November 27, 2012

Zuppa Toscana

There are so many times I've eaten in a restaurant and wished I could make a certain dish at home. Over time, I realized I could have my favorite dishes at home. All it took was a little perseverance and a lot of experimentation.

This soup isn't actually my favorite dish, it's the Hubs'. I can't count how many times I've asked where he wanted to eat, and he always answers, 'Olive Garden, soup and salad!' Specifically, he wants Zuppa Toscana. 

Naturally, I went to work, determined that I would outdo Olive Garden's recipe.

The Hubs thinks I succeeded, and that's good enough for me!

Of course, now he requests this soup every week. Though I love this zuppa (did you know zuppa means soup in Italian?), I don't want to eat it every single week. I like variety in life! The Hubs, on the other hand, will eat the same thing over and over until he never wants to eat it again.

It's a rough life, but I manage somehow.

Haha. Ok, so it's not that bad. But I do regulate the frequency of our zuppa intake, otherwise we'd be eating this all the time.

So let's get the party started! The ingredient list for this soup is simple:

The ingredients, minus one (as per the usual) 

Start with 1 lb. of Italian sausage. I like to use the 'mild' version, but you can work with the 'hot' if you prefer. The reason I like the mild is because I want to control the spice level myself. I do this by adding a bit of red pepper flakes to the sausage as I cook it (The red pepper is the ingredient not pictured. It wouldn't be one of my recipes if I didn't forget at least one ingredient in the picture).

Brown your sausage in a skillet, adding red pepper flakes if you choose. I only add 1/2 teaspoon (sometimes a little more, I don't always measure!), but you can add as much or as little as you want. The Hubs likes his extra spicy, so we add more to his soup at the end.

Once brown, drain the fat, then set your sausage aside. Pull out your soup pot. Add 4 slices of bacon (chopped into bite-sized pieces) into the pot. I have to be honest, we usually add an extra piece of bacon. Everything is better with more bacon!

Cook the bacon over medium-high heat. When it's about halfway done, add 5 cloves of minced garlic and one white onion (diced) to your soup pot. Continue to saute until the onions are translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.

Next, add 8 cups of low-sodium chicken broth to the pot, along with 2 cups of water. I suggest the low-sodium broth because the sausage and bacon are both salty already. You can always add more salt later if you like, but you can't take it away if it's already in there!

Bring the broth to a gentle boil, then add 3 large Russet potatoes (peeled and chopped) to the pot. Keep in mind that your potatoes should be chopped into similar sizes so they cook evenly. Continue to boil until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Boiling broth

If the potatoes are tender, you're almost done! Stir 1 1/4 cups heavy cream into the broth, along with your cooked sausage.

Picture courtesy of Abby, from 1,000 Miles on my Own Two Feet

Allow this mixture to heat through before adding the final ingredient: freshly chopped kale. Kale is a wonderful green for soups, but there are substitutes if your local grocery doesn't stock it. Look instead for Swiss Chard or spinach (Don't use the spinach from a bag, use the fresh bundles instead). I actually just tear my kale into pieces, rather than chopping it. So much easier! Stir in as much or as little as you like, but we use about 3 cups or so.

The kale takes no time at all to wilt, so simply stir and you're done. Test your zuppa for seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. And, viola! Zuppa Toscana at home.

Zuppa Toscana

The Hubs and I sprinkle our soup with a bit of fresh grated Parmesan cheese right before serving. It's the perfect final touch! For those of you (like me) who cook in advance when they can, this soup freezes well. Just let the zuppa cool to room temperature, then add to freezer-safe ziploc bags. Freeze the bags flat on a cookie sheet, then store until you need them. I like to make single-serving sizes as well, especially for those times when the Hubs is away. Just because you're cooking for one, doesn't mean you can't eat well!

What are your favorite restaurant recipes that you wish you could make at home? Please share in the comments, especially if you have a recipe! I've included the standard form recipe at the bottom of this post for you.

As always, happy cooking!

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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The Standard Form:

Zuppa Toscana


1 lb. ground Italian sausage
1/2 - 1 ½ teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 large white onion, diced
4 slices bacon, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 ¼ cup heavy cream
3 large Russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cups kale, washed and roughly chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Fresh grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish


Sauté the Italian sausage with the red pepper flakes until done. Drain any fat from the pan and set aside.

In a large soup pot, sauté the bacon. When the bacon is a little more than half-cooked, add the onion and garlic to the pot. Sauté until the onions are translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth and water to the soup pot. Bring to a gentle boil, then add the potatoes. Boil until the potatoes are tender, bout 25-30 minutes.

Stir in the cooked sausage and the cream. Heat through before adding the kale. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with fresh grated Parmesan. 

November 12, 2012

The "Everything" Book: Deployment

Before I begin, fair warning to you: There is a LOT of important information in this post. I decided not to divide the post into parts, so everything would be located in one convenient place. That means this is quite a bit longer than normal, but it's worth it. Particularly if your spouse is deploying, this is a must read.

Now that that's out of the way...  I can begin for real!


The "Everything" Book... I'm sure you're wondering what this is, right? Well, it's exactly as it sounds... literally everything you should need for deployment.

Ok, maybe not everything. But it's pretty close! The book can't provide companionship, or a hug when you're feeling low. It can't provide a phone call from your spouse on those days when you just need to hear his voice. It doesn't give your kids a bath, or have dinner ready when you get home...


The book will contain every scrap of paperwork you can imagine, every phone number you may need at a moment's notice. And trust me, you're going to need it.

When you're preparing for an impending deployment, you don't always think about the things you might need while your spouse is gone. I completely understand! You want to soak up every spare bit of time you have. And who wants to spend that time dealing with the what ifs? Nobody.

However... you need this. Once your spouse is gone, he's gone. If you can't find a birth certificate, and you gotta have it today, you can't just call and ask where it is. Dealing with these issues when you're thousands of miles away from each other is near impossible. The stress of not knowing has caused many a fight.

But you can avoid all of that!

For example, does your hubs generally handle your car repair needs? I know mine does. So what do I do if I get a flat tire, or my radiator starts leaking?

The Book will tell you. If you've made your book, then your mechanic's phone number will be conveniently located in the maintenance section. Handy, yes?

The #1 most important thing you need to know about this book?


Got it?


So let's get this party started then!

First thing first: supplies.

All you need is a three-ring binder, some inserts, a hole punch, and some pens. Oh, and the cool PDFs I'll provide you that can be printed right at home.

For the inserts, you have options. You can use sheet protectors, which are clear and already punched. You could also use two-pocket folders, which are also pre-punched, and you can label the front. OR, you can go with my preferred method, which is letter-sized manilla envelopes.

I like the envelopes for one major reason. They can be sealed shut! I'm pretty clumsy, and I know I will drop this binder at least once. With the other two options, all my paperwork can slide right out if I tip the binder the wrong way. I'm not taking any chances with all those sensitive items. Remember: this is your whole life in a three-ring binder! (Tip: Use your hole-punch before adding documents to your envelope, otherwise your birth certificates will have holes in them)

One other item you will definitely need is this: a safe place to keep your information once completed. 

Again, your life in a book! You don't want to keep this anywhere it might be stolen or otherwise lost. I like to use a home safe. It's a good idea to have a fireproof safe anyway, so this won't be a waste. You can find one reasonably priced at Walmart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, and a variety of others stores.

Once you've got your supplies, it's time to start the everything part. I'm going to arrange this into sections to hopefully make things easier for you. If I've left something out, please let me know and I will update the lists, so everyone has the information.

Ok, here goes! A list of everything that should be in your "Everything Book".

1. Copies of ORDERS - These are necessary for almost EVERYTHING (hence the name of the book!) Want to lower your credit card interest rates for the duration of the deployment? Yep, you need orders. Want to use the military clause to break your lease? You need orders! Need to deactivate your spouse's cell phone for deployment? You still need those orders.

There are countless uses for your spouse's deployment orders. Keep several copies on hand, and be prepared to use them often.

2. Legal Documents - This includes so many things. Several of the items MUST be obtained before your soldier leaves. Here's your list:
a) POA (Power of Attorney) - There are two types of POAs, general and special. You and your spouse need to decide which of these you need. Make an appointment with JAG to discuss your options. You may have several of these! The Hubs and I had seven different POAs! You may need a medical power of attorney, or one to file your taxes. Take advantage of the free legal assistance available on post.

b) Wills - Both you and your spouse should have a will. Don't think that it could never happen to you! It's better to be safe than sorry.

c) Copy of your soldier's SGLI - This is your Servicemember's Group Life Insurance, in case something should happen to your soldier while overseas.

d) Court Paperwork - Such as marriage certificates, divorce papers, adoption papers, custody papers, and immigration paperwork.

e) Lease / Mortgage Documents - I think this should be obvious, but I could be wrong. It is always good to have these, whether or not your spouse is deployed.

3. Identification - Are you starting to see why this book should be kept in a safe place?! You definitely don't want anyone having this information, much less all of it together. Be smart, don't leave your "Everything Book" lying around.

a) Birth certificates - Keep one for every member of the household. Be sure it's an original and not a photocopy! Many government agencies will not accept the photocopy. If you don't have an original, you will need to contact Vital Statistics in the county and state where the paperwork was originally filed. You can find your state's information here.

b) Social Security Cards - Again, you want to have one for everyone in your household, including your spouse. If you need to obtain a new social security card, you can find all pertinent information here.

c) Copy of Driver's License / State ID - Also for everyone in household. Your spouse may not even take his license with him. Check your expiration dates... do you need to renew your license while your spouse is away?

d) Passports - I know I'm repetitive, but again... everyone's in the household. If you use your passport to travel at any time, leave a copy of the passport in your "Everything Book" at home.

e) Copy of Military IDs - If your ID will expire before your spouse returns from deployment, have it renewed before he goes! Be sure you know where you can obtain a new ID if yours or your children's is lost during his absence. Write this information down and keep it here as well.

f) Copy of Green Cards - the same information applies here as with driver's licenses and military IDs

g) Voter Registration Cards - Your spouse may have to vote with an absentee ballot while gone. So may you.

4. Finances - Talk with your spouse BEFORE he leaves. Decide how you're going to handle your bank accounts, bills, investments, and budgets. In a civilian marriage, it's hard enough to handle these issues. You add the military and deployment to that, it's a huge cause for concern. Don't wait until it's too late and you're arguing with your spouse via email!

a) Budget - Keep a copy of your budget on hand. Refer to it every paycheck, every time you pay bills. There are a number of free budget forms you can print online. In fact, your bank may even offer one. If you can't find one, you can look here for a free PDF from Freddie Mac.

b) Monthly Bills - A list of all your bills that includes the monthly payment, due date, account number, password, website, and phone number for each company (you may also want to keep a paper copy of each bill in this file). You need this not just to pay each bill, but also for the contact information. I've created an easy, fill-in-the-blank chart for you that can be downloaded here. I will also provide a complete PDF list at the end for easy reference and download.

c) Credit Cards - You also need a list of all your credit cards which includes: the issuer, account number, password, credit limit, authorized users, website, phone number, and bill due date. I've included the PDF chart for you here.

d) Banking Information - Do you and your spouse share accounts? Are they separate? Will you manage the accounts? All of this information needs to be discussed before your soldier leaves (I bet you're really tired of hearing me say that, but I'm sure I'll do it again!). If you are not listed on your spouse's accounts, you must have a POA in order to access those accounts while he is gone. Keep a list of where your accounts are, what type they are, the account numbers and passwords. Also make note of the bank's website (or address) and phone number. I've made a chart for this too, you can get it here!

e) Insurance - This particular information may be used in several categories. For the financial aspect, keep a list of all your insurance payments, including automobile, home/property insurance, medical, and life insurance. Again, include all providers, policy numbers, passwords, due dates, payment amounts, and contact information. Naturally, I've included a chart here.  If you don't know how to file a claim or what your insurance covers, talk about it!

f) Copy of LES (Leave and Earnings Statement) - Have your spouse teach you how to access this information while he is gone. Make sure you have a POA that will allow you to deal with the finance department on post, in case there is a problem with your spouse's pay. You will also need to access these in order to file taxes. Don't wait until it's too late, and you're struggling to get the information via email or Skype. Get it now!

g) Tax Returns - The IRS recommends keeping your returns anywhere from 3 years to forever. Unless you've been cheating on your taxes, you're likely safe with the last 4 or 5 years worth of returns. If you're audited while your spouse is gone, believe me, you're going to want these!

5. Contact Information - This is not just for you, though that is the primary purpose. You should also keep a copy of this information in a location where it can be easily accessed by someone else. For example, what if (God forbid) you were in a car accident? You might not be able to tell your best friend how to call your mom, but she can use this list if it's pinned to the refrigerator, right?

a) Family Contacts - Your parents, siblings, in-laws... they should all be included. I, for one, would be screwed (excuse my language!) if my cell phone suddenly lost all that information. In addition to phone numbers, include addresses and your relationship to each person (again, for others to use easily). Feel free to use my handy, dandy form here.

b) Military Contacts - This is NECESSARY. Do not, under any circumstances, leave this information out of your book. You should include you Rear Detachment Commander and NCOIC, along with the phone number for the staff duty desk. Know the information for your FRG leader and Key Caller. I even keep a list of basic numbers like ACS (Army Community Services), Legal, Red Cross, the spouse's club, my church. Not only have a copy in your book, but pin a copy to your fridge. I have a basic form available for you here.

c) Spouse Information - Something you will hopefully use often, the address for your spouse. Before too long, you'll have sent so many care packages, this will be easy to remember! Along with the address, write down all of the unit's information.

d) Babysitter List - Don't be scrambling at the last minute to find an emergency babysitter. Keep several on hand to call if the need arises. Check them out before you need them! Be sure to include their names, address, and phone numbers on your list. Here's a handy printable for you!

e) Maintenance - This is HUGE. Maybe even MEGAhuge. Because we all know what happens the minute your spouse leaves... everything falls apart. Decide beforehand who you will use for repairs, both household and automobile. If you're in an apartment, know the number for your office, both regular hours and the emergency line. If you're a homeowner, keep a list of plumbers, electricians, and other home repair technicians. Know who your mechanic is and where they are located. Who services your security system, and who mows your lawn?

Other good things to know... where is your fuse box? How do you turn off the water or gas? Do you have a fire extinguisher or escape ladder? Do you know your security codes? Talk with your spouse before he goes!! Here's a quick chart to help you keep up with all the information. Remember, these printables will all be listed at the end as well.    

6. Records - Always good to have!

a) Medical records - keep for everyone in the household. While much of your information is kept electronically on post, this doesn't always hold true and it doesn't count for doctors you see off-post. Always get copies of these records for yourself.

b) Dental records - Same as above. Most dependents use dentists off-post, so keep your records handy.

c) School records and Credentials - For younger children, you likely have their records anyway since the military family moves around. But you also need to include high school and college diplomas for you, your spouse, and older children. Any credentials you've earned should also be here.

d) Military Awards - whatever awards or recognition your spouse has received, maintain a copy of it as well.

7.  Automobile - There is lots of information to keep track of here. Some of it may overlap with other information, but that's ok.

a) Insurance - Keep a copy of your insurance cards in the car, in your purse, and in your "Everything Book". If your policy covers roadside assistance, save the number to your cell phone and also keep a written copy in your glove box. No one likes to be stuck on the side of the road!

b) Car Titles - If you own the car (no loans) then you should have your title. If the car isn't yet paid off, then the bank has your title. In this case, keep a copy of your loan agreement here.

c) Scheduled Maintenance - keep a list of all your regularly scheduled maintenance. When does your oil need to be changed or the spark plugs replaced? I found a guide here that allows you to type in your car's information, and then the site explains what maintenance is recommended.

d) Vehicle Registration - Make a copy for your "Everything Book", but keep the original in your car. Know when the renewal date is, and how to go about it.

e) Vehicle Inspection - This is different for every state. You may also need an emissions inspection. Know what date the inspection is due, and be sure to complete it before then! Your regular mechanic can perform this task for you.

f) Extra keys - Keep a set of extra keys in your "Everything Book", just in case. You can also leave a set with someone you trust.

To help you keep track of your basic vehicle information, I've made a chart (of course!) here.

8. Family Needs - This category can encompass a lot of issues, especially if you have children.

a) Medical - Keep a list of all your doctors (for you, your spouse, and your children), along with their contact information. I also keep handy the phone number for Poison Control, because you just never know!  Along with that, keep a chart with any medications you or your family members are taking. This should include the the medication, dosage (and times per day), the doctor who prescribed it, their phone number, and the pharmacy you fill at. You can get the form for doctors list here, and the medication chart here.

b) CYS (Child and Youth Services) Paperwork - This is specific for families with children. I'll be honest and tell you that I don't know a whole lot about these programs. BUT, I do know there are extra advantages for families of deployed soldiers. CYS can provide child care, student services, and sports programs, to name a few. Check out Army OneSource's information page to see what your facility offers.

c) Family Care Plans - What happens if you need to be hospitalized for any reason? It's good to have a plan, ready to put into action, if the need arises. Keep a list of pertinent details for whomever will take care of your children. For example, what is their favorite food? Do they have any allergies? Do they need a special stuffed animal to fall asleep? When is bedtime, what is their routine? This is also handy to have for a regular babysitter, even if you're only going out for a girls' night. I created a basic form for you here. You may want to customize this for your needs.

d) Disaster Plans - Unfortunately, these things could happen anytime. Mother Nature can put a hurricane in your path, or your plumbing could go and the whole house floods. Where do you go? What is your back-up plan? Is there family nearby, or will you stay in a hotel? Who will you definitely inform of your plans, someone that will always know where you are? I've provided a basic list here, but you may want to expand on this.

e) Extra Household Keys: Keep a copy of these with your "Everything" Book and also with someone you trust. These can include door keys, mailbox keys, garage keys.

9. Household Pet Information - If you're anything like me, then your pets are people too! It's important to keep track of their information, the same way you would keep track of any family members'.

a) Veterinary Information - What is your vet's name, address, and phone number? What are their hours of operation? The best way to keep this handy is a business card. I keep one in my wallet, and one in my "Everything" Book. Also, keep the information for an after-hours, emergency vet clinic. Trust me, you'll be glad you have it.

b) Records - Keep an up-to-date copy of all your pet's medical records, the same as you keep yours. This especially comes in handy if you're traveling, or visiting with family, and your pet suddenly needs to see a foreign vet. For some travel, you may even need a recent health check before your pet can go with you.

c) Vaccinations - Along with your pet's basic medical records, be sure you keep a separate vaccination record. This should include your basic vaccinations, as well as your rabies certificates. All kennels will require this information before you can board your pet with them.

d) City License - Your pet should have a tag on his/her collar, but you should also keep a copy of the paperwork. This helps if you lose a tag, and also helps you remember the renewal date.

e) Microchip Information - Many companies provide an information card, along with the chip's tag. Keep a copy for yourself!

f) Kennel Information - Like your vet, the easiest way to keep track of this is with a business card in several locations. If you don't have a regular kennel, find one! Even if you don't think you will need it, it's better to have the information on hand. You never know when you will have a family emergency and need to travel out of town.

g) Pet Sitter Information Sheet - Even better than the kennel, it's nice to have someone you know who will keep your babies while you're gone. I've had many excellent friends care for my fur baby. But no matter how awesome your friends are, they still need basic information about your pet! What time do they eat and how much? What type of food? What commands does your pet understand? Keep a list of this information to pass on. I've had a basic form on hand for years, and all my pet sitters get a copy. Though not all the information may apply to your pet, you're welcome to use my form for your babies!

10. Calendar of Events - This may seem a bit unnecessary, but you won't believe the kind of things you'll forget while your spouse is deployed. And who could blame you?! Running a household by yourself is no easy task. So, make it easy on yourself.... fill in a calendar with all your important dates. Not just birthdays and anniversaries, but also your 6-month dental checkups, when the oil should be changed, when to renew your tags, etc. Keep track of your care packages here, what you've sent and when. Organizing these items will relieve plenty of stress, I promise you!

So, that about does it for our "Everything" Book! I hope you've learned a few new things, and this post helps you create your own "Everything" Book. I know it's a lot of information to process, but get it done now! Please don't wait until your spouse is gone. Even if you never need some of this information, remember: It's better to have it and not need it, instead of needing it and not having it.

I've compiled an "Everything" Book checklist for you here. The rest of the PDFs are linked below. Feel free to print anything you need! If you think of anything I haven't included, please comment below and I'll be sure to update for future users.

As always... thanks for reading!

Printable PDF List:

Budget from Freddie Mac

Monthly Bill List

Credit Card Information Sheet

Banking Information Sheet

Insurance Information Sheet

Family Contact List

Military Contact List

Babysitter Contact List

Maintenance Contact List

Vehicle Information Sheet

Doctor Information List

Medication Chart

Family Care Plan

Disaster Plan

Pet Sitter Information Sheet

The "Everything" Book Checklist

 Thanks for reading, everyone!
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