Monday, May 1, 2017

Cooking in America

On our expat adventure, we ate some really amazing food.  On each holiday we sought out the local delicacies: 
Portugal - pastel de nata

Spain- churros con chocolate, Jambon Iberico, paella, and sangria

Italy- the best pizza, pasta & gelato you've ever had

Norway- herring (um no we passed on that one)

The Netherlands- Stroopwafels & appeltaart

France- coffee, croissants, macarons, and champagne

German- spätzle, currywurst, beer, and pretzels

While each country has rules about food labels & ingredients in their food, the overall food quality across our European travels was of great. Meats & produce were almost always from local farms with minimal processing.

Upon our return to the US, it was difficult to acclimate back to American food. First of all, the portion sizes were at least double of what was served in the UK. Secondly, the taste of many foods we used to like are nothing like we remembered. We've gone out to chain restaurants that we frequented before our expat adventure, and it's been awful. After a few disappointing meals we are more content with eating at home where we control the quality versus spending our money on mediocre, deplorable food.

I've made some pretty spectacular things lately that I think you should try. You'll notice a lack of quality photos because I had no plan to blog about them, but as the weeks pass I can't stop thinking about making these recipes again.  

Shawarma is nothing new to our family because it was very common in the UK. I first heard about this NY Time Shawarma recipe from a Real Simple Podcast, Things Cooks Know: Cooking for Crowds. I served it with pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and this delicious cucumber raita, My family loved it, and it is now heavy in the dinner rotation. It has several spices you may not have in your cabinet, but that's not a problem. You will love this recipe so much that you'll make little packets of the spice mix to give to your friends & neighbors. They will want to make this too.

Our family was surprised that it's darn impossible to find a quality pizza in Raleigh. Our favorite thin crust pizza is back near The 407 in Chicago, and I suppose we assumed that this pizza was everywhere. The pizzas we've tried were either tasteless behemoths of dough or greasy cardboard. Our neighbor told us about one local chain of restaurants on the west side of town that is on our list. Until we venture that way, a homemade option was required. 

Making your own pizza dough is easy, but it takes some preplanning to allow time for the dough to rise. It's far superior to the premade crusts from the market.  We had good results with Bobby Flay's dough recipe, but Trader Joe's fresh pizza dough is a winner for a weeknight pizza. The sauce is extremely delicious. I made four individual pizzas with this recipe and had a lot left over. It's in the freezer for next time. If you are in a hurry, a small can of tomato sauce & paste, garlic, and Italian seasoning will get you going as well.

Cinnamon Rolls
Our Sunday breakfast at The Manor was always Pain au Chocolat. Don't think I learned from the Parisian masters how to make this amazing pastry. I bought them at the market like you find cinnamon rolls in the refrigerator case. The only difference the Pain au Chocolat don't suck like refrigerator cinnamon rolls.  

I've made one home made recipe, which requires mass patience for the different rise stages.  The recipe I used made enough for two pans, and the second went in the freezer before the final rise. The end result was only OK so I won't share the link for that recipe.  Despite the OK nature of my confection, it was light years better than the garbage in the market refrigerator case.

Baking at home
Baking is a hobby that I really enjoy.  I suppose it makes me an enabler of my own sugar addiction. I came to love Handmade Baking by Kamran Siddiqi. The chocolate chip cookies really are the best you will ever eat. The banana bread is phenomenal. The blueberry corn muffins are beyond delicious. And then there's what the author calls Everyday Chocolate Cake. Both kids asked for it as their birthday cakes. It's my new favorite book.

At the end of the day, cooking at home is a much healthier choice.  There are times when I would prefer to be served. However, I quickly get over my laziness when my dining mates send their compliments to the chef.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A4 Update - April 2016

Being back in America is no where near as fun as last April.  

Matt had the most exciting month. He spent a few days in Paris wooing a fancy schmancy customer, while having pastries near the Louvre.  He said it was a planning meeting. Riiiiight.

Our Spring Break trip to Orlando continued. The Florida sunshine was so nice.

Our living room furniture arrived!  We retired the IKEA chair & John Lewis couch upstairs to the office. We can finally unpack our other decorative pieces now that there's somewhere to put them. Matt's mom is visiting next month so I hope to tap her decorating prowess for ideas.  

Both kiddos had their birthday. Oldest Kiddo wanted to update her room, so she picked out a bedside table and new linens. She also got some new clothes and accessories. Youngest Kiddo is still easy to shop for.  He was thrilled with Lego and books. When did they get so big?

Summer is on it's way, and the neighbors keep telling us to just wait for the summer heat.  We say, BRING IT ON!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Making the House a Home

For our two years in London we experienced the joy of renting. Weekends were not spent fixing things around the house or spending hours at the home center. (Let me interject that Brad Pitt and his kids were at the home center in our borough over Easter weekend. We left too soon!) We spent our weekends in the city seeing all we could see.

Fast forward to today, and we are in full homeowner mode. 

The first thing anyone should do upon moving into a new abode is clean the place, obviously. Upon first look, the place looked it would just need an easy scrub of the bathrooms, kitchen, and a cleaning of the carpets. However, that was not the case. We quickly learned that a deep clean had not happened at our abode in quite some time. Please enjoy a few examples.

Exhibit A - behind the oven knobs - Those had never been cleaned prior to my discovery. The insides of the kitchen cabinets were not much better. So many bleach wipes were consumed before any of our belongings touched those surfaces. I was also very thankful for the Bed Bath & Beyond coupons to buy copious amounts of shelf liner.    

Exhibit B - the master bathroom flooring (the cleaned portion is the top left) - This required a hands and knees scrub with a firm bristled brush.  And multiple refreshes of the soapy water bucket. In the three months we've lived here the floor still looks as good as the top squares.  Consider this your PSA against wearing shoes in the house.

The fireplace was not much better. According to the technician, it had been many, many years since it's last clean. The gas supply line entered the fireplace box through a hole that was not properly taped, and enough bugs had found their way in that an entomologist would think it was Christmas. Thankfully it checked out fine and all he had to do was vacuum out the box and a squeegee the glass.

Once the house was clean, we started with projects to make it our own. Matt installed a closet organizer in the master closet to replace the inefficient one we inherited. Check out Matt's fancy new drill. 

The inherited water heater was nearing the end of its life, and no one wants to figure that out in a cold shower. We had a tankless water heater installed, and so far it's been great with no conflicts between two hot water uses at the same time. Every attempt is made to not have showers and the dishwasher run at the same time, but no one complained when it has happened.  

The main living area of our house was painted yellow, not a pretty yellow. It actually hurt your eyes on a sunny day. The color ran from the living room into the entry, up the stairs, and down the hall.  Over the years many nail holes were patched, which were unsightly. Based on the size of the project we immediately knew that a professional would have to remedy this color fail. Our painter was phenomenal; he patched every hole and even sanded down the bad drywall joints up the stairwell. The new color is not a dramatic change, but I'll take boring beige over blinding yellow any day.    

Our neighborhood is hilly, and our back yard slopes to a dry creek bed. When it rains the water runs from the two side downspouts & from the driveway along the side of the house dragging the land along. A drainage system was in place from one of the previous owners, but it was blocked and useless. Matt had an irrigation contractor out to remedy the drainage by connecting the downspouts to a pipe that empties into the creek bed. We eagerly await a rain storm to see if the land stays put. If it's a good fix, Matt will start landscaping.

What's up next?  We have some short & long term projects that will keep us busy. Nothing is pressing so we can take our time and make smart decisions based on how want to use the spaces. The master bathroom and kitchen are high on the list, but those are big budget items that need saving and planning. Until that time I'll continue pining over bathrooms and kitchens on Instagram.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hey Honey, I Bought Us House, Without You

There's a great story about our house that Matt loves to tell. 

He bought the house without me.  

To some that's no big deal, but to most to whom the story is told it's complete lunacy. 

In the fall of 2015 Matt spent more time back in American than he did in London. It only made sense that he use those trips to scout for a future hometown. We had decided that the mid-Atlantic was our first choice due to the desirable weather and the minimal time zone difference to Europe. The internets was a huge help to narrow our city choices based on our desired house criteria & budget. The more we looked, the more Raleigh seemed like the place for us. 

So Matt added a weekend detour to Raleigh on one of his trips to the US to look at houses. We found a great real estate agent to take him around. They started at some of the houses we saw online and soon found that those houses looked better in pictures. So they regrouped and scoured the listings for a second day of touring. Matt fired up FaceTime and took me on tour of the newest listings. Some views were short (or nonexistent) as he knew immediately that a house was not the right fit.

Then he walked into our current house, and there was a complete change in his attitude. It had everything our family needed, and oh my goodness a whole lot more. He summed it up by saying this was the house for us; no other house came close to this one. He was going to write an offer straight away.

My reaction?  If you think it's the one, then go ahead. I'll admit that I wasn't the most invested in the home finding process.  I was still in the anger stage of the grieving process.

The negotiations were quite straightforward. We made an offer, they accepted. Done. Matt bought a house that I had not seen with my own eyes, in a city I'd never visited. I was OK with that. Why? We've experienced a lot in the last two years, and the abode was never an issue. As long as my husband and kiddos are with me, we can make it a home.

The most anxiety occurred for the home inspection.  

Matt: "You are coming to Raleigh for the inspection, find a sitter for the kids."

Me: "WHAT?!"

Matt: "Yes, you are going to Raleigh.  You need to see the house before the deal goes through."

Me: "WHAT?!"

I agreed that I wanted to see the house, but goodness sakes finding someone to watch our kids for a minimum of two nights was asking a lot of someone. It's one thing when you go into the city for the night, but it is a whole new situation when we travel across the ocean!

It was not difficult at all to find places for the Kiddos to stay as we made some really awesome friends in London. Each stayed with a different family, and they were beyond happy for a weeknight sleepover. Once the Kiddos were set, we booked my flights. Get a load of this itinerary - I left Thursday morning for a Friday morning inspection and caught a return flight on Friday night that arrived back in London on Saturday morning. 

You know how this story ended. The kids had a great time with their friends and our inspection went just as expected. Matt closed on the house a few weeks later on another of his trips back to the US.  

I didn't have to go back for that.  Whew.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A4 Update - March 2016

We've worn shorts a ton in March.  Thought you'd like to know. 

The painter finished the hellacious job of patching & painting the living room, hallway, stairs, and main floor ceilings. Geesh that was a big job.  

Holly continues to volunteer at Youngest Kiddo's school once a week in the library & classroom.

We were supposed to have friends here for Spring Break but sickness in the house changed those plans. Once everyone was assuredly healthy, we hopped in the car for our first road trip to join our friends in Disney World. Oldest Kiddo was so happy that she could ride everything solo. The adults were just happy to be together.  

Youngest Kiddo started swimming lessons. 

We finally bought furniture for the living room. It should be delivered in just ten short weeks. Until then we continue to hobble by using a card table as a TV stand.  

Matt traveled a bit this month to Alabama & Indy.  

Matt's doing a great job working projects around the house. He built new shelves in the garage to replace the awkward ones we inherited. 

On the landscape front, a new surprise seems to pop its head through the mulch each day. There is quite a variety of plantings with no discernible theme, so Matt is formulating his master planting plan.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A4 Update - February 2016

February can be drab, but we have some incredible sunrises & sunsets.

The kids had two days off this month due to inclement weather. One day was from another ice storm, and the second was for a horrendous tornado outbreak in the Mid-Atlantic states. Wake County schools announced a three-hour early release at 10:30am on the day of the tornadoes. Everyone was nervous as a day of decision to release students early is not an easy task for a school district to undertake.  

Matt traveled a ton in February.  This time all in the USA.

The family went to a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game, and it was a ton of fun! The audience was engaged during the whole game. We even saw the Stanley Cup at the ceremony celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Hurricanes Championship.  

Holly started volunteering at Youngest Kiddo's school. She is starting in the library and hopes to get into the classroom soon.  

Speaking of Youngest Kiddo, he needed new shoes. Apparently his size 13 trainers no longer fit his size 3 feet!  Going for parents of the year on that one. 

We continue to make the house our own. Matt installed a new Elfa organizer in the master closet, which is phenomenal. The painter started at the end of the month to bring the house out of the mid-1990's. The electrician made sure all the proper outlets were GFCI connected. The fireplace technician cleaned up the unit to remove about 20 years of dust and insects. 

To round out the month, the laborious task of furniture shopping is in full force. Ugh.  

The highlight of the end of the month was an excursion to one of the many nature preserves in Raleigh. This town is full of parks. The kids loved jumping over the fallen trees and throwing rocks in the lake.  

The warmer weather is moving in, we've already had a few 70 degree days.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Back to America via Aruba - Touring Tuesday

Packing up your entire life to fit into a shipping container and a few suitcases is no easy task.  Actually, it's downright exhausting.

Before leaving London was ever set, we talked about taking a holiday as a part of the journey back to America. We thought a lengthy stay in Australia would be a great final stamp in the passport. As wrapping up life in the UK got in the way, we had to scrap Australia. The planning for a trip like that could not be done on the fly, and we were honestly so tired that there was no way we would enjoy such a worthy destination. 

Our holiday pitstop location had to change. What better way to recharge the batteries & get over jet lag, than some time on a warm beach? 
The family stayed in Aruba from Saturday through Wednesday before Christmas. The time difference between London & Aruba was only four hours, but everyone passed out by 7:30 each night. That meant everyone was up & at 'em by 6AM the next morning; we actually had to wait for breakfast service to start!
After breakfast, the remainder of the day was outside. Time in the pool dominated because we happened to be the only people there most of the time, aside from a few lizards. 
The beach, however, was jammed! The water was beautiful and the waves were the perfect height for both kids to enjoy.  

Aruba is not a culinary hot bed. We immediately figured that out on the taxi ride to our hotel: KFC, Hard Rock Cafe, Burger King, Benihana, Hooters, Señor Frogs, and TGIFridays. We scoped out a few local places, but the quality wasn't stellar. It was fine, but nothing I'd say you must eat. That could also be since the prices were outrageous! Many of the food items are imported so we were not surprised at the prices, but the pastas & pizzas were not remotely worthy of the prices listed on the menu.

Then again, it was 85 degrees and sunny - we got over the mediocre food.  

Would I rush back to Aruba?  Probably not.  There are many other islands in the sea to visit, which I bet are somewhat similar.  It certainly fit our criteria for a recharge before the busy Christmas holiday.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A4 Update - January 2016

Today is my first chance to open Blogger to write a blog post. It's been a super busy month!

The family rang in 2016 with a sleep over at our college friends' house. Time with friends was just what we needed after the busy holidays with family.  

We arrived in Raleigh on 4 January. The flight from Chicago was comically short. Without any furniture at the new house, we spent the first week in a corporate apartment.    

Our container arrived on 15 January, and we promptly slept in our new digs. Happy to say that by the end of the month almost all of the boxes were empty (the photo above is only about 1/3 of the boxes).  The only boxes left are those that await a home on yet to be purchased shelves.    

The return to reality happened fast when we bought two cars. Public transportation just isn't the same as London. ;)

I thought enrolling the children in school would be a piece of cake compared to London, but I was mistaken. Look for a post about that soon, but so far both kids are happy with school, whew.

Maybe that's because they hardly attended school once they enrolled. They started on a Wednesday and promptly had an early release day that Friday. Then the next week brought Martin Luther King Jr. day, an institute day, and 2 1/2 days off due to a huge ice storm! All told they went to school 8 days in January. No need to call the truant officer, it's all good now.  

Matt traveled back to Europe for meetings in Dublin & Warsaw to finish up pursuits he started before we left. Hopefully his travel back to Europe isn't a trend.

Holly's parents spent a week at the house helping with a few home improvement projects. Dad was brave to climb the extension ladder to wash the windows that seem to be 100 feet off the ground. Mom used her sewing skills to make Oldest Kiddo a Greek dress from a bed sheet for class. They also kindly returned the items we stored in their basement whilst in London. The Kitchen Aid mixer has returned, and it already made cookies & muffins.  I sure missed that machine.  

The home improvement projects don't stop. Some are to fit the way we live such as replacing the grossly inefficient master closet organizer.  Others are imperative such as the bathroom sink that leaks into the cabinet below.  That's the joy of home ownership, right?

The weather in NC is absolutely gorgeous, aside from the ice storm a week ago.  We had lunch on the deck the other day when the temperature was 72F.  Not a bad thing for January.

Stay tuned to see what February holds. We need to get out and about in Raleigh to enjoy our new home town!

Friday, January 8, 2016

A4 Update - December 2015

While the London expat adventure is officially over, it does not mean the adventure stops.  The theme of December was Leaving London.

Holly sold many household electronic items that could not come back to America.  Happy to know that someone in London is enjoying our alarm clock & blender.    

Both kid had Christmas shows at school, which are always interesting.

We attended several going away events with our much loved friends.  

The week of December 14 we had the pleasure of spending time with movers, a professional cleaning team, and the landlord checkout clerk.  Happy to report that the checkout clerk was pleased with the condition of The Manor.  

Our final flight out of Heathrow was after lunch on Friday 18 December amid many tears from the whole family.  

The tears dried up as the strong sunshine of Aruba hit our pasty skin for four days in the sun.

Christmas was spent among our family & friends.

That's a wrap on 2015!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Trip Advisor Review - Home For The Holidays

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️  A Lovely Holiday Stay
date of stay 23 December-31December

Our family booked a stay at Nana & Papa's Inn during one portion of our repatriation adventure. We arrived on a cold Northern Illinois evening to warm hugs and kisses for the whole family.  Nana immediately bombarded our family with offers of fresh Christmas cookies and milk.  

Our two room booking provided enough space for our family of four. The adults cozied into a full size bed with a television connected to satellite TV. The children shared the second bedroom with two twin beds, which was a welcomed sight since they hate sharing a bed. Both rooms overlooked a nicely landscaped front yard. However, we didn't see much of it since we thoroughly appreciated the blackout curtains.

The shower always had an ample supply of hot water & fresh towels.    

The cuisine at Nana & Papa's Inn was American fare. Each morning Papa provided a lovely hot breakfast and plentiful coffee. We dined on eggs, breakfast burritos, and french toast. During the day the pantry was stocked with crackers and chips. The family had dinner at the Inn just a few times because of holiday obligations, but when we dined it was delicious. The Christmas cookies continued throughout our stay with a fresh batch baked midway.

The common area of the Inn were so comfortable! Nana always had a huge supply of quilts for everyone to stay warm and cozy. The internet connection was a bit slow so binge watching YouTube videos was difficult. However, it allowed us to have more personable conversations. 

One day Papa was very kind to drive me to the Drivers License Bureau to renew my license. I was impressed with his above and beyond spirit as the office was out of town, and we needed to wait for the office to open.  He kindly treated me to breakfast at a nearby cafe while we waited.  

My husband and I enjoyed a night out with complimentary babysitting. They said the kids went to bed on time but we are suspicious of that report.  

The surrounding area provided easy access to the expressway to zip into the Chicago suburbs or just over the Wisconsin border.  The Inn had plenty of self-parking. The driveway was promptly shoveled after an icy snowstorm. The staff were extremely helpful with the luggage.  Onsite laundry facilities were a major plus.

Overall our stay at Nana & Papa's Inn was a memorable holiday experience.  I highly recommend you book a stay any time of year.  I hear there's a great garden in the summer with plenty of samples if you help weed the tomatoes.  


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cheerio England - The Sarcastic Version

Yes, the family is sad to leave London. There are so many great things to see, do, and eat in this city. As with good there is also bad, and there are a few things that we will not shed one tear for when we arrive back in America.  

Cheerio faucets that have one hot tap and one cold tap yet no way to make warm water. Do people really like to plug the sink in a public place to fill with hot and cold water to wash hands? I sure don't like it. Splashing the two extreme temperatures together cannot possibly be proper hygiene. I know taps that make warm water exist because I have several of them in my house! It irks me to no end when designers install this type of water delivery option in a new build. I'm all for retro decorating, but let's be sensible.

Cheerio bus that never comes - While we base our mornings on timings from the bus app, there are some mornings where it just doesn't show up for 20+ minutes. The delay could be for any number of things: traffic, lack of drivers, broken down bus, or even just a driver that drives really slow. A bus that doesn't arrive does not make for a happy start to the day. 

Cheerio fake nice nice talk - In Britain, chances are if someone says they'd like to go for coffee or have you over don't hold your breath.  It's all a piece of the social dance, and unless they are actually your friend, they don't really want to go with you. Full Stop.

Cheerio tiny fridge, oven, and cooktop - For real, the appliances in our house are so tiny.  Maybe it's because I brought my big American pots & pans, but it perplexes me how any large family functions with the minuscule appliances. 

Cheerio kids on scooters - It's a right of passage in the UK for little Alfie & Charlotte to get a scooter on their third birthdays. A lot of times the scooter is a help for mummy & daddy so they can pull their little darling down the high street instead of being held up by short legs. Once the cherubs develop the proper coordination, they are scooting off! Off through busy sidewalk traffic. Off into the street at a corner.  Off into the back of my legs.  Broad generalization here, but the kids are not taught proper scooting rules of the road.

In all truthfulness, these sometimes maddening situations made living in a different country worth it.  If everything was like America, there'd be no reason to leave.  So maybe a small tear will pool in the corner of our eyes.