09 December 2010

I made these

I am in awe of myself.

And that doesn't happen often, so when it does, I feel like I should throw myself a party. Maybe I should. But we'll get to that later.

For now, I'm happy with throwing Jules a party. I can hardly believe it myself, but in a few weeks, my baby will be turning FIVE YEARS OLD. There are days when I feel like walking around, jaw on the floor, in complete amazement that he's passed the crawling, babbling, pooping-and-peeing in a diaper stage. Then there are days when he seems to me to be wise well beyond his years. I wonder if I will always feel like this. Will we be having a conversation when he's 40 and I stop myself and say, "man, how did you get to be so smart? Those are words that should be coming from the mouth of a 60 year old and YOU'RE NOT THERE YET, my child." I hope. to. god. that we can have that conversation. That he'll still be amazing me. I'll still be a spry 74 year old, after all. And, even more importantly, I'll still be his mama, in love with him and all he has become (and has yet to become). Oh, I hope. I do hope. And I believe...

But back to the present, because it is here, right now, where we're having a lot of fun, where we're driving each other crazy, where we're living. Here. NOW. This is the place, the reason, for writing this damn blog, however sporadically. So back to the dolls.

Let me start by saying that I am really invested in these dolls. Too invested, probably, but I'm fine with that.

The doll on the right? Pippi Longstocking. Faceless. For now. And the doll on the left is Mr. Nilsson, Pippi's little monkey sidekick. I learned to sew to bring these dolls to life. As I type this, I realize how crazy boring domestic that sounds. But it's true. So let's back up.

About a month and a half ago, I took Jules to the kids section of our neighborhood video store and told him he could pick out a movie. For whatever reason, he was drawn to this random, 1990s, animated version of Pippi Longstocking. We rented it, he watched it, and he was hooked. Of course I was thrilled. Growing up, I'd had a very very vague notion of Pippi Longstocking, that she was something weird, something European, a girl about my age. But beyond that, nothing.

Then 30 years pass, and I have this almost five year old, a very spunky, very irreverant, somewhat bilingual, somewhat eccentric (in a good way) child who is, oddly to me, "turned on" to Pippi. It's like my lost childhood flooding back to me.

It helps, let me say, that Pippi is a little nine year old girl who has the strength of 10 men, that she flouts gender stereotypes, that she thumbs her nose at "tradition." And it's strange, I'll admit, that at 39 I am finally falling for Pippi, too. At nine, I was just not ready for her. At almost five, I am amazed to see, that my son..........is. Maybe not completely. Maybe he's just drawn to the lewd, crude bits and pieces of Pippi and doesn't get all of her nuances. I don't care. I am celebrating the fact that she caught his attention at all. And she grabbed mine along with it.

So when, four weeks ago, Jules asked for a Pippi Longstocking doll for his birthday, I was all over it. I first scoured the net, looking for something suitable, sure there would be something I could charge to my credit card and have waiting at my doorstep in a matter of days. Pippi Longstocking dolls exist, yes they do. But they're either outrageously expensive ($100 or more) or........... crocheted. Don't get me wrong. Crochet is fine for scarves and sweaters and potholders and such. But for dolls? I'd rather buy a macrame plant hanger with an owl ornament. So I knew if I were to make Pippi a reality for Jules, I'd have to make her myself.

My only problem, of course, was that I'd have to teach myself to sew.

The last time that I'd sewn anything (besides a ragged hem on a pair of pants) was when I was 13 and my step-mother was pregnant with my baby sister. I was in home economics, everyone else had chosen to sew a beach towel, and I presented my teacher with a complicated cloth doll pattern that I just "had" to have stitched by the end of the quarter. My sister was a December baby, born a week before classes ended for Christmas break, and I stayed up late into the night before our assignment was due, hastily stitching on a patchy bald yarn hair ponytail at the last minute so I could bring her to my baby sister in time, not knowing back then that a newborn baby couldn't even see, let alone hold, let alone 'ooooooh' and 'aaaaaaah' over the doll I'd labored to make.

Flash forward 26 years later, to an even more "urgent" sewing project.

Lucky for me I have a friend (thank you Sloan!!!!!!!!) who loves me and will make time for me and has tremendous patience AND knows how to sew. So I bought my fabric and felt and thread and ribbons on the faith that, if I tried and failed, or if I didn't even have the energy to try, she'd bail me out. She's the kind of friend who, on the eve of your son's FIFTH (or fourth, or third, or...) birthday party would stay up until 4am faithfully sewing whatever little project you'd already practically killed yourself on just to see a smile on your kids' face. She loves you, and loves your kid, that much. Luckily, I only stole a few hours of her blustery afternoon, learning to thread (wind? fill?) a bobbin, thread a needle, troubleshoot a snagged thread, backstitch, etc. etc. She ironed, ironed, ironed. Gave me well-timed advice. And I? I RAN WITH IT.

I started with this doll (by Larissa, at Mmmcrafts) a Lauren Child-inspired version, made from this video tutorial/pattern of a black apple doll. Halfway through making the doll, we realized that she had no neck and had to snip-and-improvise to give her one. I'd bought red felt and stiff red Christmas ribbons to make Pippi's braids, knowing that the wonkier they were made to look, the better, and Sloan gave me tips on putting them together. She was amazing--my cheering squad, my mentor, my best friend all rolled into one.

But I was the one who, ultimately, pulled it off. And for that, I am proud. I will, of course, be CRUSHED if Jules is not beyond thrilled with his present, and am trying to steel myself for inevitable disappointment now. But I am determined not to let any negative response on Jules's part diminish the pride I feel right now for having pulled it off. Bravo to me! Hip hip hip!? HOOOOORAAH!

For the rest of my story, I need to back up once again. So after I "finished" Pippi, I got bold. Jules was also enamoured of her little monkey sidekick, Mr. Nilsson, so I wanted to bring him to life, too. But not for Jules. I have a nephew, Aiden, who is just 18 months older than Jules. He is a bright, happy kid who loves to read, has boundless energy and imagination, just like his cousin, and who lives just far enough away from us for us to feel really disconnected. I'd drawn Aiden's name for our family Christmas drawing and thought, "what better way to create a connection between Aiden and Jules, between Aiden and I, than to share with him something that we are just now discovering, that we are just now starting to adore? So I made Mr. Nilsson for Aiden (based on another of Larissa's designs), from a pair of brown corduroy pants I have not fit into since I gave birth to his cousin, an old pillow case, and a stripy shirt that I've also, quite depressingly, outgrown. But c'est la vie. Life goes on. I'll be sending him Mr. Nilsson along with a Pippi Longstocking story book and a very fun Caspar Babypants CD (the lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America) that we're all listening to, as his Christmas gift. I hope he loves all of it as much as we do.

And in the meantime, I'm cooking up another story. This one has to do, again, with a certain kid's fifth birthday party, and a pirate theme. But that's still in my future (this Saturday). Wish me luck.

11 November 2010

wheat free and me

Johan's out of town on business this week, so I decided, heck, why not make life extra hard and use the opportunity presented by his absence to give up wheat? I've been wanting to take on this little experiment for a while because I've been feeling chronically, anemically tired, and feeling just generally unwell off and on for, oh... forever. I mentioned this to my regular doctor and I get the feeling she thinks I'm borderline crazy (or a full-fledged hypochondriac) to think it could be diet-related. But I also know from experience seeing a naturopath, and from friends who have gone down that path, that one of the first things they suggest when a patient comes in with the sort of general malaise that afflicts me is to cut out wheat. Oh, and sugar, and caffeine. But I figure, why not just start with wheat and see where that leaves me?

So here I am, on my fourth day of wheat-freeness (third, actually, if you count the stale hot dog bun and beer I cheated with on the first day--so NOT worth it in case you were wondering). I feel no better. But it's still early. What I
do feel is a little like someone who is giving up some other, more "serious" vice, like smoking, drinking, or hard drugs. I stare at the cookies I'm handing to the kids and wonder if my will power alone can get me through the moment, or if I will break down and then scarf down half a dozen when they're not looking. It's unbelievable, really.

I'm guessing that, regardless of whether or not I'm actually gluten-intolerant (or have a gluten sensitivity), I WILL be feeling better because, along with cutting out the wheat, I'm also cutting a lot of the crap that goes with wheat out of my diet. I had no idea just how many foods containing wheat I was putting into my body every day. I ate wheat at every meal. And for just about every snack. And I feed my kids even more wheat than I consume myself. It seems a little... unnatural.

At the moment I'm doing double duty preparing meals and snacks. The kids still get the standard: bread, pasta, crackers, muffins, cookies. I get none of that. Their meals are easy compared to mine. Buttered bread and sliced fruit for breakfast, for me a bowl of oatmeal with yogurt, fruit and nuts. English muffins and eggs for them, and
huevos rancheros for me. The other night, they ate tortellini with bacon, peas and cheese, while I filled up on beans and rice. I keep telling myself that in Mexico I ate beans every day for weeks at a time, and I liked it. Still, I'm going to need to expand my repertoire soon.

It feels a little indulgent, being a short order cook for myself. Of course it will do my energy level no good in the long run to keep this up, but for now it's kind of fun.

On day two, feeling more curious than deprived, I made a loaf of gluten free ricotta potato bread in our bread machine. It was seriously vile-wet, spongey, with a strong aroma of glue. And the kicker was that I had to buy about $35 worth of ingredients to make something that ended up in the compost bin. It turned out to be more of a failed chemistry experiment than an exercise in baking. But practice makes perfect. Soon I'll work up the courage to try again. Or I won't. Who needs bread, anyway?

ME. Oh, really, I do. And cookies, and scones, and muffins, and those lovely buttery pastries they make at the bakery down the street. Deep down, I'm hoping that I won't feel immensely better after this little experiment, because a wheat-free life is immensely more complicated. I'll have to be very conscious of every morsel of food that passes my lips. And that sounds exhausting. But the idea of being (even more) purposeful about what I eat also feels a little freeing. Of course I can take that lesson with me either way.

I'll let you know how it goes.

04 November 2010

boo. chuckle. grunt. sparkle. *shazam*

Today we stripped our house of all of our Halloween decorations. It feels a bit like the end of Christmas to me, doing this. I always have such a hard time saying goodbye to Halloween. At our house, we've turned it into a month-long celebration that starts with raiding the storage boxes to dislodge skeletons and witches and ghostly garlands, continues with a parade of spooky drawings and lots of talk of creepy things (and even creepier talks about death and decay and mummification), and ends with another parade: of costumes, as Jules and Kasper (and their mama) decide what to be for each party, carnival or trot down the block we've signed them up for.

It fills me with glee to say that Jules shares my enthusiasm for Halloween, though keeping up with his racing imagination was a little exhausting for me this year. A lot of my energy these past few weeks was consumed in trying to gently steer him into
not being a pirate, or a knight, or some other manlier-than-manly-man that I thought my little four-going-on-five year old had no business wanting to be. Why couldn't he pick a cute little animal? A bumbling clown? Even a creepy skeleton or a dragon or dracula would have been better than the sword-wielding characters Jules kept throwing at me.

In desperation, I took him to a local costume store, just in time for the crush of Halloween crowds, with the only rule being that he could NOT choose a costume that accessorized itself with a weapon. I'm pretty sure he hated my guts that day. But he ended up choosing a glittery crown (which resembled, no doubt, pirate treasure) and cheesy "velvety" robe and dubbed himself a king. He loved that costume for all of half an hour. We tried to convince him that it was good to be the king, that kings were the bosses of knights, the looters of pirates. He wouldn't buy it. He wanted that sword. He even tried cutting a picture of a dagger out of one of his pirate coloring books and taping it to a pencil. Confiscated. We have a "no weapons" policy in our house, mostly to protect the eyes of Jules's little brother, but one that has eroded enough to allow floppy cardboard cutout swords from time to time.

A few days before Halloween, we lost the royal battle (but not the weapons war, which still rages). Jules announced he would not be a king and instead scrambled upstairs to hi-jack
MY Halloween costume. "I'm going to be a pot-bellied gnome," he decreed. Brilliant, I thought. And so worth giving it up to my pint-sized pal. I'm good at sharing. Sadly, this gnome was anything but jolly. But he warms my heart just the same.

Kasper, in the meantime, spent a total of twenty seconds in his costume, a hand-me-down from his brother that I'd bought in what can only be described as a Halloween-induced moment of shopping insanity. A ridiculous full-body gorilla costume. There's a gorilla-head hat that goes on top, but he ripped it off in a fit of rage before I could snap the photo.

To our great astonishment, Kasper decided that it WAS good to be the king, if only for the fact that he got to carry around a big whackable stick, er... royal scepter. Too bad Jules hadn't thought of
that, eh??

And, quite naturally, I suppose, just minutes before we needed to leave the house on the spooktastic day itself, Jules and Kasper teamed up to perform one last last minute costume switch: presto change-o: superheroes x 2.

I am slowly, ever so slowly, giving up my attachment to being the kind of mom who spends a month hand-crafting her childrens' costumes, the one garnering the "oooohs" and "aaaaaahs" of all her friends. I love her, that mom, but she most certainly does not have my kids. And my kids? Well, I love them most of all. Which is why next year, I'm thinking of being a bowling ball for Halloween. Maybe then I'll really be able to roll with it.

17 September 2010

hot bread

About three weeks ago, I bought a bread machine.

There, I said it. Now it's out there for everyone to read.

For some reason, I feel shame about this. Maybe it's because of the fact that it was a "one-click" impulse buy on Amazon.com (and now you know that I did not support my local community by shopping local--just more shame heaped on shame in this post). Maybe it's because I feel like delegating my bread baking to some "machine" makes me less of a cook. Maybe it's because our new Breadman Pro takes up two feet of counter space in our already cramped kitchen. Maybe it's an impossibly complicated amalgamation of all of these. It doesn't really matter. What really matters is that I have, in the last three weeks, not purchased a single loaf of squishy sandwich bread from the grocery store. And for that, I am proud.

I'm especially proud of the fact that I know what's going in to each loaf I make. I now get to be the one who decides how much fat, sweet, whole grain, whatever, our family is ingesting in each slice. I'm not sure exactly how I morphed into the lady who doesn't bother much with checking the labels because there are no labels, who poo-poohs as much processed food as possible. If you'd asked me a couple of years ago, I'd have told you that THAT lady was C-R-A-Z-Y paranoid and, most definitely, had
way too much time on her hands. In fact, I know for a fact that I passed judgment on THAT lady plenty of times, back when SHE was not ME.

But here I sit, munching on hot bread, just pulled from the machine minutes before, steaming and dotted with butter. And I'm smiling.

Not only can we have fresh, hot bread whenever we want it, but we can devour dinner rolls and make pizza that rivals some of the best take-out places around. In fact, Jules told his babysitter, who has become accustomed to popping a frozen pizza in the microwave for the kids on the nights she watches them during dinner time, that he no longer wants the frozen stuff, and that he prefers "fresh" pizza now. I've even considered making a couple of extra "fresh" pizzas and then freezing them to have them on hand for situations like this. Maybe things are getting out of hand...

But I think I've reached the point of no return. It's been a slow metamorphosis, after all. But I find myself getting really comfortable with the idea that yes, most of the jam we eat will have been made by me in the summer months, that we'll always have a vegetable garden, and that it will only get bigger as years pass.

And that's all got me smiling, too. Smiling because fresh bread, fresh jam, fresh-from-the-garden fruits and veggies taste better, but smiling, also, because I'm starting to learn things about myself and how to manage busy days with busy little people and still feed us all what I now believe is "proper food." Some of this requires cutting corners, coming to terms with the fact that baking my own bread from scratch, kneading it with my own hands, while an immensely satisfying tactile and olfactory experience, will no doubt turn me into THAT (crazy) lady I so envy but am so loathe to become. So my bread baking is now pretty much restricted to the "whir-whir-SHAKE" and (very obnoxious) "BEEP----BEEP" of the Breadman Pro.

Seems like a small sacrifice to make.

02 August 2010

apricot jam's back in town (oh, and so am I, I think)

So it took an apricot to get me back here. And I don't even
like apricots. After Durian, they are possibly my least favorite fruit in the world.

But last year I made the brilliant discovery that
cooked apricots are sublime fruits. Cooking an apricot (and adding sugar in the process, no doubt) does something to the texture that makes a mealy, mushy, chewy, tart lump of orange something tantamount to a nectar of the gods, at least for me. That year I gorged on apricot cake with fresh cream and made my very first successful batch of jam. And the apricot won my heart in the process.

This year when the signs went up at our corner produce stand announcing apricots for cheap, my heart actually started racing. I started thinking of all sorts of ideas on how to get myself there so I could fill the biggest basket I could find. This is no small feat for me these days. I've tried to pop into the store with Kasper a few times this year and it's always ended in disaster, with him tossing baskets of fresh berries on the floor, fondling every soft stone fruit within reach, and, finally, screaming his head off as I restrain him so I can just get to the cash register and pay for the one thing I've managed to grab while fending him off the cherries.

my naked chef (no, he didn't touch any actual jam fruit)

I have to stop to tell you that, while I'm typing this post, I can hear the gorgeous *pop*of jam jars sealing next to me. It's quiet in our house, save for the buzz of the exhaust fan and the murmur of the TV in the other room. Both boys are asleep. Neither went tonight without a fight. Some things just don't seem to change.

And of course one of the things I'm happy to see stay the same, forever if you please, is the return of the apricot. After another failed attempt at making strawberry jam this year (it didn't set, but at least I didn't burn it this time), I can't tell you how satisfying it is that something's going right for me in the kitchen.

Cooking these days has been a real struggle, and to do it right I'm finding I have to do it when both kids are asleep, which is usually in the evenings or the weekends now that Jules no longer naps and Kasper's only averaging an hour a day. As you can might be able to tell from the light in the photos, what started as an afternoon project took me well in the evening to finish. Such is my life these days.

But all things considered, I'm pretty proud of what I've been able to do. One of my biggest feats so far has been getting rid of the majority of
food like substances in our diet. So for the most part we're eating stuff in it's whole state. No more (ok, not much) pancake mix, boxed cookies, pre-packaged frozen meals (except for the occasional pizza), boxed mac and cheese, etc. etc. I've even started cooking up pots of dried beans and freezing them. This is a big deal for me. Needless to say I'm a little tired trying to squeeze this in to our schedule, but I persevere...

What I do love about this (for us) new way of eating, though, is knowing exactly what we're putting into our bodies. If we're eating cookies, they might as well be a batch I baked myself. I even made a batch of homemade ice cream a few weeks ago. Next up, frozen yoghurt.

But back to the apricots. Or even better, back to the jam. The beauty of jam is its simplicity. Fruit, sugar, lemon juice. That's it. What I think I've finally learned now (on jam batch #4) is not to be afraid of sugar. Of course, that's something that's hard to do with two small kids in the house, but I keep telling myself that jam, in small quantities, is nothing less than a glorious thing and certainly not yet another fount from which my mommy guilt must gurgle. So I'm at peace with it. I have to be.

Welcome back to me. I'll try to stay a while this time.

14 April 2010

whale's up

So I'm sitting here now, after the kids have gone to bed, after hitting "submit" (or "e-file" or whatever, my mind's a gelatinous mass) on Turbotax, thinking about the day as the quiet settles in around me and begins to clear my head.

I took the kids to the beach today after picking Jules up from preschool. This was our second beach trip in two days and I feel SO LUCKY to live in a place where we can skip down to stick our toes in the soft sand whenever we feel like it. Yesterday it was Jules's idea. The sun popped out just as I popped in to his school to get him. "It's such a beautiful, sunny afternoon, Mama," he said. "The perfect time for a trip to the beach." So that's just what we did. We dug, we dumped, we tossed rocks in the water, we searched for buried treasure and hidden sea creatures. It was so much more fun than what I had planned--watching the kids play in the back yard while I cleaned the kitchen. We had such a good time, I promised them we'd be back again the next day if the weather held up, and it did.

Today was a different day. Today Kasper raced past two boys his age (around 18 months) who were standing a healthy distance from the water, tossing in rocks, and tossed HIMSELF in. He was so over yesterday's placid stone plopping that he decided instead to treat the entire Puget Sound like his own personal mud puddle. I thought I came prepared, having brought his rain boots this time, but no. He sat right down in the water, prompting me to drag him out by his jacket (like the scruff of his neck), then went back in for more, the second time doing a face plant. And back again. And again.

The parents of Kasper's little peers looked on
all aghast as our scene played out : me dragging Kasper time and again out of the water while his big brother Jules waded in knee deep (yes, waaaay over the very unnecessary rainboots he was also wearing) with a big mason jar trying to catch another sea animal. At one point Jules was sure he had an eel in his jar and, freaking out completely, tossed the jar five feet further into the water. Well, unlike the egg carton boat I waded knee deep into murky Greenlake water to rescue the week before, there was NO WAY I was going in after this little casualty. Yes, we littered, yes we did. But only because I had to make the choice between holding Kasper at bay (or out of the bay) and rescuing that jar. I chose my child. You would, too.

So then, while all of this madness is unfolding around me, someone starts calling out, "look at the whale, boys" in our general direction. I look back, not sure if they're talking to my boys, snatch Kasper out of the water again, scan the beach for Jules, finally look out at the water. By this time it's gone. Apparently, a whale had surfaced right in front of us while my back was turned to it (or my face turned to Kasper, or Jules, or to a stick I'd hoped to snag to fish out that damn mason jar). Everyone on the beach saw it. Right there in front of us. Everyone, except us.

I guess we have another reason now to get back to the beach (as if we needed one).

09 April 2010

okonomiyaki: dishing the chicken

sweet potato okonomiyaki with sesame peanut noodles

As a follow up to my last chicken post, I thought I'd share one of the photos of what became of our roasted bird. The top photo, of Sweet Potato Okonomiyaki with Sesame Peanut Noodles was part happy kitchen experiment, part tried and true recipe.

Okonomiyaki is described by some as a sort of Japanese Pizza, though it's closer to a pancake than a pizza in my opinion. I first had it when friends of mine came home from teaching English in Japan, and since then it's become one of my favorites, though making it at home requires some special ingredients that I don't often have on hand, so okonomiyaki only graces our dinner table maybe once a year. The beauty of okonomiyaki, though, is that once you have the batter (flour, potato, water, salt or dashi, shredded cabbage and egg), whatever else goes in/on it is up to you. Onion, ginger, shrimp, pork, chicken, kimchi, mochi, cheese, Sea Monkeys, stale marshmallow Peeps (OK, not really those last two), you name it. When Jo and I were in Hiroshima, we ate at a place that served theirs with soba noodles fried right in, a regional thing, apparently, called "Hiroshimayaki". So whatever you're hankering for, toss it on. Fry it up, squirt it all over with some thick, tangy okonomi sauce, some Kewpie mayo (or Kraft, if you, like I am, are always out), a few bonito flakes that will do a jiggly-wiggly-I-dare-you-to-eat-me dance for you and you're all set.

The 'official' version of okonomiyaki calls for grated "mountain potato" or yama-imo, which looks like mush, but provides a glutinous component to the batter that okonomiyaki purists (can they exist for a dish like this?) would argue is essential. I had none in my kitchen, but I did have a bunch of mashed up sweet potatoes that I'd used for another recipe, and the idea of sweet-potato-flavored okonomiyaki sounded plausible (and tasty, really) to me. I also had no okonomi sauce, and didn't feel like making a special trip to our Asian market, but I found this recipe for both the pancake and a homemade approximation of the sauce. Dinner was cooking.

While frying up our okonomiyaki, I tossed together a really simple "salad" of soba noodles, peanut sauce, some shredded chicken and veggies (cucumber, red pepper and green onion) (recipe, more or less, here). Jules picked and poked and prodded at it for the most part, asking for yoghurt about 20 minutes in, but Kasper, Kasper was amazing. He slurped and sucked up his noodles like the best of them, and even poked a finger in his pancake a few times before taking a few bites. I'd call dinner an overall success, especially because it's spurred me on to put (this, admittedly highly bastardized version of) okonomiyaki on my table more often.

I'm not going to share my own personal recipe with you for this, mostly because I wasn't paying attention myself when I tossed it together. But I do encourage you to try okonomiyaki for yourself. Let the improv begin!

07 April 2010

hippity hop

and away goes Easter...

little chickies

I don't know about you, but four days after Easter, we're still hunting for eggs at our house. Jules got so into Easter this year, he hasn't been able to let go. He started a few weeks before the big day drawing pictures of the Easter Bunny carrying baskets of eggs around, spent hours cutting out and decorating eggs we drew together on construction paper. As Easter drew nearer, I'd run out of craft ideas to feed his Easter urge. I am not a crafty person. I am jealous beyond belief at all of you crafty people out there. But I try. I really do.

Maybe it's the emotional scarring from my 7th grade art class that I've never completely recovered from. I remember Mrs. Zimmerman like it was yesterday, sucking all the fun and creativity out of every project she assigned, belittling the meek, sculpee-challenged among us. I think I cried making my color wheel. Needless to say, I was delighted when some not-yet-but-soon-to-become stoner kid nailed Mrs. Zimmerman in the nose with an eraser one day. Sweet, sweet justice, really.

With kids of my own, I'm now reliving some of my childhood anxieties around art, and hopefully working through them at the same time. Some of my little experiments have turned out great. Others, not so much. But I push on, mostly because I have amazing friends whose own projects I can't resist drooling over, coveting, and so then ultimately, I attempt them myself.

So in honor of Jules's bizarre fascination with Easter, I give you these (mangled) baskets and (sadly, hideous) fuzzy chicks.

We made them out of egg carton cups and tissue paper (the baskets) and cotton balls, yellow and black markers and construction paper (the chicks from Hades). If you'd like to see the gorgeous renditions of these (chick-less) baskets that inspired our little project, do not delay, and instead go visit my friend Sarah here. (And I won't tell you that Sarah's five year old did most of the work on these, while I was mostly responsible for mangling ours because the tissue paper kept getting stuck on my glue-y fingers). While you're at it, check out some of her other projects. You'll be just as jealous inspired as me soon.

If, for some reason you are still reading and have not fled over to Sarah's (like you should have), well then I have one more thing to share with you.

This would be the "home" Jules designed for his our new baby chicks after we'd hatched them. He dictated the signage, which reads, "FEED the tropical chickens that have really sharp beaks, as sharp as a blade. Do NOT give them water," followed by another sign that warns "Don't Put Fingers in Cage."

I guess creativity runs in a different direction in our family.

05 April 2010

chew (and chew and chew) on this chicken

So I realized after uploading this photo to my computer just how obscene it looks. I'm sure there is some tutorial on food photography that bars photos of stuffed birds from this angle, but hey I didn't know. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. All fowl lewdness aside, this was one of the most properly tasteful specimens ever to spring forth from my oven. So the picture stays.

I'll come clean, though, and tell you that I have only ever attempted to roast a bird a handful of times, mostly on Thanksgiving. I've always been too intimidated by it. The washing and patting dry, the fishing out of the giblets, the sickening paranoia of cross-contamination I always get when handling a whole animal in my sink.

And had a friend of mine not sent me the link to this set of recipes by Kristen over at Cheap, Healthy, Good, I probably would have been content to buy my chicken in pieces shorn neatly by someone other than me. But this little cooking challenge I could not resist.

It starts out with roasting a 7 (or so) pound chicken and ends with using the meat to create five different dinners, most with at least one meals' worth of leftovers. Kristen claims to have made 17 meals (well, 17 servings, 5 separate meals) for $26, total. Sure, it seemed a little gimmicky. But the recipes looked GOOD. These were no chicken noodle casserole with a can of cream of mushroom soup and some frozen broccoli thrown in kind of meals. They were varied in flavor, a little Italian, a little Southwestern, a little Asian, and a whole lot of good.

So I roasted a bird. Stuffed it with a lemon which made for an oozy juicy sauce-y meal with roasted purple potatoes and carrots that had to get used up in my fridge. Day two we made White Chicken Chili and Trader Joe's Corn Muffins. Day three it was Sesame Soba Noodles with chicken and a load of crunchy veggies. Day four had us eating Cook's Illustrated Chicken Curry in a hurry with an added bunch of spinach, served with curried potatoes and homemade Puri (my Dad's favorite Indian fried bread, recipe courtesy of Manjula's Kitchen).

I have no idea how much I spent. But I'd guess less than $50, which is not bad considering all the extras. And most of the meals were even a hit with the kids.

So I will leave you with no recipes, but there are enough links above to get you started. Go check out Cheap Healthy Good for yourself!

07 March 2010


Last month, Jules's preschool teacher had to put her 14 year old dog "Hamlet" to sleep. He's been a fixture of the school that Jules's teacher runs out of her home since Jules has been going there. He was the school doorbell, greeting our footsteps on the path up to the house with a one-dog chorus of barks, and its a mascot, a gentle creature who put up with small children tromping all over his house and never really seemed to mind. And now I sound like I'm eulogizing for a dog I barely knew, but that's where I head, I guess, when something like this happens.

Jules is not really a dog person. In fact, for whatever reason, he's actually mildly terrified of them. But he tolerated Hamlet like Hamlet tolerated him. They coexisted, peacefully. Hamlet's death prompted a slew of new conversations around death and dying, most of which I was not prepared for, mostly because I'm not myself prepared for losing anyone I care about. It's brought me to a place where I can no longer be the all-knowing parent, just a good story or a Google search away from the answer my kid seeks. Explaining death to a four year old has made me confront my own uneasiness around it, and ask myself some really hard questions. Am I really OK with not knowing for certain what happens after we die? I'm not, if only for the reason that I want to provide comfort and certainty to Jules (and later, to Kasper) when they want to know.

Jules has a peculiar (to me), but totally appropriate to his age, understanding of death. He seems to get that plants, animals, and people die, and is hugely fascinated with fighting, killing, and dying, but he doesn't see death as a permanent state. He wants to know what happens to his body, does it stop moving when he dies? When does it move again? What about his head? He's made up imaginary friends who he's said have died, but then later they did something special to make themselves alive again. For days we played "Hamlet in Heaven," a game where Jules took a little plush Texas Longhorn I brought back from a recent Dallas trip and named him "Hamlet" and used him as a sort of emmisary from heaven, taking his friends (us) from the land of the living on a tour of his new celestial digs. At the end of the day, when Hamlet has to send us home, he just waves goodbye nonchalantly. We'll be seeing him tomorrow, I'm sure.

So we've talked about (and role-played) heaven and reincarnation, and about what other people believe happens when you die, because I want him to be exposed to different ways of thinking about this (and about a host of other things) so he can make up his mind about what he does and doesn't believe, but I've yet to give him my position in a way that satisfies me. Though he seems satisfied, for now.

But until that time comes when I'm forced to confront this again, I'll leave you with my very escapist (perhaps) way of dealing with death: trying to prolong, or at least enhance this one life that I know we do have with a good, healthful, tasty recipe for soup. It's also a nice warming, earthy meal on a cold, sloppy day like the one I find myself writing in today. Serve it with buttered (yes, REAL butter, just don't go overboard) bread.

Spinach and Leek Soup with White Beans and Fresh Tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large or 2 small leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced thin and rinsed well
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces baby spinach
4 cups vegetable (or chicken) broth
1 (15 oz) can white beans, drained and rinsed
a handful of fresh (I prefer cherry or grape this time of year) tomatoes, chopped
plain yogurt or grated parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil and butter over medium heat in a large soup pot until butter begins to foam. Add leeks and a little salt and saute until soft and translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer, then add spinach and continue cooking, stirring, until spinach is wilted. Puree the soup with a handblender and then add the beans, cooking just until the beans are warmed through. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped tomatoes and a dollop of yogurt or grated parmesan, salt and pepper to taste.

if you're not hungry enough to eat an apple...

then you're not hungry.

Over dinner the other night with friends, someone brought up this handy catch-phrase from Michael Pollan's book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. I'm thinking about making it my new mantra. Or one of my new mantras. One thing at a time, I say.

Lucky for me, I now live in a world where "apple" means more than the bag of mushy Red Delicious apples we had rotting in the fridge when I was growing up. Those were anything but delicious. I still can't eat the things. But bring on the Fuji, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady. I can even enjoy a Granny Smith from time to time.

Some of my other favorites from Pollan's book:

"Don't ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap."

"The whiter your bread, the sooner you'll be dead." -- catchy, no? Eeeeesh.

"Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself."

"Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it."

03 March 2010

a cake for mijn koning

Jo asked for a Black Forest Cake, "just like the one they made in Switzerland" when he used to go there on ski vacations, when he used to be European, for his birthday this year. Well, I'm ashamed to admit I've never been to Switzerland, but that did not stop me from, well, improvising, as I am wont to do with birthday cakes.

So I give you the Macrina-recipe chocolate bundt cake that's not a bundt, with chocolate cream glaze, (Italian) Mascarpone cream and (German) Marello cherries. A little Italian, a little German, and a lot of decadent chocolate, just like the Swiss. We served this warm because the thing had to bake for close to two hours and we could not wait for it to cool down if we were going to have it before dinner, which was imperative. It was delicious, though next time I think we'll need to invite at least 20 of our closest friends to help us polish it off in one go since it's best when fresh.

Happy Birthday mijn lieve spekje.

10 February 2010

chipper up

I've been feeling blue lately. Not sure why. Could be the weather (though our glorious sunny days don't help that argument), the cold, creeping boredom and anomie that will hopefully dissipate with Spring and more time outside.

What I do know is that I'm restless and have writer's block. Nothing seems interesting, nothing seems worth sharing. So the silence. I've retreated to my own private cocoon, and tucked Jules and Kasper (and sometimes Jo) in here with me. I can't wait for a warm, fresh breeze to bring its glow inside, and force me to pop my head out and live out loud again.

But until then, I have cookies to cheer me. And I hope they might cheer you, too. I swiped this recipe, like many others, from Orangette, who swiped it from some guy at the New York Times. There is nothing like a chocolate chip cookie and a cold glass of milk to put a temporary stop to my whining, and I've been on the hunt for a good, simple recipe for a few years now. Something every parent should have in their arsenal. Orangette and the Times guys' recipes both call for "marinating" the cookie dough in the fridge for 36 hours before baking, something which I have absolutely no patience for, but which, they both swear, imparts a complexity of flavors unlike any other chocolate chip cookie you've ever tasted.

The Times guy uses a combination of cake flour and bread flour in his recipe, which he claims aids the texture of the cookie. He also uses fancy chocolate, while Orangette more sanely opts for Ghiradelli 60% dark chocolate chips. And for a finishing touch, these cookies are sprinkled with sea salt, the height of dessert fashion these days.

I followed Orangette's recipe exactly the first time around and the result was a really good, very thick but chewy cookie. But then months and months passed and, while I wanted to make the cookie again, I steered clear of it because I lacked the will power to let that dough sit for days in cookie purgatory. Yesterday, though, I NEEDED that cookie. So I cheated. I used all-purpose flour, and less of it than the recipe called for because I only had two sticks of butter and not the requisite 2.5 that the recipe called for, which forced me also to cut back on the sugar. I'd almost say it was a "healthier" version of the recipe, had I not settled on the bag of Nestle's chocolate chips shoved in the back of my cupboards instead of the antioxidant rich dark chocolate. The one thing I didn't mess around with was the sea salt. This step was NOT optional for me. There is something about adding just a little extra salt to sweet baked goods that kicks up the flavor, in a very good way, that I am now addicted to. I did let the dough marinate in the fridge for an hour while I went to pick Jules up from preschool. Then I slapped those cookies on a sheet and popped them in the oven.

The result? These cookies were just as good as my first batch (I write this with eyes rolling emphatically back in my head as I shake my head and my fists at the foodie cookie bakers who, ultimately, I have to thank for arriving at this recipe). And I was cheered for an afternoon while I shared my chewy gooeyness with my favorite boys. Now I'll share it with you.

Best fast chocolate chip cookies (seriously)
16 ounces all purpose flour (about 4 cups)
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
12 oz chocolate chips (whatever you find in your cupboard, but I prefer semi-sweet)
Sea salt

Whisk together flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

Using a handheld mixer, cream butter and sugars until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix until each egg "disappears" into the dough. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then add the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add dry ingredients, mixing just until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips. Chill dough for at least 60 minutes, and up to 72 hours.

When the dough is chilled and you're ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scoop out a heaping tablespoon of batter for each cookie, spacing cookies 2 inches apart. Flatten mounds into 3-inch rounds using the wet bottom of a measuring cup, then sprinkle with a little sea salt on each cookie.

Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and keep on baking the rest of your dough on cooled baking sheets, stash the rest back in the fridge, or freeze the dough after forming it into cookie-sized balls. Keeps in the fridge for up to 72 hours or in the freezer for about a month.

29 January 2010

I resolve...

So it's taken me almost a full month to settle on a couple of New Years resolutions, but I'm not one to rush willy nilly into these things. So here you have it. I resolve...

1) to spend LESS time with my kids. I have already made good on this by taking a 4 day kid-less trip to Texas to visit friends, and by joining a choir that feeds my creativity and keeps me out of the house one night a week. Btw, the choir is very relaxed and welcoming and, in case anyone is interested, in need of
male voices. Oh, and I joined a gym, which, while I refuse to make any health or weight-related resolutions, I am glad to have in my life as yet another place for some solo work and reflection (physical and mental).

2) to make the time that I DO spend with my kids count by dropping everything, pouring my heart into playing, reading books, indulging their fantasy worlds, making them laugh, and really really listening and engaging them.

3) to spend some time outside each day, no matter what the weather.

4) to start each day asking myself the question, "what one thing would make today a
good day?" and then doing my damndest to make that one thing happen.

Wish me luck.

the ants are marching

Jules has a new pet. Several hundred new pets, to be exact. Jules loves his ants. Well, maybe not the ants, but he loves to watch me squish them between my fingers when I find them, and he loves it when I use the word HATE when I talk about them.

If you haven't surmised it yet, let me spell it out for you: we have an ant problem. It started about three years ago with a tiny trickle and, over the last few years, has grown positively unwieldy. They started out simply coming through the front door, and the very old and very drafty windows. I kept them at bay by sprinkling baking soda along these openings, but ants do climb, and the crafty little bastards were soon coming in through the
tops of our doors and windows. Not wanting to spray some nasty birth-defect-or-worse causing insecticide, I opted for the next best thing: ant bait, which coaxed our new pets into neat little trails in and out of the house, and then on to certain death.

They've returned sooner than they usually do this year, and have already gotten craftier, coming into the house through the vent in our bathroom, a place un-bait-able. And three times now I have had to fish them out of my
pants. MY PANTS! I've had enough. Really. Enough.

So I called a couple of pest control companies and one of them came out to my house this morning. The nineteen year old guy that inspected our house assured me that the insecticide they used (Cloraphenapyr) was perfectly safe for humans (even of the small variety). He even told me that he considers it so safe he's stopped wearing much in the way of protective clothing when he applies it. They've sprayed the Ronald McDonald house with it, for crying out loud, so it must be safe. He encouraged me to do the research on it myself, and if I was happy enough with what I found, to call and schedule an appointment. So I Google'd and, of course, found reports that found it mostly safe, except that it
may be carcinogenic. Stop.

So I contacted another "ecologically sound" company and asked about what they used. Their brand of insecticide (Bifenthrin) got similar reports. And because they're supposedly eco-friendly, their services cost approximately three times as much.

So what's a mother to do?

Some days I wish I could move to a simpler age, where I was not required to play the role of EPA agent, personal chef, nurse, vocational counselor, the list goes on and on and on... to my children under five. An age that looked more like this:

Yes, that's right. I wish I could just slap up some DDT-treated wallpaper in the kids' room (because ants carry
disease and not merely because they're annoying), convinced by the ad that it's perfectly safe and oh-so-handy, and kiss my ant problem goodbye. Sure, my children might be diagnosed with malignant cancerous growths 57 or so years on, but by that time I'd be dead, or at least too far gone in my dementia (no doubt brought on by the aluminum in my deodorant, but that's another vocation) to even realize it. Ahhhhh, simpler times.

05 January 2010

the meal we missed

I just finished looking at all the photos from Johan's family's New Years Eve celebration, sent to us via email, and I can't decide whether to be jealous, sad, exceedingly grateful, or all of the above about them.

Don't get me wrong. We had our own kind of fun in a snowy cabin in the woods that friends of ours invited us to, eating Tostadas de Tinga and catching up after the kids went to bed. But the pictures, well, you'll see. They made me miss New Years, Belgian-style.

A big New Years Eve gathering has been the tradition since well before I joined the family, and this year was no exception. Every year the menu varies, from stewed rabbit to a "koue pla" (spelling in dialect is always tricky) of cold meats, cheeses, spreads and slimy (OK, just to me) smoked fishes. This year the family settled on "tapas," small plates, spread out over the entire evening, that ended, as usual, with a truly beautiful smorgasbord of desserts. I can think of nothing better than an evening full of fancy small plates and family (especially this one), and am yes, OK, very sad about not being able to be a part of their celebration this year. I miss Belgium, the food, but most of all, I miss the people who have become such a big part of my life there, and hope we'll be getting back to visit soon, very very soon. To all of you in Belgium, please save some 'toostjes' for me. And to the rest of you, enjoy some of my favorite photos from that night.

Gelukkig nieuwjaar.
*mwah**mwah**mwah* (3 kisses, don't forget)

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