Currently Reading – Late April Edition

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The Man: Still reading the Wingfeather Saga. He’s on Book 3 and loving it. This being an ICU week, it’s more “reading” than reading. He’s only actually read his patients’ charts and sympathetic “I’m sorry you had to stay all night with a sick patient and catch two hours sleep on the office floor”-type texts from his wife

Me: Just finished the last of the Morningside Heights trilogy, Anything for Jane, and moved on to another book in my TBR stack. The kids absconded with it this morning, so until I dig it out from under a couch or in a cupboard your guess at the title is as good as mine…

The Kids: As always, we read big stacks from the library and our own stash every week. I only record the standouts worth revisiting here. Our current chapter book is Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty McDonald. I’m reading half a chapter or a chapter out loud after the twins’ bedtime picture book and hymn each night.

This week’s big favorites from the library (repeating the picture here because I’m too tired for hyperlinks tonight and I trust your google skills) are Lola M. Schaefer’s One Special Day and One Busy Day, Jonathan Bean’s Big Snow, and Elisha Cooper’s Train. 

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Schaefer’s books were such a fun discovery this week.I love her whimsical and engaging art. Her stories are simple but creative. One Special Day tells the story of a little boy named Spencer who is strong, wild, funny, and muddy,yet oh-so-gently welcomes his brand new baby sister with love. Sweet but not saccharine, funny, and the art is delightful. Each page is full of tiny little details that kids love to spot. I think this is an ideal book to give a new big brother or sister. Unlike many “a new baby is coming” books it doesn’t give a list of negatives about baby siblings. It’s completely positive.

One Busy Day follows Spencer and his little sister a few years down the line as they play together through a long and imaginative day. Again, great art, and the grownups and the kids in our house both enjoy it. Both books are ideal for the 2-5 age group.

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We’ve already read and re-read Jonathan Bean’s wonderful At Night many times. His book Building Our House made waves in children’s publishing circles in recent years (though I’ve yet to read it). He was homeschooled and his new book This is My Home, This is My School is the first traditionally-published picture book about homeschooling. I’d never heard of his Big Snow until I saw it at the library last week but I’ve fallen head-over-heels for it. The kids adore it too. It follows a little boy through a winter day as he alternates between”helping” his Mom in their home (with disastrous results) and checking outside for snow. This book perfectly captures the impatient anticipation little kids feel for snow, the pleasant warmth of a cozy winter home, the quiet wonder of a blizzard, and the contentment of a happy family. It’s set around Christmas but never specifically mentions the holiday so it’s a pretty good all-around winter (or anytime) book. Each outdoor page has fun little details to spot around the town. I liked that the Mom is dark-skinned with curly hair. It is so hard to find good Christmas books with black main characters for our kids!

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Last but not least on this week’s library favorites list is Elisha Cooper’s Train. We’ve borrowed it in the past and it’s always a pleasure to revisit. This book takes you across the United States by a series of trains. The book opens with a commuter train leaving an East Coast city, hands off to a passenger train en route to Chicago, continues on through the great plains by freight train, hands off to an overnight train through the mountains, and completes the last leg to the west coast by high speed train. Cooper’s beautiful watercolors and evocative text are pleasing for kids and adults alike. This book strikes just the right balance between keeping the story moving and introducing informative details about trains and railroads to young readers. Bonus, this book depicts a wide variety of races and families. We also borrowed another of his books, Beach. That story dragged a bit and the art felt less varied (though beautiful) but it, too, did a great job depicting racial diversity.

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What are you reading these days?

 

In the Kitchen: Pantry-Clearing Meals

Movers won’t generally ship opened packages of food, easily perishable items, or liquids so we’re in a pre-move push to eat up the pantry and freezer contents. My meal-planning this week centered around “stash busting” dishes.

Roast Pork with Dried Apricots from the (so far) infallible Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Slow Cooking. So good. So, so, so good. We sat down to this meal after a chilly afternoon’s hike with the kids and quite literally moaned from happiness over our meal. It’s fabulously flavorful and moist. I used the stovetop method, plus dried thyme and spicy brown mustard because that’s what I had on hand. Bonus, it used up the big pork roast I’d purchased on sale months ago and tossed in the freezer. The kids also liked it – served with…I forget? Definitely one to keep in mind for dinners with guests – it’s very low maintenance and hard to mess up.

Steak with Chimichurri Butter. I received a free subscription to Martha Stewart Living after taking a survey this winter. The most recent volume included this mouth-watering recipe for Chimichurri Butter. I just used some steak from the freezer, pan fried it, and served with the Chimichurri and a big salad. Delicious – I deeply regret waiting this long in my life to discover Chimichurri sauce!

Chicken Thighs with Leeks, Potatoes, and Spinach. This was a good dish! It’s simple but tasty. I used ground coriander and bigger potatoes cut up. I enjoyed using the multi-stage approach to cooking an entire meal under the broiler. The lemons are really key – they provide a large part of the sauce’s freshness. Served with rice to soak up the sauce.

Louisiana Red Beans and Rice. This was also a nice recipe worth making again. It’s another one that used up lots of ingredients from the fridge and pantry. Some recipes for Louisiana red beans call for ham hocks. We didn’t have any on hand, but this version was still delicious. I more or less followed the recipe except for not measuring, using red pepper instead of green, and throwing in some oregano since parralel recipes called for it. Delicious served with rice. Nice flavors, but still mild enough for the three-year-old contingent with just a touch of background heat. If we didn’t have young kids I would increase the spice.

Also cooked recently: waffles for a big waffle breakfast with friends, smoothies to use up our frozen fruit, a so-so double chocolate skillet cookie from Martha Stewart Living for Bible Study, and chicken nuggets (also pretty unexciting thanks to really tough meat).

Recent Reads

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When I was a kid my family rarely watched TV. However, my parents often had the radio on in the background. Car Talk or Old Time Radio accompanied Saturday morning chores. NPR, Rush Limbaugh (*shudder*), and Chicago’s classical station rode with us in the car. We must have been hushed hundreds of times for talking too loudly during “traffic and weather on the eights” as we navigated rush hour jams. Remember when you depended on the news helicopters and broadcasters instead of a smart phone traffic map? The Man and I don’t listen to the radio much these days – just a little classical and the excellent sacred music program on Sunday mornings – but 2015 was the year I discovered podcasts. They’re good company for chores and add a little adult mental jolt to days with the littles. Two favorites are Modern Mrs. Darcy’s “What Should I Read Next” podcast for grown-up reading suggestions and book discussions, and Sarah McKenzie’s Read Aloud Revival podcast for kids’ and youth reading ideas. I’ve found so many good books through both of them.

Right now The Man is enjoying The Wingfeather Saga books by Andrew Petersen. They’ve been mentioned on both the podcasts for fans of series like Narnia and Harry Potter. Supposedly the first book is a bit less good than the rest of the series, but worth pushing through. I’m next in line for the books when my husband finishes.

I just finished two Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendations: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl and Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson. Reichl’s book is a funny, poignant, and always mouth-watering account of her years as the food critic for The New York Times. Restaurants in NYC maintained such a keen watch for critics (then lavished them with special treatment) that she created a series of disguises to slip in under their notice. I enjoyed the book, and look forward to dipping into her other works.

Cheryl Mendelson’s Morningside Heights was a treat. I’m so glad it’s the first in a trilogy – more to enjoy! Mendelson is a Harvard Law graduate who later transitioned to academia. Out of that intellectual background came her surprise bestseller Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. It’s a smart but eminently readable and practical home manual. I love the introduction, when she confidently upholds the idea that you can be a well-educated intelligent hardworking woman who still finds joy and satisfaction in a well-run and pleasant home. It’s my Mom’s standard wedding shower gift, with good reason. Who knew you could write a page-turner about laundry? When Mendelson turned her clear and warm voice to fiction, the result was an Austen-like novel set in modern New York. It’s funny, creative, thoughtful, philosophical, touching, and engaging. The views are often different from my own, but it’s delightful. A lovely discovery!

Our local librarians generally pick great books to display on top of the children’s bookcases. I dashed in for five minutes over the weekend to fill my arms with books they’d set out (didn’t even attempt digging through the shelves!) before hustling home for a house showing. The twins adored “So Much” by Trish Cooke, illustrated by the always lovely Helen Oxenbury. A baby and his mother greet a parade of visiting relatives. Each showers him with love in their own way – reading books, kisses, dancing, wrestling, hugs. In the end you discover that everyone has gathered to surprise Daddy for his birthday. I don’t know that I’d pay for this one, but I like the snappy African-American vernacular text, sweet depiction of an extended family, and the way it’s prompted Jack to walk around gushing “I love you SOOOOOOO much”😉. Good for the three-and-under crowd.

One I will consider buying is the gorgeous Nature’s Day by Kay Maguire. This meaty but deliciously tempting book is ideal for introducing younger kids to nature observation and seasons. Beautiful illustrations and tid-bitty text are arranged thoughtfully. The book covers eight settings (“the fields” “the pond” “the garden” through each of the the four seasons. So, for example, you first see what’s happening with birds, the woods, the garden, fields, the pond, town, etc. in Spring. In the summer, fall, and winter sections you revisit each location. What’s happening in the orchard in fall? What might you spot in the winter
woods? It’s a British book, but generally translates well to the American landscape. Though it’s written for kids, I learned something on every page. It makes an excellent resource for browsing at home, or scanning before heading outdoors to spark observation. A gem.

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In the Kitchen

We’ve had more seat-of-the-pants meals and fast food dinners than we’d prefer lately. As things settle (we accepted an offer on our house this week!) it’s been satisfying resuming normal scratch cooking routines and predictable family dinners.

We had a lot of hard boiled eggs in the fridge after Easter egg dyeing. A friend recommended this recipe for olive oil-braised chick peas. Delicious! I used dried chickpeas and dried thyme because that’s what we had on hand. Al dente savory chick peas, tangy capers, warm smooth olive oil, sharp creamy feta, smoky hot paprika – it’s such an amazing flavor medley for a simple dish. We had it on crusty bread paired with hard-boiled eggs the first night, then with salads the next night.

Baked Italian dishes with ricotta are among my favorite comfort foods. I loved this recipe for baked manicotti. The assembly is less fussy than lasagna or stuffed shells, but the flavors are just as lovely. Four out of four kids loved it, as did their parents. I started a quick marinara with sautéed onion and garlic, 28oz whole tomatoes, 28oz diced tomatoes, dried basil, salt, and pepper, then simmered it while prepping the rest. I increased the ricotta to 2 cups (perfect), used half fresh and half frozen spinach (I didn’t ice after cooking – it was fine), stuffed the manicotti with my fingers, and sprinkled some extra mozzarella on top for a nice browned crust. 30 minutes at 375. Addictive comfort food.

I’d made this carrot cake before, tweaked it again this time, and will alter it further next time. I like the base recipe because it has a wide variety of spices that create lovely complex flavors. I double the batter so it filled two round cake pans (adjust cook time to 25 minutes) but there’s no need to double the frosting. I reduced the frosting sugar by about 60% – it’s still plenty sweet. I substituted unsweetened applesauce for pineapple in the batter. I may try the pineapple one of these days. The Man doesn’t always like nuts in desserts so I substituted raisins. That ended up being too many raisins for the cake – next time I’ll try half raisins and half finely ground nuts. I only had vegetable oil, but it would probably be awesome with the recommended walnut oil.

As I’ve whined “discussed” before, the slow cooker and I have a fraught relationship. I want it to work. It smells so nice cooking all day, you don’t have to heat the oven, you can leave the house, it’s low maintenance… Then every time I use it the meal is flavorless or rubbery or just plain strange. I’d previously tried a recipe for crock pot shredded taco chicken that someone had raved about (“just throw some chicken in with a jar of salsa for four hours on high! It’s fabulous!”). No. No it was not. It was flavorless, dry, rubbery, and a complete waste of my meat budget. I really do want to find at least a couple good crock pot meals for our family for days when we’re out all day and hosting a crowd, so I tried this recipe instead. It was good! I think good slow cooker meals demand extra seasoning because the technique dilutes any seasoning’s flavor impact. The meat also just doesn’t do well cooked on high, no matter what recipes says. While this recipe does use some pre-made ingredients, they’re of the fresh flavor variety vs. the can o’ soup and a ranch seasoning packet variety. I followed the recipe except for chopping four cloves of garlic instead of using the jarred stuff. It’s pleasantly spicy, but not too hot for our little people. We had it with corn tortillas, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese, and salsa verde. It would also be good with rice and bean bowls. The recipe is worth doubling and freezing. As written it only filled our crock pot a third full. I may play around with the seasonings in future for more depth of flavor. Oregano? Cumin?

Easter Week

Apologies for any typos, formatting issues, or photo repeats. My computer is out for repairs, so I’m posting via the awkward app

We had a rocky Holy Week this year. Jenny kicked off Palm Sunday with a round of vomiting and remained ill all day. The Man started a week of ICU call on Monday. The stomach bug crescendoed on Tuesday when five out of six family members woke up and puked within an hour of each other. I stayed healthy long enough to nurse everyone else through the worst of it, then went down myself on Wednesday.

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The last stomach flu symptoms finally petered out on Easter Sunday. Perhaps because of the stark contrast to the previous seven days Easter week felt really lovely. This was our first year intentionally celebrating the octave of Easter (the eight day celebration of the church calendar) instead of just Easter Sunday. It was delightful and refreshing and I never want to go back to the single-day celebration. I love holidays and special traditions. However, holidays aren’t always fun as the mom of many very young children. In general, we’ve found that this current stage of life allows for one “extra” thing on any given day without stretching time or energy too thin. Our ordinary days demand a tremendous amount of work. Add in even the basics of dyeing eggs, a special family breakfast, dressing everyone for church, egg hunt, Easter treats, and a special dinner and you have a recipe for an exhausted Mom who never got to relax and celebrate between special activities and the usual rounds of diapers, feedings, changes, naps, and nurturing. While an extended holiday sounds like more work, in reality it takes so much pressure off without the “the holiday’s over and I never got a chance to enjoy it” letdown. There was plenty of time to savor the meaning of Easter, carry on our usual traditions, and fit in some extra fun. It also allowed us to enjoy secular Easter activities like an egg hunt without feeling like we were crowding out precious Easter time focused on Christ’s work.

On Holy Saturday the twins and I dyed eggs together (their first time) while the babies finished naps. To keep curious hands from messing with the dye as the eggs soaked we read Brian Wildsmith’s Easter book and Rechenka’s Eggs by Patricia Polaco. The book took on new meaning for them as they created beautiful eggs themselves for the first time.

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That evening I read the twins the Passion story from The Big Picture Story Bible at bedtime, with a promise that the story had a happy ending and that we’d read about it in the morning.

The Man spent Easter working in the ICU. With lingering stomach virus issues in some kids we stayed home from church. The kids woke to chocolate rabbits and a waffle breakfast. We cuddled on the couch for home church, resurrection hymns, and the Easter story, then headed out later in the morning for a spring walk/tricycle ride.

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The low-key holiday still felt special to the kids with a few treats scattered through the day.

The next day the Man finally wrapped up his ICU call week. As is our tradition, the kids ran in overjoyed to wake him up for his first morning home.We had a morning showing but made lemons out of lemonade by turning our eviction into our first farm outing and post-Lent ice cream of the new year. As you can see, eating your strawberry ice cream is serious business:

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We scattered bits of Easter celebrations throughout the rest of the week, sometimes turning ordinary activities into Easter festivities just by changing what we called them. After eight intense weeks of home buying, home prep, contractors, late nights, showings, illness, and ICU it felt like such a blessed week of family time: fun dinners, a carrot cake, coloring Easter Egg coloring pages, Easter books, hymns, spring walks, and the kids’ first Easter egg hunt filled out the octave. Knowing we’d just slogged through a rough patch as a family, my Mom thoughtfully mailed off Easter goodies in a box so we wouldn’t have to prep: treats, eggs for a hunt, and a book.

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Somewhere midweek we had a house showing crop up right as I was fixing dinner so we abandoned ship, got McDonalds drive through, and met Daddy for a picnic at the park. Neither of us is that excited about McDonalds, but it was fun to watch the twins’ shock and glee at this unprecedented break from routine. Spotting Daddy as we pulled into the park? Dinner at a picnic table? Happy meals? A new toy with dinner? Playing on the slides after dinner instead of getting ready for bed? It blew their minds:

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This is the first place I’ve lived where Easter actually resembles the pictures in my childhood calendars and catalogues. They always promised sunny holidays with boys in seersucker shorts collecting eggs on daffodil dotted lawns. Easter in Chicago generally dawned cold and rainy, sometimes snowy. I think we only managed one or two outdoor egg hunts in my entire childhood. The South whispers promises of a new heaven and a new earth in spring. We soaked in all the outdoor time we could, grateful for grace in the stressful times and refreshment in the lull.

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I hope you and yours had a blessed holiday celebrating Christ’s work. If you missed it, the church Easter season technically extends for another month and a half after the Easter octave. You still have time to party, and the Easter treats are on sale now😉.

Tom Sawyering

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I gave the kids old paintbrushes and rollers, filled buckets with water, and let them “paint” the driveway. It kept them mesmerized for an hour. Bonus points go to toddler art fun that doesn’t immediately devolve into marketed walls, eaten crayons, or stabbing with pencils.

The littlest baby napped while we were outside, but here are a couple unrelated snaps because, hey! Babies are cute!

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