Cheesy Pasta with Ham, Spinach, & Peppers

I was confronted during the first week of the year with having to use up the last of our Christmas ham (as well as a whole lot of other leftovers from the holidays). There wasn’t much ham left on the bone and I didn’t have enough of anything else on hand to make soup, but what I eventually realized is that I did have almost everything on hand to make one of our favorite leftover ham dishes, pasta tossed with spinach, red pepper, and diced ham and coated in creamy cheese. It’s one of the simplest and easiest recipes in my repertoire, and always a crowd pleaser.

The only thing I was lacking this time was the spinach, but Brett and I included a bag of baby spinach one my first of the month Trader Joe’s list. That evening, I diced the remaining ham (and put the bone in the freezer for a later pot of soup), julienned a red pepper that had been hanging out in the produce drawer, cooked a remaining half bag of pasta I had in the pantry, and finally tossed the finished product with some leftover spreadable sharp cheddar cheese. With the addition of some freshly cracked pepper, the result was a fabulous meal that got only a couple of dishes dirty and provided leftovers for the next two days’ lunches.

The beauty of this dish is that it can be made from whatever someone desires or already has on hand. I rarely, if ever, see it any more, but my favorite spreadable cheese for this dish has always been sun-dried tomato, but any soft cheese spread – garlic with herbs, for example – works fine. Any type of pasta is fine as well, although the original recipe called for farfalle (bow ties). The pepper doesn’t have to be red, and spinach can be replaced with kale, arugula, or other greens. Ham provides a smoky flavor, but there’s no reason bacon, chicken, beef, or even salmon couldn’t be used.

Below is the basic recipe – variations are up to the cook and what’s on hand!

CHEESY PASTA WITH HAM, SPINACH, AND RED PEPPER

  • 5-ounce bag baby spinach
  • 1 large red pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups diced ham
  • 12 ounces dried pasta. Ones created to catch the sauce are preferred over long noodles, but they can work too
  • 8-12 ounces soft cheese spread

In a large stockpot, bring water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Don’t skimp on the water – the pasta water is what will “cook” the spinach and pepper.

Wash the spinach and leave in a colander. Julienne the red pepper into very thin strips and lay on top of the spinach.

When the pasta is ready, slowly pour the pasta water over the spinach and peppers, ending with the pasta sitting on the top. Let it sit for a minute or so, then transfer the pasta, spinach, and pepper back into the stockpot. Using tongs, pull apart the clumps of spinach and mix throughout the pasta along with the pepper strips, which should be tender crisp and not soggy.

When the spinach is mixed through the pasta, add the diced ham to the stockpot and mix it through the pasta.

Finally, add the spreadable cheese to the pasta. The heat from the pasta will soften it to coat the pasta as it is mixed. Gently stir until all the pasta and vegetables are coated.

Serve immediately with cracked pepper.

The Worst Kitchen Ever

The kitchen is still a work in progress, but we have a lot more available workspace now, and items are stored more efficiently as well. The pumpkin went to compost – I had hoped to roast it but we could not even puncture the skin with a knife!

This post started out as an ultimate first world problem rant. I had had a particularly stressful day in the kitchen, and decided that in Brett and my nearly 46 years together, and having lived with with 18 different kitchens (not counting the kitchens we used when we were traveling full time), this one was the WORST. Ever.

As Brett said that day, sometimes it feels like the only thing our kitchen is useful for is making a cocktail. Cooking a meal or baking? Storing food or cookware? Not so much.

Is it the worst ever though? Not by a long shot – I shudder when I think of some of the kitchens we’ve lived with, that were no where near as nice as the one we have now. But my frustrations that day had me pouring over The Container Store’s website, ready to spend hundreds on kitchen organizers.

As I examined products and took measurements, the search for the best solution became more and more complicated and as it became more complicated, I became more frustrated. I kept trying to remind myself that our guideline for the year was simple, and all the effort I was putting into this was anything but.

What was missing from our kitchen, I eventually realized, was a lack of imagination and organization, two things I’m normally pretty good at. I’d lived with things the way they were in the kitchen since we had unpacked five months ago, but had never thought to question since then if that was the best or most efficient way to set things up.

I shut down the Container Store website, put away the measuring tape, and sat quietly for a while to think about what we had, and if there was a better way to do things. Eventually a picture began to take shape, and I figured out that although there were a couple of things that could not be moved, most everything else we had could be rearranged to make a more efficient use of the space. I moved around what I had stored in the drawers so everything fit better. Items that we’d always kept on our counter in other kitchens but didn’t fit here were moved to locations where they did fit. Cabinets were rearranged, and a couple of items passed along to our daughter-in-law. She’ll use them more and I can borrow them for the (very) few times I might need them. With these few changes the kitchen almost immediately became a more pleasant place to work, although I think I’m going to need another week or so to remember which drawer things are in now.

The pantry remains a work in progress. It’s still chaotic, but that’s because I had been cramming w-a-y too much stuff in there. Since our arrival in Tennessee, I had been shopping and stockpiling as I did in the past, but have admitted to myself we have no need nor the space to do that now. Different place and different times, so a different way is needed. We’ve spent the last week or so using up items versus accumulating more, and I now know everything that’s in the pantry and where it is. I’m still aiming though for a sweet spot of “just right” when it comes to how much works in the pantry space versus having too much.

I did find one storage/organization item that we are going to purchase: a bread box. It is needed, and both Brett and I love the above one’s look, style, and color. There’s a place for it in the kitchen now and it’s something that will go into one of our suitcases when we move to our next location. But otherwise nothing was purchased. We don’t need more stuff.

Simple, after all, turned out to be the best solution.

Premeditated Leftovers

The Occasional Nomads have two food-related goals this year: 1) eliminate food waste as close to entirely as possible, and 2) lower our food costs as well as know exactly what I have on hand in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. We spent much of January getting better organized, and I found several items I had no idea we had on hand.

We got off to a somewhat shaky start in early January with food waste because of a refrigerator still stuffed with leftovers from the holidays. We did our best and ate what we could, but still had to throw away half a container of pico de gallo salsa and some other produce that was past its prime. Otherwise we’ve been careful and creative about finding ways to use leftovers and odds and ends. I’ve been checking the vegetable bins in the fridge frequently to make sure nothing gets pushed to the back and forgotten, and I’m trying to be more observant about adding produce odds and ends to soups or making stir-fries.

Our mid-month shopping at Aldi, Whole Foods, Costco, and Trader Joe’s came to $242.47.

We’ve set a $450/month budget for food in 2023 and did okay in January, spending a total of $433.86, although that took both very careful planning and shopping. Whether that amount will stay doable over the year remains to be seen. I have been starting each shopping trip with a two-week menu, shopping carefully with a list made from that menu, and obsessively sticking to the list. There is absolutely NO “stocking up” allowed, even if I see a good price, something I was guilty of doing in the past, and definitely NO impulse buys. Those two things could always wreck my budget in the past, and we don’t have room for extras here anyway, no matter how good the price. This means we will be avoiding Costco as much as possible going forward, hopefully only stopping once a month for a few items. Costco will remain our go-to store for some things (laundry detergent, paper towels, vitamins, organic apples, soups, syrup, peanut butter, and oat milk are a few things that still make sense), but we had to shop there for almost everything when we were on Kaua’i, and it’s been a hard habit to break. Finally, I am only shopping with cash this year, something I got lazy about at the end of last year. We allot $200 at the beginning of the month, $250 mid-month and otherwise we don’t go into a store unless absolutely necessary (with planning, it’s kind of amazing how little, if any, we have to buy between shopping trips). Any leftover cash goes into our change/$1 bill jar!

I’m trying to be more conscientious about dividing up food into meal-size portions. For example, pork chops usually come four to a package but we only use two at a time, and in the past I was always scrambling to come up with a second pork meal once I defrosted the package. Ground meat comes in one-pound packages but we only use 1/2 pound at a time that meant more scrambling. An investment we’re making this year is in reusable silicone food storage containers (Stashers) that can be washed in the dishwasher when they’re empty (eliminating one-use plastic freezer bags or containers).

Our beginning collection of Stasher bags: two sandwich size, and one quart size.

We’ve also started making our own fresh dog food this year. The recipe I came up with comes from advice from friends, and reading what a dog needs for good nutrition. Using a pound of turkey I buy at Aldi, a pound of chicken livers from Publix, and adding brown rice, mixed vegetables, pumpkin, and vegetable broth (and salt and calcium), I can make two weeks of food for Kaipo in the slow cooker for $6.30 (it will cost a little more in the future when I run out of the pumpkin and brown rice we already have on hand). The best part? Kai absolutely LOVES his fresh food!

Finally, besides spending less time in the kitchen, one more personal goal this year is finding more creative ways to use leftovers and planning them in advance when I make my menus and go shopping. Premeditated leftovers are going to remain a work in progress for a while (a long while, I think), but they fit my desire to do less cooking so the effort will be made.

It’s going to be an interesting year, but our goals are achievable and I’m excited about finding new ways to cook and save!

Home Cooking: Amazing Apple Pie

The first apple pie I made was when I was 18 years old. I went out in the middle of the night and picked apples off the tree just outside my college dorm (which we had been warned not to do) and stayed up to bake my pie in the kitchen on our floor. My roommate, friends, and I quickly devoured the pie the following day, and I’ve stuck to the recipe ever since, a crust filled to almost overflowing with sliced apples, topped with a simple mixture of flour, sugar, and cinnamon and a few butter slices over everything.

This year, however, I wanted to try something different for our Thanksgiving dessert, so I read what seemed like a hundred recipes trying to find a new recipe for apple pie. Most of the one I read were similar to my old standard, but I also kept coming across one called Apple Pie by Grandma Ople, enough times that I finally decided this was the one I had to try.

The big difference in this recipe is that apple slices are topped with a boiled mixture of butter, flour, and white and brown sugars versus the traditional mix of sugar, flour, and cinnamon topped with a few slices of butter under the top crust. I used tart Jonathan apples on my first try at Thanksgiving, but any tart apple variety will do, and I went with Granny Smith for my second go-round at Christmas and thought they made for a much tastier pie. The Jonathan apples were also a bit small – I used eight but another four would have made it better. My crust was a premade one from Aldi; however, the top crust is too small for my pie plate so K cut out shapes and we layered them over the top. Also, I like cinnamon in my apple pie so I added about a 1/2 teaspoon to the butter-sugar mixture and that was just enough for me and not enough to bother people who don’t care for cinnamon.

Overall, this pie was easy to make, and the result? Ooh la la! I can’t imagine ever making an apple pie any other way.

APPLE PIE BY GRANDMA OPLE

  • 8 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into slices – I cut my apples into 12 slices, not too thin, not too thick.
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 3 TBSP unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 white sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • optional: 1/2 tsp cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 1 9″ double pie crust

Preheat over to 425 degrees.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the melted butter and blend in, stirring to form a paste, Cook for around 1-2 minutes until it smells buttery, then add both sugars and the water, and stir until everything is blended together. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3-5 minutes, then remove from the heat.

Fill the pie crust to heaping with the sliced apples. Use the top crust to form a tight lattice, or use cut out shapes from the top crust to cover the apples.

Slowly and gently pour the butter and sugar mixture over the top crust, making sure it seeps into the pie. A bit of the syrup can also be brushed on top, making sure it doesn’t go down the side.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake until the apples are soft, around 35-45 minutes. If the crust edges are getting too brown, cover them with strips of foil until the pie is done.

Let the pie cool, and enjoy warm or cool with ice cream if desired. Makes 8 slices.

The Big Family Event

Plan One for the Big Family Event has already come and gone. The original idea for our 2023 Big Family Event came together and then crumbled quickly as other events rose up to overtake it.

The original idea was a five-day family reunion at Walt Disney World in Orlando. WDW was not Brett’s nor my favorite choice for a location, but the kids all have fond memories of our visits there and have always wanted to go back, and we knew the grandkids would love it. The plan was to go in early January of 2024, when crowds were smaller, and Brett and I would have less trouble getting rooms for everyone at the military resort (Shades of Green). However, no matter which way we sliced things pulling it off was going to be expensive for everyone. It was doable but we were all going to have to stay very focused throughout the year.

But then Meiling and KN got engaged, and with that everything changed. Our one big plan has ended up broken into several smaller (and thankfully more affordable) plans and ideas:

  • M & KN are going to have a small, family-only wedding in the New England area this summer, so we will be heading up there for that, and we’ll add on a few days in Maine.
  • WenYu and I have talked about possibly making a 10-day visit to England (London, Oxford, and the Cotswolds) in September of this year. WenYu was supposed to spend a few weeks with us in Oxford this past summer, and she and I would still like to go if we can. If it happens, Brett would stay home with Kai and he’s fine with that. However, both she and I are also willing to wait and go to Mexico in 2024 along with YaYu.
  • We may possibly visit Washington D.C. with our son and family this summer.
  • The entire family agreed that we’d like to get together again for Christmas this year, so there will be planning going on for that as well throughout the year. We may gather here again but WenYu’s home in the Boston area may be another possible location.

So, there will be no one big encompassing family event happening but rather a set of smaller gatherings and travels throughout 2023 and into 2024 to keep us connected. All the ideas are exciting, we’ll still be saving like crazy, and there’s still much to look forward to this year!

Now I Remember Why We Moved to Hawaii

I miss this terribly.

In two words: THE WEATHER. While I absolutely loved fall here, I’m not liking winter at all and we’ve still got a ways to go before things change.

As it was in much of the U.S. over the holidays, it was bitterly COLD here as well. Even with the heat on and the apartment shut up tight, it still stayed cold. It was also DRY, and even though things have warmed up a bit it’s still dry. My sinuses have rebelled – I often go to bed with a sinus headache, often wake up with one, and suffer throughout most days during the week. The headaches are more annoying than painful, and allergy medication helps a lot, but I feel like it never goes away entirely. Also, the heat exchangers for our side of the building are right outside our bedroom window and when it’s cold they can run (loudly) 24 hours a day. If not for earplugs I’m not sure if I would get any sleep on some nights.

I am also going through buckets of skin cream as my skin is dry, dry, dry here. In Hawaii, my skin stayed naturally soft and supple, but here it’s parched and itchy – ugh.

I am not a hot weather person, and I certainly didn’t care for the humidity on Kaua’i most of the time, but I’m discovering I’m not a cold winter weather person either, at least not for the long haul. There’s much I like about where we live now, but I honestly miss being able to go to the beach year round, and seeing the ocean every day. I miss being able to walk and/or hike nearly every day of the year. I try to find the beauty in the bare branches here this time of year but deeply miss the beautiful, tropical plants and sunsets we enjoyed in Hawaii.

These pictures were taken on the same day of the year, January 3. I’ll take the palm tree and glowing sunset over the bare branches any time.

Outside of the weather, there are things I don’t miss about Kaua’i at all, like the current high cost of living, and having to drive everywhere for anything, usually in traffic. I don’t miss all the pickup trucks either (per capita there’s about a quarter of the pickups here that there were on Kaua’i). I don’t miss the limited selection of goods we had on Kaua’i either and having to use Amazon and mail order to purchase so many things (and then wait forever to get them delivered).

Brett and I still talk about returning to Hawaii some day, and winter here is already starting to make us think this might not be a bad idea. Weather-wise, Hawaii was pretty much an ideal fit for us. Maybe we might enjoy Honolulu and city life in the future, or somewhere on the Big Island for a change. We’ll just have to wait and see though – we’ve got another couple of winters to get through here and another location we’ve got to get to first.

Home Cooking: Incredibly Easy Dulce de Leche

One of Brett and my fondest food memories from our travels was sharing a delicious, generous bowl of dulce de leche in Buenos Aires following a meal of empanadas. Dulce de leche is carmelized milk, created by heating sugar and milk over low heat for a long period of time. It can be used like caramel, or eaten on its own, like we did in Argentina.

Making this treat never seemed like something I’d have the time (or inclination) for, but in late November a reel showed up in my Instagram feed showing an incredibly easy way to prepare dulce de leche. And, when I say easy, I mean EASY! I gave it a try and the results were fantastic.

Only two items are needed to prepare dulce de leche this way: a slow cooker and a can of sweetened condensed milk. That’s it! The process takes all day, but the results will last for up to a month in the refrigerator, and are creamy, sweet, and full of delicious caramel flavor.

Here’s how to make it:

  • Remove the label from a can of sweetened condensed milk. DO NOT use evaporated milk – it doesn’t work.
  • Set the can on its side in a slow cooker and cover with at least two inches of hot water. You can cook more than one can if they can fit in the slow cooker without touching.
  • Cook the can(s) on low heat for eight hours.
  • When cooking is done, remove from the crockpot and LET THE CAN(S) COOL COMPLETELY BEFORE OPENING. Trying to open while the can is still hot can cause it to explode.
  • Store the dulce de leche in the refrigerator for up to a month. It should be removed from the can for storage.

That’s it! We enjoyed it with apple slices a few evenings for dessert, and a small spoonful on top of apple pie one night. It’s yummy stuff.

Cataract Surgery: It’s Time

I had my annual eye exam last week and the news was both good and bad. The bad news was that it’s finally time to have the cataracts that have been slowly growing in both eyes removed. My close-up vision remains good, but distance vision has deteriorated to the point that glasses can improve things only slightly, with objects and views in the distance remaining fuzzy and blurry without the surgery.

I knew this was coming eventually, but it was still something of a blow to my sense of good health to get the news. I recently finished re-reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, M.D. and one strong lesson reabsorbed is that the aging process is one of things and parts breaking down. Just like a complicated power plant, eventually parts of us stop working as they should and either need to be repaired, replaced, or removed. When that’s not possible, we adjust.

The surgery will make a positive difference. I will continue to need glasses for reading and such, but may not need progressives any more once the new lenses are in place in my eyes. I will also be able to see better at night, and overall clarity should return versus what I’m experiencing now (which is everything in the distance being uncomfortably blurry).

Between Medicare and our military insurance the entire cost of the surgery will be covered, so that was the good news. I won’t even have a co-pay. New glasses following the surgery will be more expensive though, even with insurance, because the frames I’ve chosen cost more than what they have in the past few years. But, they’re The Ones, still come in right at the top end of what we can afford, and I am not going to budge – I want them!

I’ll meet with the surgeon the last week of this month, and surgery will be scheduled for some time in February. It’s time.

January Goals

After all the expense of the holidays, January keeps it going for us with two of our three girls having birthdays before the middle of the month (with the third girl’s birthday in early February). Otherwise, it’s usually a quiet month, and Brett and I have come up with ten goals to work toward in January:

  1. Keep grocery spending under $450. With everyone here for the holidays, December’s grocery costs were astronomical compared to what we usually spend. We’ve got several leftovers though to start off the year. While Costco shopping was necessary in Hawaii, here it’s really a massive money drain, and we plan to stop in once a month only if necessary, and otherwise limit our shopping to Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s, and occasionally Publix or Whole Foods.
  2. Aim for zero food waste.
  3. Have one full no-spend week. This will take some planning (like making sure the gas tank is full for example), but it’s doable.
  4. Have four no-drive days. We plan to hang out at home on Sundays this month.
  5. Try one new recipe. I want to make slow cooker Coq au Vin this month. I love it, but have never made it myself before.
  6. Track my meals and calories every day on MyFitnessPal. I got out of the habit of doing this while we were in Mexico but got started again at the end of last year and I am going to keep it up – it makes a difference. I’ve been thinking of starting up my activity cards as well but haven’t committed to doing those again yet.
  7. Walk 40 miles. Weather permitting, we should accomplish this just by walking through the apartment complex five days a week – one loop is 2.1 miles. However, bad weather kept us inside much of December, so we’ll just have to see how it goes this month.
  8. Visit one natural or historical site in the area. Our plan is to visit the nearby Carnton plantation home this month and/or maybe Radnor Lake State Park.
  9. Read three books. I was going to reread Gone With the Wind, but there’s a wait list for it at the library. I’m currently going through books I’ve already read in my Kindle library and choosing some of those to reread (Being Mortal by Atul Gawande was first) and otherwise waiting for books to come off hold from my end-of-the-year list at the library.

I’m just getting started with my crocheted sweater project so don’t know how to goal myself – there are some things going on with my glasses so it may have to be put off until next month. Many of the above goals seem pretty basic, but writing them down and knowing what we’re working toward made and big difference in the past. Brett and I think it will also help move the year along – 2023 will be a full year in Tennessee and we want to make the most of it!

What I Did On My Vacation

Taking a few weeks away from blogging was a good thing for me to do, and gave me time to think about how I want to do things going forward to avoid burnout, and make sure writing stays a pleasurable activity for both me and my readers.

I managed to keep busy with a few things during my time off:

  • Our daughter-in-law called me the Sunday before Thanksgiving and asked if I’d like to go along with her and K to World Market. A sensible Laura would have said no because I don’t know of a store that has more temptations to spend on than that one does (it’s the most dangerous store ever for me), and I always buy more than I intend when I walk in. However, Brett said I should go so I promised I would be careful, or as careful as possible. I somehow got out of there with just four bags of stuff, including a throw pillow and warm thrown for the sofa, but I also came home with a chair – never saw that coming. I kept walking back to look at it, loved the armless style and fabric pattern, and thought it would look good with our sofas. I finally looked at the tag and discovered it was on clearance for 50% off so . . . I sent Brett a picture and asked what he thought and he said get it! We now have a super comfortable, sturdy, and stylish chair that provided some much needed additional seating at Christmas. And with the addition of our new print, our home feels “complete.” (Our DIL liked it so much she almost got one too!)
  • I got my hair cut. I loved my curls, but they are not simple or inexpensive to maintain so I went to a barbershop and got my hair cut short-short again. I got a great cut (barbershops are all about grooming versus just style) for less than half of what I would have paid at a salon.
  • I attended a Nashville Symphony Orchestra “Home Alone” concert with M and K (K’s new “favorite movie ever”). We watched the movie on a big screen in the auditorium while the orchestra played the soundtrack below – it was fantastic! Since one of us still has to stay home with Kaipo, Brett stayed with him that day, but I watched him when Brett went with them another weekend to see the ice exhibit and all the Christmas decorations at the Opryland hotel.
  • Our very good friend Denise came through Tennessee on her extended road trip and we had a grand time catching up before it was time for her to be on her way again. We had dinner at our place and the next day Denice and I explored historic downtown Franklin. Both of us were grateful to have our dogs along (she has two!) as they limited us to window shopping only. We were able to snag an outdoor table at the Irish pub across the street from the historic Franklin theater and enjoy a delicious lunch there.
  • I tried three new recipes in November and December: pumpkin lasagna, easy dulce de leche, and an amazing apple pie that we had at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Recipes will be coming up in the next few weeks!
  • Brett and I hiked at the nearby Marcella Vivrette Smith Park – there are four well-marked trails through the woods and fields – and we walked around historic the Ravenswood Mansion which is located there as well. The mansion, built in 1825 for the Wilson family, is currently used an an event site (weddings, etc.) so no tours were available of the interior, but the home and several exterior buildings have been well preserved. As I’ve said before, I’m not much interested in plantation homes unless slavery is discussed right up front, and the write-up of Ravenswood does not shy away from it.
  • I read several books, and brought my total books read for the year to 58! I ended the year with several new books on hold at the library, so those will be interspersed while I reread other books throughout the year.
  • We did a big stock-up on toiletries for 2023 throughout December, buying (hopefully enough) shampoo, shave cream, shower gel, moisturizer with SPF 55, body cream, razor and blades, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, and dental floss to get us through the year. We also wanted to buy vitamins but they go on sale this month at Costco so we we’ll pick those up this month. The bath bombs are for when K spends the night with us. I got a big Target gift card for Christmas and as we honestly don’t need another thing for the apartment I’m going to use some of it to stock up on tissues and toilet paper.
  • I applied for a job at our nearby Trader Joe’s. I am having some second thoughts about it, especially with our grandson staying in Tennessee and having to fit in his new school schedule with K’s, but I haven’t heard anything from TJ’s either, so will just wait and see what happens.
  • I had fun making a special Christmas “Cocoa Bar” for our son and family that I took over to them a few days before Christmas. I found two big red mugs at Goodwill last fall for the grandkids, and along with a container of Cadbury drinking chocolate added miniature peppermint marshmallows, double chocolate marshmallow spoons, and vegan cocoa sticks from Trader Joes, a box of big peppermint (stir) sticks and snowflake marshmallow toppers from World Market. I was planning to arrange everything in a basket but found the cute wooden “Cocoa Bar” box at Target’s dollar market at the front of the store for less than a basket would have cost.
  • We signed up for a new travel card and earned enough miles for a free trip to Mexico (in 2024). YaYu wants to see San Miguel de Allende and asked us to go along with her and now we can . . . for free!
  • Preparations for our big family gathering kept both Brett and I busy throughout much of December, and the actual time everyone was here was crazy but wonderful, especially after Southwest cancelled the girls’ and KN’s flights home. We still had an absolutely perfect family gathering for Christmas and we all said we’d like to do it again next year – WenYu has suggested maybe at her home in Massachusetts!

Thank you again for the time away from the blog – it was necessary but I feel ready to get back to it again.