Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How to Buy a Dishwasher in 4,000 Easy Steps

Okay, so it isn't really 4,000 steps, but it has turned out to be a long process. It began, as most purchases do, with convincing my husband that we needed a new dishwasher. Ours was not doing its job anymore and required all manner of tricks and strategies to get the dishes clean. Eventually, he did agree to bring a repairman to have a look at it. The repairman, without any prompting from me, reported that the poor thing was at the end of its life, and we should think about getting a new one. But it wasn't until Paul thought through the numbers that he agreed. You see, in order to get the dishes even somewhat clean, we had to run the rinse cycle first followed by the "heavy wash" cycle. The wasted water and energy convinced him that a new dishwasher would likely save us money in the long run. Victory! On to step two. 

I believe I have established in previous posts, that we are academics. We don't just run to the store and say, "I'll take that one" the way a normal person would. No, we do research. We collect evidence. We plan. We labor over the decision until we finally select the best value for our unique situation. This time, we did it all online. This turned out to be a mistake. I was at work when I received a message from Paul that the dishwasher he ordered didn't fit. It was too tall. He ordered a different one.

The next choice fit fine, but I was disappointed when I tried to use it. It was too small. I understand that we needed one that would fit in our small kitchen, but the old one was bigger than this! I would have to run the dishwasher at least twice a day, maybe three times. Moreover, the top rack doesn't come out all the way and is difficult to load. On to step, what is it now . . . five?

Paul did more research, but this time he insisted that we go to the showroom together to make the selection. If we both go, then the children have to come, too. On the way to the store, we were treated to a chorus of, "This is boring!" and "I don't want to go to a stupid dishwasher store!" and "What a waste of an afternoon!" I asked the children to try to think of a time when Daddy or I did something for their sake that we didn't really want to do. Couldn't they make this sacrifice for their family? Sulking followed. 

We went to a store in the Chicago suburbs that rates highly for both price and service. It's been around since 1936, and we have had good experiences with them in the past. Their store is a wonderland. I have never seen a showroom with as much action as theirs. At other stores, you'll see four or five salespersons hanging around waiting for bait. This place was packed with customers. And if you walk all the way through the showroom, you enter a lovely atrium with a HUGE dancing fountain. All around the atrium are little boutique-style shops featuring small appliances, kitchen displays, clocks, computers and tablets, and mattresses. They also had features to appeal to children--a close-up parlor magician, free fresh-baked cookies, a bubble maker that you can step into and find yourself inside a giant bubble. The kids weren't complaining anymore. They were delighted. 

So 4,000 steps later (or something like that) we selected a new dishwasher. It will be delivered on Friday. I hope this is the end of the story.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Menu for 30

I told you in my last post that I would tell you about the food for our Mathematics Majors/Alumni dinner party. I don't know if anyone is really interested, but here we go.

I decided to go with a Mexican-inspired menu. One reason for this was the date--May 4, the day before Cinco de Mayo. It's also a meal that can feed a crowd. This is what we served:

  • Tortilla Chips and Salsa. I'm picky about the brand in this case; I love Rick Bayless's Frontera products. My favorite salsa is the Tomatillo, but that's not what I served this time. I went with one hot and one medium salsa. We chose the Taqueria-style chips, because they're sturdy and don't break easily when scooping the salsa.
  • Green Salad with Grape Tomatoes, Queso Fresco, and Chipotle Honey Vinaigrette.
  • Vegetable Tamale Pie
  • Chicken Enchiladas
  • Homemade Black Beans
  • Cilantro-Lime Rice
  • Bowls of Sour Cream, Shredded Cheese, and Jalapenos
  • Tres Leches Cake
  • Bowl of Miscellaneous Candies (for people who don't like Tres Leches Cake)
  • Miscellaneous Beverages including Mexican Hot Chocolate
I labeled everything with a list of ingredients, because I didn't think everyone would get the message if I just announced what was in everything. I also labeled the bowls of salsa "hot" and "medium." No mild salsa at this gathering.

I'd like you to notice a few things about this menu. First, this is a menu that can accommodate specialized diets. I usually ask my guest ahead of time if they have any dietary concerns, but I was worried that I wouldn't get all the information I needed with all those people. I can't let anyone come to my house and not eat, so I tried to make an adaptable meal. Vegans will find something to eat; vegetarians will find something to eat; lactose-intolerant guests will be able to eat; gluten-free guests will be able to eat. This is where my labels came in handy--guests could easily see what they could and could not eat.

The second thing I should point out is that I specifically chose entrees and a dessert that I could make the day ahead. I often do this when I entertain, because it minimizes my stress and makes me a happier hostess. Both the Chicken Enchiladas and the Vegetable Tamale Pie recipes came from America's Test Kitchen The Best Make-Ahead Recipe cookbook. They are delicious, and making them ahead means that I don't have to clean up the mess right before the guests arrive.I blogged about that book here. Alton Brown's Tres Leches Cake really must be made ahead so that it can soak up all the leches. This cake is super easy to make and is out of this world!

All the other menu items were simple and didn't demand a lot from me. The black bean simmered the the crock pot all day. The rice went in the rice cooker. I took help from the grocery store by buying washed lettuce and pre-shredded cheese. It was really just a matter of keeping the serving bowls filled.

I think it went pretty well. I'll probably make this menu again someday.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Party Time!

I think I am just about recovered from a party we threw recently. Let me tell you about it.

Every spring, my husband invites his majors and his alumni to our house for dinner. It's both a way for us to "love on them," and a way for mathematics majors to interact with former students who are now in the work world. Usually, Paul puts off sending invitations. This is partly my fault, since he usually can't get me to commit to a date. Anyway, since the invitations go out so late, we don't usually get very many guests--maybe as many as ten. This year, he invited everyone in plenty of time, so we had twenty-seven people say they would come. TWENTY-SEVEN! That is a lot of people in our teeny-tiny house. I wasn't worried about how to feed everyone, but I was very worried about where we would put them. So while I was planning the menu, I considered a seating strategy.

The first step was removing clutter. That's a natural early stage to party preparation anyway, right? We have to clean the house. In this case, though, I made a point of removing everything that didn't really need to be in the living room. I gave these items temporary homes in the basement, in the garage, and  in my bedroom. I even cleared away some framed photos to make room for beverage cups.

The next step is to pray against rain. It was still a little chilly, but I hoped to encourage some of the guests to gather outside around a fire bowl. This worked until dinner was ready. Then everyone came inside and stayed there.

I also had to think about serving food that could easily be eaten from laps. I don't have enough table seating for that many people. Many of my acquaintances (including my extended family) have large homes with eat-in kitchens and formal dining rooms, but we live in a cosy little Cape Cod. This meant I would not serve my guests at a table. Therefore, a meal that required a lot of cutting (hunks of meat, for example) was out. Have you ever tried to saw a piece of chicken with a plastic knife while balancing it on your knee? No fun. I'll tell you more about my menu in another post.

Speaking of plastic flatware, I used it. In general, I'm not a fan of disposable tableware. I prefer the real thing. I had to make an exception for this party, though. I don't have room in my kitchen or time in my life for that many dirty dishes. I did make a point, however, of getting large sturdy plates to make lap dining easier.

It all turned out fine. Yes, it was a little cramped, but when you have nice guests, they don't make a big deal about small discomforts. They just ooze gratitude for whatever we offer. We had a good time with these guests, and we were grateful for every one of them.