Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Spinach, Tomato, and Hashbrown Pie

I have spent most of the spring in a cooking rut. I go through this every year. At the first sign of warm weather, I lose my appetite for soups, stews, and hearty casseroles. On the other hand, I'm not quite ready for salads and fruit smoothies served as meals until the farmer's market opens. So I was really excited to find this recipe back in April. It is quick, easy, delicious, and includes vegetables and seems to be on the spectrum between winter and summer meals.

I got the recipe from here, although I adapted and doubled the recipe from the original a bit because I made one pie with tomatoes, and one pie without. Although my boys are healthy and hearty eaters, they are going through a "no tomatoes" phase right now - as in they won't touch it if they see tomatoes in the form of tomatoes (tomato sauce doesn't count). Lucky for me and them, spinach is permitted.

Ingredients (for 1 pie - double these if you want 2 as pictured below).

2 cups hash brown potatoes, thawed
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
2 T. olive oil
3 cups packed fresh spinach
2 garlic cloves
3-5 slices of tomatoes (I used large tomatoes, so 3 covered it)
4 eggs
1/4 cup milk
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 375.

1.) Spray 9 inch pie plate with cooking spray. I fill a Misto with olive oil and use that to spray baking pans. I highly recommend one if you don't have one. Here's the link.

2.) Press the hash brown potatoes in the bottom of the pie plate. Bake the hashbrowns for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, remove from oven and top with half of the cheese.

So far, easy peasy, right?

3.) Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and stir in spinach and garlic until the spinach is wilted.
Remove from skillet and layer it over the hashbrowns.

4.) If you're using tomatoes in your pie, layer them over the spinach.

5.) In a mixing bowl, mix together eggs, milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

6.) Pour over spinach and tomatoes, and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is beautifully golden brown.

 See, I told you it was easy! Also, it's really, really good. Perfectly cheesy and veggies in practically every bite. You could easily add different veggies if you have others on hand. Happy spring cooking!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Geo Tracker Hiking App

For quite a while now, I've wished I had a way to track the important details of our hikes - the distance, elevation, coordinates, etc. It just seems like good information to have and also good information to share here on the blog when I post about our hikes.

Recently, I took the boys on a very short hike by myself, something I don't do a lot because even though I love hiking, I love that this is our family activity. We have so much fun hiking all together. But as Jeremy was finishing up his school work one day, I decided to get the boys out of the house so that Jeremy could have some peace and quiet.

I had downloaded the Free App from Google Play Store called Geo Tracker a few weeks earlier, but hadn't used it yet. I was excited to try it out.

For this hike, we headed to Noren River Access to the Missouri River, a beautiful little setting where our family pictures were taken last year. I didn't take a lot of pictures on this specific day of of hiking, but there are a few. Mostly, I wanted to show you what this app did.

 Here are the boys at the beginning of the trail. That's the Missouri Capitol in the background.

This is definitely a more public trail than we usually hike on. There are several primitive campgrounds along the trail which on this particular day were all occupied. We also saw a lot of people picnicking by the river. A great day for it!

The cool thing about this trail is that you walk right along the river for the majority of it. There are several places where you can climb down from the trail a little bit onto a sandy beach area to relax, picnic, or just enjoy the view.

And here's my last (but favorite) picture of the hike. The look on their faces...

So now to the app. When we got to the trail, I simply opened the app and hit the record button (the big red button on the bottom right of the screen). There are only 2 tabs at the top. The map tab maps your hike as you go. You can also use the tab to find your coordinates.

After you press record, the app takes it from there. Easy enough, right? It prompts you to close the application (if you want), because you don't have to have the application open for it to work.

Along the way, I checked back in a couple of times, just to see our progress, but for the most part, I left it alone. The picture below shows the map of the finished hike. We hiked just over half a mile, and then turned around and came back the same way which is why it's basically a line (as opposed to a loop). You can see the starting and ending points.

Other than the map, my favorite features of the app are the distance tracker, elevation tracker, and time spent on the trail. All of these features are found under the Statistics Tab.

As you can see, it also tracks your speed, which I don't really care about because we aren't competitive hikers (is that even a thing?). We hike for the adventure and with 2 small boys, we stop whenever they stop to observe something.

And finally, this app also stores the records of all your hikes for you, so if you want to see how long a specific hike was, you can do that. There is also a way to add points to a map if you want to see locations of all your hikes on what map, but I'm still figuring that part out.

If you like to hike or explore like we do, I highly recommend this FREE app.

 Disclaimer: I blog for fun. These are my opinions and no one paid me to think these thoughts. Feel free to leave comments, but if they are mean I will probably delete them because there is enough mean in the world and I don't need mean people lurking around my blog (said in the kindest tone of voice).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Getting Started with Hour of Code

Have you heard of "Hour of Code?" It is an incredible world wide initiative which aims to give every child the opportunity to learn how to write computer code. There are events all over the world where children are given access to computers and coding games or lessons so they can try out coding. I first heard about it a couple of years ago when Bill Gates was talking about the importance of preparing kids for a future in computer related careers. As a mom of a boy with a talent for anything computerized, I was intrigued by this and started looking into it. I now not only have coding apps on my iPad at home for my boys to use (and I won't lie - I've tried them out too), but I have also introduced coding web pages to my students at school.

Coding is a good alternative to other screen time activities (games, videos, t.v.), because it promotes critical thinking and problem solving. Instead of just moving a ball from here to there (for example), they have to figure out what code to write to make that ball move. What do you have to do to make it go up, down, left, and right? There is a lot of trial and error involved, which teaches both patience and follow through. The videos and tutorials that are out there are incredibly easy to follow, even for my 6 year old. The bottom line is, coding teaches a SKILL and one that transfers to a lot more than finishing a game.

Hour of Code
A good place to start is hourofcode.com. Not only does it explain the initiative, it also gives links to coding events if you are interested in participating. The best part of this website is that it has coding activities that are  useful for kids as young as 4 years old! It starts with simple mouse exercise (drag and drop), and works up to Star Wars droid, Frozen programming with Anna and Elsa, or a Design Your Own App Lab for kids 13 years or older. Honestly, if you want to get your own child started with coding (or even if you want to learn yourself), you probably don't need to go any further than this website right here. If you're interested in understanding the research or motivation behind this initiative, there are plenty of videos, and narratives from people who know far more than I do on this subject. For a direct link to all the FREE coding courses, go straight to the coding studio, here. 

Game Menu in the Code Studio

Added Bonus: Want to introduce coding to your classroom but aren't excited about more screen time? Code.com also offers a section that provides "unplugged" coding lessons! As someone who is fascinated by the whole idea of algorithms (did I just give away my geek side? (or maybe that's happening because I'm writing an article about computer coding)), I cannot wait to try some of these lessons with my math class. The link to this section is right here.

Another Added Bonus: Under many of the games, there is a "For Teachers" section.

You can get to Tynker from the Code website above. The big difference between the two is that in addition to their free games (look for the tab at the top right), Tynker also sells programming packages. Each of their games comes with a step by step tutorial and everything has a recommended age group (ages 7-14). There is also a Tynker app that includes 50 free starter games.

Added Bonus: Educator Features!

Screenshot from Tynker Web Page

Khan Academy
I've been using Khan Academy in my classroom for the last couple of years for independent math work for students. It was actually a parent of one of my students who pointed out that they also offer free Hour of Code classes, and before long, I had students testing that out too. The website is incredible easy to use either at home or in the classroom. There aren't as many options as Code.org but there are enough to get you started. Several of my students have tried the Drawing with Code (recommended for ages 8 and up), but there are also webpage design courses (recommended age 8 and up) and database design courses for more advanced programmers (ages 12 and up). Many of the directions are text only which means these courses are for readers. Still, it's worth a look if you're just getting started.

Screenshot from webpage showing easy to use format.

For Teachers: Students can earn energy points if they create an account. Teachers and parents can then see students' progress. They have to have an email address to be able to do this, so check your district's policy on this. The best way to play it safe is to get parent permission before signing up.

Lightbot: Code Hour
Lightbot is my personal favorite because this is the one that my own 6 year old absolutely loves, and to watch him work his way through these puzzles is amazing. Lightbot is both a webpage and a free app. It's recommended for grades K-12. Programmers get to test their skills by programming their way through puzzles in a video game. They have to try to get "Lightbot" to light up tiles in order to pass each level. The first 20 levels are free but you can get up to 50.  The most basic concepts of sequencing and loops are all a part of this game. Kids are actually going inside the video game and trying different ways to make the level work. If you have a kid who is already computer knowledgeable, this game would be a great place to start in the coding world.

Screenshot of level 1 FREE Lightbot App

So there you have it... My very abbreviated rundown of Hour of Code. I hope it helps you get started with coding!

 Disclaimer: I blog for fun. These are my opinions and no one paid me to think these thoughts. Feel free to leave comments, but if they are mean I will probably delete them because there is enough mean in the world.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Chicken, Bacon, and Spinach Pasta in Creamy Garlic Sauce

We are a low carb kind of family. Not because of any dietary restrictions (although technically Jeremy does have an intolerance to wheat), but just because we don't happen to eat a lot of bread and pasta. I do make a pretty classic spaghetti and have an awesome lasagna recipe thanks to a google search for World's Best Lasagna (seriously, do it). But I really don't have an original, yummy pasta dish in our regular rotation. 

Until now. 

Usually when I think a dish is going to make it to the blog for a review, I take pictures as I go. But when I found this recipe, I just thought it would be a nice change for dinner. It wasn't until I tasted it that I immediately wanted to put it on the blog. So within just a few days, I made it again so I could capture each step for you. This dish is so easy and yet has such a depth of flavor - my favorite kind of dish. Seriously, the sauce is crazy creamy and fully of flavor. Even the leftovers made my mouth water.

Credit where credit is due....This recipe is slightly adapted from the original one here.

Here we go.

You will need the following ingredients:
  • 2-3 T. olive oil
  • 1 pound chicken cooked to your preferred method, then shredded
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning 
  • 5 medium tomatoes, cubed
  • 1 cup spinach
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 lb bacon, cooked, drained, and chopped
  • 1 and 1/3 cups half and half
  • 1 and 1/3 cups Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 10 oz penne pasta 
And now for the directions.

First, cook your pasta according to the package directions. Drain and set aside. You can also do this step last if you want. 

Next, cook your chopped bacon until cooked (but not crispy), then drain and set aside.

I typically cook a couple of whole fryer chickens every couple of weeks just so I have chicken to throw in to this or that. So I just grabbed a pound of that to use for this recipe.

I used a dutch oven and heated a combination of the olive oil with a little bit of bacon grease, then I threw in the chicken. This begins the layering of flavors.

Stir in the paprika and Italian seasoning with the chicken.

 Once the chicken is coated in yummy flavor, remove, drain, and set aside.

Throw the tomatoes into the same pan where you cooked the chicken. This is how the flavor deepens. You already have they flavor of the bacon in the oil, then you add the flavor of chicken with the seasoning, and then here comes the tomatoes soaking up all that yumminess.

In goes the garlic. Keep mixing.

And then the spinach. Oh my goodness. Look how delicious. Seriously. That juice from the tomatoes (with all that flavor) will be the base of the sauce.

Every year, we grow chili peppers in our garden and keep them until they are all dried out. I throw them in the food processor and then voila, we have our own homemade red pepper flakes. The flavor is the best.

So throw that in too and mix it all up.

Next, stir back in half the chicken and half the bacon (the rest will be added at the end). I can think of a dozen ways to use this mixture above including licking it right out of the pan (you know in case you don't want the pasta at all).

Stir everything all together so the flavors can all get married (I'm pretty sure I just stole that from Rachael Ray (unless it's an actual cooking term, in which case, this is the first time I'm using it - Yeah, me)).

Now for the creamy goodness. Stir in the half and half and bring it to a boil.

Once it boils, stir in the Parmesan cheese and simmer it for a couple of minutes.

Finally, throw all that pasta in and mix it together with the sauce.

Stir in the remaining chicken and bacon and serve it hot.

Eat it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Turkey Creek Hike

Well hello my little blog. I've missed you. Allow me to displace the blame for my absence please, because it really isn't my fault. You see, we are a one laptop family - as in we only have one. Jeremy has been hard at work on his 19 year quest to finish his college degree (and it's finally done!), so he has monopolized the computer since about January when he began his final sprint towards the finish. So congratulations are in order for him. I couldn't be prouder, seriously. It has been a journey to say the least. But it's all his fault that I haven't been blogging.

As a result, some TLC is in order here on the blogfront (I totally just made up that word). Over the next several weeks, I'll be catching up on several blog posts from the past couple of months which I've been saving for a time such as this.

Today I bring you a hiking post from back in March. Boy were we itching to get out of the house this spring once the temperature peaked above 40 degrees. We could not get enough. I've written tons about hiking at Three Creeks, but on this particular venture, we hiked at a new area of Three Creeks called Turkey Creek (one of the "Three Creeks"). Soon, I will be reviewing a fantastic new hiking app I found that tracks everything you need to know about a hiking location. I will be using it in the future to add interesting details to hiking posts here on the blog, but for now, you'll just have to take my word for it.

I underestimate spring every single year. I always think it's summer I'm waiting for, but these 60 degree days seem like the perfect remedy for our cabin fever. Even if it's cold and damp, it's still better to be outdoors than not.

I like how big of a difference there is in the vegetation at the different trails we hike. This specific area of the conservation area was not very dense, so we could see right through the forest. I wonder what it looks like now there are leaves on the trees.

It was so beautiful. And those of you who know how much we like primitive trails... we didn't see one single other person here.

So many times while we are camping in Three Creeks, we see signs that people have put quite a bit of time into creating functional camp sites like the one below. I even know people who know people who say they frequently camp at Three Creeks. Funny though, we've never seen tents or signs of actual campers there.

It was a slow descent to the creek bed and a beautiful view when we got there.

Jeremy was showing Lex something on the map. Lex and Eli are actually both really good with directions so I'm sure it will be no time at all before they are leading these excursions.

This (below) was the view for the first full half of the hike. We walked right along the creek with a view of rock cliffs on the other side. It's different than any other hike we've done.

 And once again, we came across several amazing places to skip rocks or eventually wade.

I always love it when we see animal prints on trails. We always play what animal is it??? A deer (top left)?... a dog (center)?

Once the trail turned away from the creek for a little while, it opened up like this and created more of a walk in the woods feel than a hike. There was so much space for the boys to run ahead and stay in sight (a hiking rule in our family).

Lots of fallen trees on this trail today.

Back at the rocky creek, the water was really flowing through some of the areas. Look at that view across. Seriously, I would love to climb around up there.

Eli would have stayed and thrown rocks all day if we had let him.

After the walk along the creek, the trails does a u-turn and goes back uphill.

The one cool thing about this trail that is different than other trails in Three Creeks is there are markers along the way (like the one below) that point out different trees and tell the history of them in the area.

O is for Oak Trees.

Love this view of the creek bed.

S is for Sycamore trees which apparently can be found all along the creek.

We found this fallen tree below which offered an invitation to climb and so up we went.

But no sooner than I had climbed about 3 feet, Eli exclaimed, "Don't mom! You're going to break it." I couldn't stop laughing and then decided to get down because if I am strong enough to break a grown tree trunk in half, I certainly don't want to do it while my boys are climbing up it.

Then we found this cool little bench right in the middle of the woods. A perfect place for two worn out boys.

It's so nice when your kids get old enough to take pictures of you. And you get the added bonus of having blurry fingers on the edge.

And also, they keep snapping pictures of you when you don't think they are.

 And instead of taking just one picture, they take about 50, so you get to sort through them all and pick the best one.

M is for Maple...

 And away we go...

Hope you get an amazing spring hike in soon before it's too hot!