so all you pay for is what you plan on eating! It’s a great deal for us because I don’t have to cook and everyone gets to eat something they like in a single trip.

Maybe I’ll see you there next time!

Husband 0, Lights 3

If you have not heard of Vienna, Virginia, now you have. It is a small town in Fairfax County that is home to my family and friends. Despite our size, we don’t lack for fine food. While I like to cook for my family (including a husband and three kids), we also adore eating out. It’s not easy with fussy children, but we eschew the fast food restaurants in preference for something quaint and local. This way the kids will learn to appreciate more than a hamburger or hot dog. Life is all about family on every level. We do as much as we can together. The family that plays together stays together is true in our case.

One of our favorite things is to eat in the backyard and enjoy the new barbecue. My husband’s job is to do the grilling while I make the side dishes and set the table. It’s a fair deal. I also make him clean up. The children carry paper plates to the trash can. It’s clearly a family affair. Being outside has made my husband and I aware of the vulnerability of our yard—anyone can climb over the fence or smash the lock on the garden gate. We decided to install outdoor motion sensor lights. Yes, they will go on like mad as the kids run around the yard, but they will also protect us as an efficient security system. You can turn the system off if it is annoying. The point is to use it every night after we return inside. It is a matter of habit and we don’t forget.

My poor husband had a bit of trouble with the installation as he wanted the lights high up, either on the roof or a large tree. In fact, he tried three times with this one light on a phone pole before he achieved success. He’d read about how to do it from Outdoor Light and Sound and was determined to do it himself. We all watched in amusement and amazement. These motion sensors are great when they are finally in their proper locations. It should not have been such an ordeal. They come with instructions to clip them on or nail them if you want a stronger bond. You can also use wire. They also aren’t so heavy that they pose a risk to those down below. It is all about state-of-the-art technology in a tiny package.

We opted not to install cameras as they are cumbersome and expensive. You must look at the video after the fact and they don’t deter invaders and vandals. A flashing light does. You can buy motion sensors that blink, stay on (very bright) or emit an accompanying sound. You can select the size of the light and the corresponding bulb. If you have a vast space, a larger light is required.

While Money Magazine calls Vienna, Virginia one of the 100 best places to live, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a little crime. I feel safer now that we have opted for motion sensors.

Great Restaurants in Vienna, Virginia

Vienna might not be the biggest city in the world but we do have our fair share of places to eat. While there are plenty of theme/chain restaurants in Vienna and the surrounding area, we are often looking for something more. The husband and I go out as often as we can, which isn’t that much considering we have three kids. There are only so many places that we haven’t been banned from (I’m just kidding, but only barely). Sometimes we just want to go somewhere that macaroni and cheese isn’t on the menu, you know?

I’ll give you two places we like to go on date nights and then one all five of us can agree on. I’ll even tell you why.

When you walk into Clarity, you might be surprised. The décor is nice and the restaurant looks very open and fresh. But there isn’t a lot of frills, nothing that makes it stand out. You may think that the food is the same way. You would definitely be mistaken. This restaurant is most certainly a restaurant for people. There’s a Chef’s Table and cooking classes. You can reserve the private room, send the chef a list of wines you want to serve and he will tailor a tasting menu to complement it. The food is incredible and Clarity is always willing to adjust their offerings to accommodate for allergies or dietary preferences. It truly is a special place that the Husband and I love to go to. We’re lucky it’s right here in Vienna and we don’t have to go into DC in order to eat at such a great place!

Another place we like to go without the kids is Sushi Yoshi. It’s small, so reservations are pretty much the only way you’re going to be able to eat there. That makes it harder to stop in than I’d like, because I do enjoy sushi. But the food is worth it – very fresh and creative, tasty and served in a nice atmosphere. Especially in the summer, where it is a great place to eat outside and just enjoy the light and tasty food. Try the two person sushi platter, it’s a good mix!

But I think if you asked us, collectively, what our favorite local place is—we would say Church Street Pizza. My kids could eat pizza every single day I’m sure. Try this place and you’ll see why. I’ve had New York pizza and this place does come pretty close, way better than any chain pizzeria in town. Fresh cheese, perfect crust, great salads, and it’s all at a reasonable price. I think my youngest knows their number by heart. It is often our go-to on busy weeknights during the school year when there’s so much going on.

So there you have it. My three go-to places. Try them all and you’ll get a quality Taste of Vienna!

What a Fun Day with the Family

When we all go out as a family and everyone has a good time, I feel like I have pulled off the ultimate feat of magic. Done the impossible. Everything goes, perhaps not right, but at least well enough that nobody seems to notice the stuff that doesn’t go well, and the day ends with smiles. That’s probably pretty rare around here, but it certainly isn’t for lack of trying.

I think the best time we all ever had together was the day we went to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. The kids thought we were going there for the rides, but Husband and I had an ulterior motive: the Food and Wine Festival. One day I’d like to do the one at Disney World, but this one is only about an hour and a half away!

The cool thing about this festival is that there are chef demonstrations, which I enjoy. You get samples of the things they make, and it is incredible to see a real professional at work. There are also opportunities to meet the chefs working the festival – an opportunity you don’t often get to experience.

Now, normally at a festival like this, you get food and drink pairings. But at the Busch Gardens festival, you get food and RIDE pairings. Only those with iron stomachs should go for the Jamaican Jerk Chicken and then go on the Alpengeist as they suggested, but there are other options. We did the beignets and the Skyride as well as the mini cannoli trio and the Italy Gardens, both of which we all enjoyed.

Then, because it’s a Food and Wine festival, there’s wine tastings in the different “country” areas of the park. There’s French, Niagara Region, German, Argentinian, and Italian wines available for you to try. And if wine’s not your thing, there’s a Scotch tasting over in the Scotland area. Of course, the Oktoberfest neighborhood behind Germany is there all the time, so you have that as an option as well. Alcohol and heat and an amusement park might not be for everyone, though, just an FYI.

So the kids thought we were superheroes because we took them to an amusement park. I couldn’t believe these were the same kids that complain about waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store with me or the ones who complain about how far they have to walk from the store to the car. They ran around and got on rides. They never once complained if there was a line. It made being at a crowded park in the hot weather more than bearable—it was downright pleasant. I even found myself wondering why we don’t take them here more often and considered buying a season pass. I was smart enough not to open my mouth, because once we got home, some sanity returned and I was glad I didn’t make any actual promises.

This Food and Wine festival has something for everyone, even those who aren’t old enough to drink and who aren’t adventurous eaters. Plus, the kids were so worn out by the time we got home, they went to bed without complaining. All three of my kids! I think this is going to be a yearly thing.

Cooking for Five

There is so much that I wanted to write about today but when I sat down at the computer, my mind went blank and now I don’t remember any of it. If you knew me IRL you’d be hard pressed to believe that I had nothing to say but I guess typing is different.

I think I wanted to talk about how hard it is to find things for the whole family to eat. I know at my house, we go out to eat probably more than we should. Not because we don’t like to cook or anything like that. I do enjoy cooking. It’s because there are five people with such strong opinions about food in this house. Everybody has to say something about dinner. I often feel like a short-order cook.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. One kid likes his hamburgers burnt to a crisp, Husband would rather his basically moo at him, one kid just wants to eat the fixin’s and not the actual burger, and the other one won’t eat hamburgers at all and insists I make a hot dog instead. Then there’s me, who will eat a burger any which way if it means I don’t have to cook it. When I do make them myself, mine has to be medium-well, with swiss cheese, lettuce, a slice of tomato, bacon, and BBQ sauce.

Every meal is like this. I am sure this is something you can all relate to. So eating out, where somebody else is going to deal with all these weird dietary requests, often seems like a good idea. It is also impractical and expensive, so I am trying to come up with alternatives (as every eatery in a 25-mile radius either groans with sadness at the loss of a cash cow or squeals with glee that we might not darken their doors as often) for real mealtimes at home.

One thing I am doing, which the kids can’t stand, is making everyone meal plan and go shopping with me. The kids each get to pick one dinner menu item per week, and they help make choices about sides and snacks when we’re at the store. They hate that it is extra work for them (before a magical fairy named Mom did all the meal planning and food just mysteriously transported from the store into our fridge and pantry) but I’ve noticed that they actually eat more of what’s on their plate.

The other thing I’m doing is making more items that require assembly. For example: tacos. I make the meat and put out different things everyone can use to top theirs off. While there’s a lot of chopping and dicing and what have you, the actual meal building is up to each individual. That means less complaining and more eating!

What about you? How do you handle meal time with a bunch of people who like food but not the same food? I would love to add more tricks to my arsenal!

Starting my Victory Lap Now

Feeding a family of five can be challenging. No two people like the same meal. I often feel like I am constantly making the same few things over and over. The kids don’t seem especially bothered by this, but I sure am!

Now, the kids like to eat at The Virginian Restaurant, a diner here in Vienna. The kids like it because they can eat breakfast at any time of day and the Husband and I don’t usually mind eating there, either.

However, today I had been in yoga pants all day and have barely brushed my hair. There was no way that we were going to go out for dinner. The Virginian was out. However, after poking around in the fridge a little, I had another idea: I can certainly make breakfast-as-dinner for the family! Their favorite part of eating at The Virginian without actually having to put on real pants and go for dinner.

I broke out our panini maker, which as it turns out, has interchangeable plates so that I can make waffles. I made the batter, and cut up some fruit as toppings. I scrambled some eggs and made some bacon, too. The kids were spread out all over the house, doing homework and watching TV or playing with toys. The bacon cooking on the stove acted like a siren song and one by one, they came in to look over my shoulder and see what I was doing. They were absolutely delighted to find out about breakfast-as-dinner.

Now, some of you may be able to have breakfast at dinner time all the time. Maybe it isn’t a novelty to you. But I am one of those firm believers in a full dinner, consisting of a protein, a vegetable, and some kind of starch. For breakfast, on the other hand, I am a lot more lenient as long as the kids eat something and they drink some orange juice. So while this may be a normal thing at your house, at my house, the kids thought I had lost my mind.

The Husband even seemed surprised. When he walked in the house after work, he made a big show of checking his watch and asking if he had his am and pm mixed up. It’s a good thing that I think he’s adorable, because his sense of humor doesn’t win him a lot of points!

Anyway, everyone ate dinner without complaining, without 15 million distractions, and there were no leftovers. Nobody was whining and asking me, “how much do I have to eat?” and all the other things they do to let me know that they are unhappy with whatever food it has taken me forever to plan, prep, and prepare for them.

So that was my big revelation, folks. I couldn’t think of anything else to serve for dinner, so I just served them breakfast instead. I think maybe I have been trying too hard lately and this just proved that thinking outside the box works (at least some of the time).

I think I will take more inspiration from other places we eat and see how that goes. Wish me luck!