Town

Will you come on a walk through town with us? Let me introduce your friendly tour guides:

“Mom. I don’t speak English yet. Also, the fat pink thing keeps grabbing my hair beads. Make it go away.”

Oh. Never mind. Beg your pardon. Let’s check with the backup tour guides. Guys?

“These are the Methodist church steps. We like the church steps. We will go up and down the church steps for the next hour. Your readers will be very interested in the church steps Mom. See?”

“No, kids. They probably won’t.”

“Well the Grandmas will. And the Aunts. See, we’re cute! Who wants to walk through town when they can see us climb up and down these stairs fifty times!”

“I do. But you’re right, at least the church is pretty.” (Top and bottom cut off because Annie proceeded to step in a fire ant nest and I ditched the camera to wipe hundreds of swarming ants off her legs with my bare hands.)

Today’s weather was perfect for a meandering walk through town this morning. We detoured off the main street for a wander through the farmer’s market. The sweet lady who bakes cakes and has watched the twins grow up from babyhood gave us free scones. We spotted motorcycles, puppies, cars, fountains, and a pig statue in a store window. We threw tantrums (well, some of us) and climbed walls. A good day in any toddler’s book.


Out Solo

I often take all four kids out by myself for walks around the neighborhood, tricycle rides, playing in the yard, or car-based errands like the bank drive-through. Going to actual destinations by car is a different story. I managed baby twins out and about easily, and even outings with three kids aged one and under were doable. Going anywhere with all four kids aged three and under is much more difficult. Without a second adult to help with the prep/potty/diapers, into car, out of car, activity, into car, out of car, resettle at home routine it can take so much time that everyone is starving, cranky, and in need of a diaper change with missing socks before I’m half done.

However, things are shifting. Josie is 10 months old and has reached the point where she doesn’t spontaneously combust from a late nap or feeding. Jenny can walk with reasonable stability and copes with the occasional missed morning nap. The twins are dramatically more capable and mature at 3.5 than they were at three. In the last month I’ve taken all four out alone for hikes, errands, park time, the town festival, and the nature center among other things. I’m enjoying the ability to slightly relax the tight daily routine that keeps our family ship under sail. Yesterday I took them out for a quick one mile hike before dinner. We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and lovely walking. Lest taking two three year olds, a one year old, and a baby hiking alone sound too Mary Poppinsish I’ll add that one child had to stop at the public restroom where the twins touched everything (then licked their hands). Also, I had to bribe them past the playground at the end of the hike with cookies to get home in time for dinner, which they then refused because they’d just filled up on cookies. Also, Jenny woke up with vomit caked into her cornrows this morning. You win some, you lose some.

Currently Reading – Late April Edition

IMG_1057.JPG

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. 

IMG_1057.JPG

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.

IMG_1058.JPG

IMG_1059.JPG

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!

IMG_1060.JPG

IMG_1061.JPG

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.

IMG_1063.JPGIMG_1062.JPG

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

IMG_0884.JPG

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.

IMG_0886.JPG

IMG_0887.JPG

IMG_0885.JPG

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?