June 2013

Pull Up a Chair

June 28, 2013

Jack and B

Today is the first anniversary of my father-in-law’s death. It’s such a painful memory, but what looms larger are the great memories of Jack when he was with us, our strong sense of his well-being now, and his felt presence in our lives ever since he passed.

My mother-in-law is visiting this week, to be surrounded by loved ones on this anniversary — and to celebrate something happy: our girls’ fifth birthday! It was officially on Wednesday, but we’re throwing a little party tomorrow. It will be simple, but we had to make it a little extra special. I look forward to sharing some details next week. Preparing for it has helped to mitigate the sadness of today. Joy and sorrow…they dance so closely in this life, don’t they?

For our Friday happy-hour chat, I’m offering a local Baltimore brew called Resurrection. My father-in-law loved a good beer — especially with his son — so even though I’m not a beer lover, I’m having one today in Jack’s honor. And if it’s not enough to tempt you, make yourself one of those gorgeous summer sodas Mags posted yesterday — they look so refreshing!

Here’s my high and low this week:

Low: In addition to the sadness today brings, I’ve had a few lows…beginning with some disappointing news about our tax refund. Then I discovered that our air conditioner was no longer working — just in time for my mother-in-law’s visit. What we assumed was a refrigerant issue turned out to be a complete system meltdown, and our entire HVAC system needs to be replaced. For the past two days I’ve had companies coming in to give estimates, which means having to stick close to home — and it’s hot, hot, hot here this week, so I’ve been moving like a slug and feeling grumpy. I can’t even turn on the stove to cook because it’s already like a sauna in here. (Doesn’t look like the homemade cupcakes I was planning to make for my girls’ birthday party are going to happen.) My mother-in-law is literally mopping her brow with a cloth as I write, poor thing. Oh, and I smashed my knee, landed a few itchy mosquito sites, and still haven’t found a proper bathing suit, so I’m wearing a black sports bra in the pool when we go (with some non-matching bottoms, of course). Glamorous.

High: You’ve got to keep it all in perspective, right? My mother-in-law is an easy guest and doesn’t make us feel like losers for hosting her in a sauna for the week, so yay for that. My girls are excited about their first birthday party, which is so sweet. A generous neighbor invited us to her pool earlier this week, and (despite what I was wearing) it helped cool us off for a few hours. B is taking today off, and I don’t know what we’ll do, but I’m hoping some of it will involve being somewhere cool. And I’m now the mother to two adorable and hilarious five-year-olds! How great is that?

Bonus question: Chocolate or vanilla? Salty or sweet? Spicy or mild? Chocolate, every time — even though I’ve fallen in love with the vanilla bean and its magic over the years. I consistently reach for salty-crunchy stuff over sweet things — and no question, bring on the spice!

Okay, grab a Resurrection and tell me about your week, then have yourself a slow and cool summer weekend. See you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Homemade Summer Sodas

June 27, 2013

by Margaret Cabaniss

Homemade Sodas

I have a very un-foodie-like fondness for soda. I’m not sure how it happened, because my parents didn’t keep it in the house when I was a kid — the one exception being on summer vacation, when the stuff flowed pretty freely. To this day, root beer still tastes like summer in a can to me…

I know, it’s all sugar and poison that will rot my teeth and kill me dead. But it’ll be such a sweet, sweet death.

Most commercial sodas are cloyingly sweet, though, with pretty much no discernible natural flavors whatsoever — but summertime demands soda drinking, so in an attempt to regain some of my slow-food cred, I’ve taken to making my own.

Homemade Sodas

Fortunately, homemade soda is dead easy to make: It’s nothing more than a mix of a simple syrup — made with whatever fruits, herbs, and secret ingredients you like — and sparkling water. You get to control the sweetness (an obvious perk) and play alchemist a bit, experimenting to make flavors you’d never find on the store shelf.

Homemade Sodas

I’ve been having even more fun with them ever since I got my very own Sodastream. A home carbonator sounds like just the kind of unitasking kitchen gadget I’d normally rail against, but I’m totally in love with mine; I feel so darn fancy drinking my own sparkling water, at a fraction of the cost of buying it in the store, and with none of the glass or plastic waste. (Best Christmas gift ever.)

Homemade Sodas Using a Sodastream

You don’t need a Sodastream to make these recipes, of course — store-bought sparkling water will work just fine — but it sure is handy. Here are a few flavors I’ve been experimenting with lately:

Homemade Sodas: Ginger Ale

Ginger ale. The classic. I love the real gingery bite you get from homemade ginger ale that simply doesn’t exist in the store-bought variety. This would be a great mixer in cocktails, too (including my personal go-to, a whiskey ginger). Shaina’s homemade ginger ale recipe over at Food for My Family is delicious — though if you can stand to be patient and don’t want to bother with added bubbles, I’ve had great luck with fermented ginger ale, too.

Homemade Sodas: Basil Lemon

Lemon basil. Sound familiar? Ann’s recipe for basil lemonade is still one of my favorites, and I like it even better in soda form. (It’s a great recipe if your garden is exploding with basil right now, too.) Simply combine 4 tablespoons of the basil lemon syrup and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice in a tall glass with ice, then top with sparkling water (about a cup or so). Adorable umbrella-shaped basil garnishes are entirely optional.

Homemade Sodas: Blackberry Lemon Verbena

Blackberry lemon verbena. This was one I came up with on a whim, after seeing berries pop up in my sister’s garden and grabbing a handful of her lemon verbena to throw in at the last minute. I loved the light, lemony-floral taste the verbena gave the drink; next time I might try some mint, or thyme, or sage…

Whatever berries or herbs you use, the process for your simple syrup will be pretty much the same: Mix a cup of water, a cup of sugar, and a cup and a half of blackberries in a saucepan. Bring the mixture just to a boil and simmer for five minutes, breaking up the berries occasionally with a masher or a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup packed lemon verbena leaves, then let the mixture steep and cool for about 30 minutes. Strain the syrup, pressing on the solids to get out all the liquid, and store in the fridge. (It should make around 2 cups of syrup — enough for 8 drinks — and will keep 5 days in the fridge.)

To make the soda, add 4 tablespoons cold syrup to a glass with ice and top with sparkling water.

Homemade Sodas

I’ve just scratched the surface here; with all the lovely summer produce coming in right now, there’s really no end to the flavors you could make. Next I might have to try turning that rosemary rhubarb cocktail I made last summer into a soda, or replicating my favorite Sonic cherry limeade with some fresh sour cherry syrup…

Have you made homemade sodas before? What are some of your favorite flavors?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Laura James Art

Before Christmas, I was lamenting how hard it is to find sacred art — or secular art, for that matter — that is both inclusive and tasteful. As parents to two Ethiopian girls, it’s especially important to my husband and me to surround our family with art that expresses diversity and inclusivity.

A SlowMama reader pointed me to artist Laura James’s work — and I’m so grateful she did. Laura is a Brooklyn-based artist using her talents, vision, and experience to create sacred and secular modern art that is both beautiful and inclusive. I’m so thrilled to be able to share some of Laura’s story and work here at SlowMama. Enjoy!

Laura James

Zoe Saint-Paul: It’s so interesting to me that you’ve chosen the Ethiopian Christian art style to express much of your religious work — and you are Antiguan, not Ethiopian. How did you decide on this style, and how did you learn it? 

Laura James: I have a Caribbean heritage and consider myself to be Caribbean; my parents raised us with the culture and customs, the food…growing up in Bed-Stuy, it was all there. But I’m definitely American — born and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve never been to Ethiopia, but I’m a child of the African diaspora and America, so it is all mine to play with.

When I was around 18 years old, I was walking in my neighborhood and came upon a book — Ethiopian Magic Scrolls in a botanica window. I was attracted to the faces — the eyes especially — and the red, gold, and green colors. The details and the simplicity of the art really stood out. I decided to make a painting of nine guardian angels using pieces of images I saw there, and this is the first painting I did in that style.  

Laura James

Guardian Angels by Laura James

I went in search of more Ethiopian Art, and there wasn’t much, but I came across an old catalog from an exhibit in Germany and a photography book called African Ark, where I got to see a wide range of the style.

When it comes to sacred art, I’m amazed — and frustrated — that inclusive images of saints and biblical figures are still so hard to find — especially given the multicultural landscape of our society. Why is this, do you think?  

Well, unfortunately, I think it’s the belief in white supremacy that some people of all races have — the idea that it’s just better to be white. It’s still prevalent, and kind of funny to say “still,” considering the history of caste and class systems, slavery, apartheid, etc., but the acceptance of these systems went on for so long that it’s naive for us to think that in 100 years (or less) those attitudes would completely disappear. It’s up to those of us who realize that white supremacy is not true to show other images and rally on the side of equality for all people.

In your secular art, are there themes you stick to, or you feel drawn to exploring? 

I enjoy making paintings that, on the surface, might not appear to have a deep meaning, like Mother and Daughter, where I just work with the design, color, and lines. But I also like to make paintings about race and class issues, slavery, nannies, and domestic workers — which is really part of my story growing up, since my mother was both of those latter things. We paint what we know about, right? Painting is a good way for an artist to resolve internal conflicts, to “get it out.”

Laura James Art

Mother and Daughter by Laura James

What do you hope your art will bring to those who encounter it?  

This is a hard question, because I work with different themes, but ultimately, I want people to see something beautiful, even if it’s a hard subject. Beyond that, I love when a viewer personally identifies with something they see in my work; human beings share so many of the same experiences, no matter the long list of “differences” we’re supposed to have.

Laura James Art

Grandmother by Laura James

Do you have any personal favorites among your pieces, or paintings that hold special meaning for you? 

I have many pieces that are dear, but Grandmother definitely stands out. I saw a statuette in Puerto Rico of a very black woman with seven little girls clinging to her skirt, all identical, and they looked just like her. It occurred to me that you can find every race of people in the Caribbean, so I painted the grandmother with little girls representing different races. To me it shows that we’re all connected, and that it’s a natural thing — after all, mankind started in Africa, so we can assume that the first grandmother was African.

Laura James Art

Also, I just completed 18 paintings for my first children’s book, Anna Carries Water, written by Olive Senior and published by Tradewinds Books. It was a lot of work, but I’m so pleased with the way the pictures turned out. It will be released in September, so I haven’t seen the completed project yet, but I’m really looking forward to it! Olive Senior is a Jamaican-Canadian author, and the story is set in Jamaica.

Tell me a little bit about the Stations for Sassier Project in Haiti. 

A Haitian donor wanted to sponsor an art project in Haiti, so I was asked to come up with an idea. I thought a rendition of the 14 Stations of the Cross would have the most impact, as all Catholic churches are supposed to have the Stations, and they would be something all parishioners would have access to and be able to use. In Haiti (like many places in the world), black images of biblical figures are not popular, but the parishioners want to see something different, to be able to identify more closely with these religious figures, and I was happy to help.

Ultimately, the donor fell through, but since we already engaged the parishioners in Sassier and knew they were excited about it, my partner (Patricia Brintle of From Here to Haiti) suggested we do an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds necessary to complete the project. I resisted the idea for a while — I didn’t think fundraising would be fun — but we did it, and we raised over $13,000. I’m currently working on the 14 paintings, which we hope to have in Haiti this fall. The plan is to have the Stations paraded through the town. We still need money to have the work transported and installed in Haiti, so we’re still accepting donations!

How has your work as an artist changed over the years?

As far as the sacred work, I’ve started to paint images of stories from other religious traditions, like Buddhism and Islam. As the years roll on, more people see my work; it’s great when you don’t have to try quite as hard to be noticed!

Laura James Art

The Ascension of the Prophet Muhammed Into Heaven by Laura James 

What’s the bravest thing you’ve done as an artist?

The bravest thing is probably just being crazy enough to continue doing my art full-time all these years. It’s not an easy thing to do; the images you make are constantly judged by viewers and prospective collectors, and you can think, “Will people like this? Oh, I hope they like this!” — but at some point, usually midway through making the painting, you think, “I like it, so that will have to do!”

It’s brave to have the confidence to do your own thing, and go against the grain, and this is not something I say smugly. Many people have that confidence, and it’s the only thing that will keep the world alive!

*****

Thank you, Laura, for being brave enough to be who you are and to share it with the rest of us in your gorgeous art. Can’t wait for your children’s book to come out!

Friends, if you’re interested in viewing or buying any of Laura’s work, please visit her website and send her an email — she’ll forward a list of her available work. Her limited-edition prints are for sale at art.com.

Images supplied by Laura James; photo of Laura by Gordon Neville

Note from Zoe: In case you didn’t catch the first interview in my “What Big Girls Do” series, here’s the history behind it: Whenever I’m about to do something that scares the pants off me, I whisper a prayer and say to myself, “Zoe, this is what big girls do.” And then I step off the ledge. I don’t know why, but it always helps. That’s the spirit I hope to capture with this series. There are women out there doing creative, courageous, inspiring things, and  I hope their stories will ignite your own dreams and help you find greater meaning right where you are. 

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Potty Training Woes

June 25, 2013

by Ann Waterman

Potty

See that potty up there? Notice it’s vacant? It’s been that way for a couple of weeks now, since my son decided he no longer wanted to sit on it — not even for a no-pressure, non-committal, fully-clothed hang-out session with me just to read a book or two.

He had been happy to sit on it — bare-bottomed and even occasionally using it — until the weather changed one day, and he insisted on wearing diapers again instead of the pull-ups he was once so excited to wear. Sigh. Two-year-olds can be so fickle.

A couple of weeks ago, Zoe wrote about parenting weaknesses. I have my fair share of them, but the one that really gets me is potty training. In short, I’m terrible at it. I’ve been able to overcome most parenting challenges with a little research, crowdsourcing of my mommy friends, and persistence — but potty training totally eludes me, even though I’m on my third kid and should be an expert by now. That’s parenthood for you, isn’t it? Kids have a way of keeping you humble, and my inability to potty train is a giant, glaring reminder of that.

My first son was almost 4 before we finally got him out of diapers, and the experience left us both traumatized. Now, eager to have only one in diapers, I’ve been trying to potty train my second son, who’s several months shy of his third birthday. He was showing all the signs readiness — telling me he needed his diaper changed, able to pull his pants up and down, and showing interest in all things toilet-related — so I decided to gird my loins and give it a go.

Determined not to make either of us cry, I resolved to face potty-training with a new positive attitude, so when he indicated he wanted to back off, I did, pretending like it was no big deal…but between us, I’m feeling pretty discouraged.

I know my son is capable of using the toilet, because I’ve seen it happen. The challenge is how to make him want to. How do I convince him that dry, barely-there big-boy pants are infinitely more comfortable than a soggy (and sometimes soiled) pull-up? Is there something I’m doing wrong, or is the desire to use the toilet — to be independent — a developmental milestone of its own that will simply come when he’s ready? Experience has taught me that you can’t force potty issues — that’s just a recipe for tears — but are there ways to encourage him to embrace the toilet? I’m all ears!

P.S. — In the intervening period since I wrote this post, my son is back to sitting on the potty. I decided not to buy diapers after we used up the last of the ones we had on hand, and when I told him that they were all gone, he barely bat an eyelash and agreed to sport pull-ups again. Yay! We tried a day of just big-boy pants and plastic covers, and while he used the potty a few times, I ran out of clean underwear before the day ended and decided to give it a rest. I’ve since enlisted my oldest to bring his little brother along to the bathroom whenever he goes, and that’s been somewhat successful, but it’s still hit or miss.

Image: Ann Waterman

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Is Social Media Stressing You Out?

Last month, the Huffington Post highlighted a survey taken by more than 7,000 moms that showed that social media is stressing out 42% of us. The main reason — according to the survey — is that social media conveys picture-perfect lives, leaving moms feeling inadequate and anxious. Apparently, Pinterest in particular makes moms feel pressured with its intimidating photos of DIY projects, professional-looking parties, and perfect food. Moms don’t feel like they can measure up.

Is this true for you? I know I’ve often coveted the craftiness and decorative skills of those behind the gorgeous pics I pin, but I gave up hope of being another Martha Stewart long ago. I’m usually happy to see what others can create — and what I can aspire to when I dare. As a blogger, I already know that blog posts, Pinterest pins — really, any photos online — are just tiny snippets of a life, not reflective of what goes on in someone’s daily reality.

The stressful part of social media for me is not what I see or read but keeping up with it at all. If you’re a blogger trying to build traffic to your site, it’s important to be active in social media, but I find it next to impossible to keep up with all of it. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn…each appeals to different people and serves different purposes, so it’s easy to feel like you have to be on top of it all. I’ve decided not to even try — it’s not exactly very “slow” of me, after all — and to focus on a couple I enjoy the most and where I think my readers spend their time.

I still don’t know how some people manage to keep an active blog going, get a new tweet up every 20 minutes, boast a Pinterest following of thousands, keep conversations going on Facebook, and put up great pics on Instagram every day. Someone must be making meals at their houses, paying attention to their children, and maybe even sleeping for them. Who knows?

I love to be connected online, but making myself step away sometimes is important (as my husband likes to remind me). Whether it’s one day a week, or certain times a day, or an “unplugged” vacation once or twice a year, a little time away helps us unwind from some of the stress that we can find ourselves feeling from social media.

I’m curious: Do you feel pressured by all the picture-perfect stuff you see on sites like Pinterest? Do you struggle to keep up with it all? What is your favorite social media platform? Where do you hang out the most, and why?

Image: Social Media Cupcakes made by Crazy Moose Bakery, posted on Flickr by Geek Cake Love

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Pull Up a Chair

June 21, 2013

Ducks

I can’t believe it’s going on nine months since I’ve been out anywhere past 8:15 p.m.

Every evening at bedtime, I lie down with my girls; they can’t fall asleep without me. They like their Daddy to be there, too — but I’m still the indispensable one, because I’ve been with them almost 24-7 since they arrived. They prefer to have me in the middle, and they like to fall asleep in the crook of my arm, or with their legs thrown over me, or holding my hand. It can be quite the exercise to get out from underneath their little bodies once I hear their breathing change. That’s when I stumble downstairs again and catch up with B, write blog posts, do freelance work, catch up on email, and sometimes eat too much popcorn while vegging out in front of a movie.

I’d love to get the girls upstairs earlier, but to even attempt eating dinner as a family means eating late, since B doesn’t get home from work until about 6:30. Then he takes over while I work from 7:15-8:15, and then I come out and help with bedtime routines as necessary. Once we’re upstairs, after brushing and flossing and such, there’s a brief story time before lights out. Some nights there are a lot of shenanigans, and it can take a while before they settle down. Other nights, it happens more quickly. Usually, B and I are back downstairs by 10. Of course, there are nights when at least one of us doesn’t make it.

It still feels a bit strange not to have any evenings to myself. I know that, someday, my girls will sleep on their own, but I don’t see it happening for quite a while yet. They’re just not ready. When people find out I still can’t be somewhere after 8:15 p.m., they sound surprised — and maybe doubtful. I can almost hear them thinking: Does she really need to be with those girls every night for bedtime? But I have to remind myself that they don’t understand adoption issues, and they don’t know my girls.

Anyway, since girls’ nights out — and date nights — are still not happening right now, I’ve been missing the occasional fancy cocktail and find myself drawn to something like a sidecar today — typically made with cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Here’s a recipe from Esquire, though I’ve heard it’s best with a 3-2-1 ratio. I should experiment and find out! Anyway, good for a relaxing Friday gab session, don’t you think? Here’s my high and low this week:

Low: My girls are having a hard June so far. I’d heard how anniversaries of traumatic events can trigger stuff in adopted children, but I was skeptical. After all, how does a child know dates or time frames? How does that actually work? (Besides, Ethiopia goes by a different calendar!) But it was one year ago this month that our girls were separated from their birth family and brought to an orphanage, which I know was devastating for them.

Whatever the reasons, it’s like we’ve taken a few steps back lately. It’s discouraging, but to be expected. The healing process is not a constant upward trajectory; there are big jumps as well as slow times, and phases when it feels like you’ve gone backwards. So I’ve been seeing some stuff I haven’t seen in many months, but it’s different, too, because our girls are quite attached and secure now. Parenting is a learn-as-you-go enterprise, and when you add on the layers of parenting kids from tough backgrounds, it can be extra challenging. I spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out how best to respond so as to facilitate the girls’ healing process, and it can leave me feeling helpless (even though I’ve got a Master’s degree in counseling).

High: First, I have a new nephew! Charles Zachary was born to my sister Sarah and her husband Ryan in Missouri this week. A whopping 11 pounds! All natural, at home; he’s number six. (Incredible is the word for my sister!)

Also, it seems I’ve finally been able to hang up my hat as stool collector. (The issue that was being treated — common in internationally adopted children — looks to be all gone. Yay!) I’d become such an expert. Couldn’t wait to put it on a resume. The girls had more blood drawn this week, too — they’ve had so many needles in the past year, poor things! I have to say they continue to be such troopers when it comes to this stuff; the lab technicians always marvel. (Of course, they don’t see the whining before we entered the lab.)

Bonus question: Summer officially begins today! What are your vacation plans? If you had to choose between a beach vacation or a camping vacation, which would you pick? For me, it would be the beach, hands down. But now, with the girls, I’m trying new things and looking forward to some family camping. We’re not really a rough-it kind of family, though, so we might need to begin with something tame, like a rustic cabin in a park. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Our vacation plans are up in the air. We want to travel to Nova Scotia, to introduce the girls to my family there and spend some time at the beach, but we’re not sure if such a trip will set the girls back too much. We’re playing it by ear for now and keeping our options open.

Okay, grab one of those drinks and tell me about your week and vacation plans! I hope you have a slow weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday.

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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How to Eat Your Greens

June 20, 2013

by Margaret Cabaniss

How to Eat Your Greens

Ever look at your CSA share box and blanch in the face of all that lovely produce that you have no idea how to use? That’s me all the time — except I don’t have a CSA share; I have my sister’s garden. Things are blowing up out there, and even after giving away the lion’s share of the haul to obliging friends and neighbors, there’s still a ton of produce for us to use pretty much every day — and while it’s certainly a lovely problem to have!, I tend to get a little stressed when I’m not sure how to use it.

So this year, I’ve been trying to gather up some recipes and ideas ahead of time to arm myself against the tide. Where we are, it’s still early-ish in the growing season, so right now that means a lot of kale, chard, lettuces, spinach, etc. Those last two are easy enough to use (sandwiches, salads, and sautees just about covers it), but the first two require a bit more thought. If you’re in the same boat, consider this a handy reference when you find yourself frantically Googling “what to do with 50 bushels of kale.”

Chard Salad

Besides, I can tell you what to do right now: Make raw kale salad. Same goes for chard, in fact. (Yes, they’re apparently something of a trend at the moment, but don’t hold that against them.) Until recently, I had been under the impression that tougher greens needed some kind of cooking to make them tender and delicious, but apparently massaging them (I know, but hear me out) with a little olive oil and lemon or lime juice, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, does the trick, because that’s how I’ve been eating them pretty much exclusively for weeks now. I love that I don’t need to turn on the stove for this one, and that the greens still taste so fresh and bright — perfect for summer dinners.

CookieAndKate.com has a long list of kale recipes, including salads, you can try; I recommend starting with this kale and black bean wrap, which I could eat for lunch every day of the week. You can think of either green as the basis for a more elaborate salad, using whatever veggies, herbs, nuts, cheese, etc., you have on hand. There are endless variations here.

Kale and Black Bean Burrito

To make life even easier, try cleaning and chopping your greens in advance: I like to fill up the (clean) kitchen sink with cold water, give the leaves a swish, then shake them off and chop them up, removing the tough stems and cutting the leaves into 1-inch (or smaller) ribbons. With a final rinse and a trip through the salad spinner, I pat off any excess water and store my chopped greens in a Ziploc bag in the fridge, where they’ll keep fine for a week or more. Since they’re tougher than salad greens, they don’t wilt on you as quickly, and with them all cleaned and ready to go, you can whip out a fistful for salad whenever the mood strikes.

How to Eat Your Greens

Prefer something cooked? Try either green in Deb’s chard and white bean stew. One of my favorite easy suppers (or lunches, or breakfasts) is this polenta with sauteed chard, onions, and a fried egg. (Or trade the egg for a sausage, if you’re looking for something meatier.) If you have a powerful enough blender, put your kale in a smoothie. Chard would go great in a quiche, like this leek and chard tart, and as soon as Amy’s sweet potatoes come in, I want to try this chard and sweet potato gratin

At this point I’m looking at a pretty good list of recipes to try, but I want to hear from you: How do you eat all your greens this time of year?

Images: 1 and 2, Margaret Cabaniss; 3, Cookie and Kate; 4, Alexandra’s Kitchen

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Raising Nature-Loving Kids in the City

I grew up on 75 acres of oceanfront property on the north shore of Nova Scotia. There were fields and woods, brooks and marshlands all around me, and I was outside all the time. But here I am now, raising kids in the city and trying to find ways to foster a love for — and knowledge of — the natural world in my girls. While it can never be like rural living, there are simple, thoughtful ways to help children be in tune with nature amidst concrete and sirens. Here are some of the things I’m doing and highly recommend:

H Splashing in Puddle

Get outside every day. Even in less-than-ideal weather.

When I was a kid, we were outside all the time — rain, snow storms, and wind were just extra incentives for us to venture out. As adults, we tend to think we should stay inside whenever the weather isn’t pleasant. But why? Unless it’s dangerous, throw on the appropriate gear and head outside with your kids. Maybe you won’t be able to stay out very long, but let your children feel the elements: Let them get wet, feel the wind in their faces, tromp through the snow, and sweat a bit in the heat. To help them cope better, make sure you have plenty of water (when it’s hot), extra mittens (when the first ones get sopping wet from snow), and fun rain boots (to wade in the puddles). Believe me, this will be good for you, too.

Take walks along regular routes and point out the seasonal changes.

For the first four months our girls were home, we pretty much walked the same way to the same park every day. The girls watched the leaves change color and fall to the ground, the trees grow bare, the cold of winter arrive, and the signs of spring pop up; now it’s summer and everything is green. Every time we walked, I pointed out the changes — even when the girls probably didn’t understand what I was saying. Now they point out the changes they see when we’re out.

Insect Finding

Call attention to your natural surroundings wherever you are.

Your children will notice whatever you take time to notice. Look out your windows and mention what you see: What’s the weather like today? Is there a squirrel on the balcony? A bird sitting on the tree branch out front? Stop and smell a flower and encourage them to do it, too; bend down and look at the beetle crawling across the sidewalk; point out how green the grass is now; make note of any new flowers planted in your neighbors’ planters. Can you see the sunset? What about any stars or the moon at night? Nothing is too small or insignificant to point out.

B and Girls Hiking

Research the best parks nearby for hiking and take regular nature walks.

B and I have turned into hikers as parents. Who knew? We’re fortunate to have many parks within an hour’s drive with good family-friendly hiking trails. Our girls are small, so we stick to short and safe routes, but there’s always a lot to explore with them. They enjoy packing their backpacks (just like Dora the Explorer, of course) and discovering new trails. We discuss different kinds of plants, trees, and creatures along the way. We practice being quiet and listening for nature sounds. A couple of weeks ago, we got to experience a large buck barreling through the woods behind us.

If you don’t have nearby parks with hiking trails, you may live near bodies of water, mountains, or farmland. Whatever it is, take your kids out and experience it together. (And, of course, be sure to bring water and snacks for the kids!)

Create simple projects and activities that encourage exploration of nature.

I loved doing this stuff as a child — I think all kids do. I love this neighborhood tree guide project from KidWorldCitizen. In the fall, collecting leaves and making something with them will be a perfect craft. My daughters are petrified of bugs (not sure why, though we saw no bugs in Ethiopia except for the odd mosquito), so I’m planning an insect project of some kind with them soon. Butterfly nets are now on the girls’ birthday wish list after they recently used a couple belonging to some new friends. Just laying on a blanket and looking at cloud formations is fun on a lazy summer afternoon.

Bring the outside in.

Let your children bring home leaves, flowers, and things they find outside. There are limits, of course — no injured birds allowed in here (or poisonous things)! And we do teach them that some things should not be picked but left alone to grow and be enjoyed. My girls like picking little flowers and finding leaves.

Nature-Loving Kids

I like to keep natural elements in the house…a dish of seashells in the bathroom, wooden bowls, interesting rocks. I also make a point to keep fresh-cut flowers on the dining table and live plants in the house. Bringing natural things into the house, and letting the kids do the same, helps connect you all to the world outside.

Raising Nature-Loving Kids in the City

Plant something together. 

A couple months ago, we bought sunflower seeds and each of my daughters planted a few of them in two tiny pots and placed them on a sunny windowsill. When the seeds sprouted, I helped the girls replant them in a larger pot and we placed it in their bedroom. I remind them every couple of days to water it, and we note how it’s growing. Of course, if you have space for any kind of garden and can get your kids involved, all the better! Tending to something from the time it’s a seed not only teaches children about how things grow but instills in them a sense of responsibility for something living.

Plan vacations that get you out into nature, and take advantage of ways to learn about nature in your area.

Maybe it’s the beach, or the mountains, or a national park, but plan some trips that allow your children to explore and enjoy nature. And consider something new — even challenging — like tent camping or mountain climbing or sailing. Don’t forget little getaways that may be closer to home; overnight or weekend trips can be just as memorable. With young children, it’s always best to keep it as simple and stress-free as possible. Many cities have destinations like arboretums, aquariums, planetariums, etc. We’re fortunate to have the National Aquarium right down the street. It’s not cheap, but it was fun to take the girls recently and witness them seeing sharks, dolphins, jellyfish, and many small ocean creatures face-to-face for the first time.

At the Aquarium

How do you foster your children’s connection to nature, especially if you live in an urban area? I’d love to hear about it!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul 

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Berbere Salsa

June 18, 2013

Berbere Salsa

I’ve written about berbere before (a predominant spice used in Ethiopian cooking), and I’m always excited to discover new ways to use it. Recently, at an Ethiopian friend’s house, I was introduced to berbere salsa. I’m not sure that’s what it’s actually called, but it’s essentially a salsa, or perhaps more of a sauce that you eat like a salsa. I wanted to share it in case you’re interested in something new, interesting, and simple to dip your corn chips into, or to serve on the side with scrambled eggs or meat. If you can’t tolerate any heat, berbere may not be the spice for you, but you can adjust the spiciness by using a little or a lot.

Berbere Salsa (as told to me by Salih M.)

  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2-3 tsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic gloves, crushed and minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped
  • 2 tsp berbere (or to your preference)

First, scald your tomatoes in boiling water for 10-20 seconds so they are easy to peel, then finely chop and set aside. Heat chopped onion in a skillet without oil. When it begins to brown, add the olive oil, then the garlic, and stir together for a few minutes. Then add the tomatoes, stir a few more minutes, and mix in the berbere. Add a little water until it reaches the desired thickness. Serve warm or cold.

I love this with thin tortilla chips, but my girls love it on anything.

P.S. Berbere can be found at any Ethiopian market, most international markets, and online.

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Healthy Supplements

If someone had asked me this question a year ago, I would not have thought twice about my answer: I espouse the basic philosophy of Slow Food — that food should be good, clean, and fair. I talk more about these ideas on my FAQ page here:

I support the local food and wine movements and believe that farmers and food producers are key to a thriving civilization. While technology has linked the world and changed the way we eat, we must find ways to preserve and celebrate local and regional food culture, traditions, recipes, land, and seeds.

I’m still all about this. I buy from local farms and food artisans, farmers’ markets, and a local buyers’ club I launched four years ago. I’m a big fan of CSAs. I try to eat in season. I frequent farm-to-table restaurants when I can. I love traditional recipes and experiencing cuisines from other regions and cultures.

The Slow Food philosophy is definitely close to my heart, but recently it dawned on me that there’s a deeper belief that guides my food and recipe decisions, my thoughts about what I eat, and my actions. And it’s this:

Food is medicine.

When it comes right down to it, I eat for health. How it tastes, where it was grown, all of that is important to me — but it ultimately comes second. I don’t eat as healthfully as I’d like sometimes– and I do treat myself — but this is my underlying approach to what I buy, what I eat, and what I cook. It’s what I nag my loved ones about. It’s what I read about. It’s the reason I have maca powder, chia seeds, and camu camu in my cupboard. It’s the reason I feel happy every day when I see my VitaMix. I don’t know why I’m just realizing that my dominant approach to food is through a health lens, but I suppose when something is intimately part of you, you don’t always notice it. For various reasons, health is one of my top values in life — and food is a major component of that.

I think it’s helpful to know your basic food philosophy, because it allows you to understand why you make the food choices you do — and why you may clash with others in this area, including people you love.

In your life, is food primarily about what makes your taste bugs sing? Is it about novelty and experience? Is tradition or culture or comfort at the heart of how you eat? Perhaps, when it comes down to it, food is a bothersome part of life you wish would go away so you don’t pay much attention to it. Most of us approach it in more than one way, but I think each of us has a primary philosophy that guides most of our decisions and choices related to food. What’s yours?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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