Fun with Coded Messages

August 13, 2015

by Margaret Cabaniss

This was meant to be a “how to survive the summer doldrums” post, but apparently I blinked and now everyone’s sending their kids back to school already. How did that even happen?

Anyway: Regardless of whether school’s begun or you’re still counting down the days, this is a quick and easy little project that should keep the kids occupied for a solid five minutes at least: a cipher wheel.

My nephews got into codes and codebreaking a while back, so I thought it would be fun to send them some secret messages in the mail. The cipher wheel just takes the guesswork out of it: You print it up (free download here), cut it out, attach the wheels, and go. After that, it took no time at all to write up some coded messages and create a few “Top Secret” manila envelopes to mail it all in.

And that’s it! Not exactly the Enigma Machine, but good enough for a rainy afternoon — and an easy way to brighten some little person’s mailbox. Even better for a spy-themed birthday party, I’d think…

Anyone else get into codes as a kid? Have any good recipes for invisible ink?

Image: Margaret Cabaniss


by Margaret Cabaniss

To be fair, I don’t have a trick here so much as…a book. This book, to be specific: Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. My sister’s almost-three-year-old loves it — and as he has been on an all-ABCs-all-the-time kick for the last six months, I feel like you can safely trust his judgment. The illustrations are lush and colorful, and every page is crammed full of more exotic fruits and vegetables than you can shake a stick at.

The “exotic” part here seems to be part of its appeal: Beyond the standard apple/banana rotation he sees in every other book, it’s also full of huckleberries, jicama, endive, and xigua — words and pictures so strange they’re almost Dr. Seussian, but even better for being real.

My sister, seeing how the newness captivated him, seized the opportunity to get him to taste a few of these things, too. For each trip to the store, she and D settle on a new fruit or veggie to try — then they hunt through the produce section or the farmer’s market, on the lookout for the mystery item from his book. Once home, D will climb up on his step stool to help prepare it (or watch mommy cut it), then they both sit down together and try a bite, describing what they taste.

Something about the treasure hunt/science experiment approach here really seems to work: The kid who won’t eat meat other than hamburger and doesn’t like any of the food on his plate to touch has tried radishes, brussels sprouts, dates, cabbage, kiwi, watermelon, zucchini, mango, and kohlrabi — and so far, he’s liked most of what he’s tasted. (Next up, he’s angling for artichoke and figs.) I don’t think I tasted half these things until after college.

Of course, simply trying new vegetables doesn’t mean he suddenly wants a heaping plateful of cabbage and radishes at dinner every night — he is still two, after all — but the simple act of exploring the market together, helping to prepare what they find, and getting the new thing to pass his lips is good practice and encouragement through this picky-eater stage. Hopefully some of that openness to new things will stick with him.

What about you? What have you found to be helpful in getting your kids to try new things? (Zoe has a great round-up of ideas here.) Any other great books to recommend?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


by Margaret Cabaniss

I was about to go looking through the archives for some good July 4 recipes when I stumbled across this post from last year; apparently I had the same idea then, too. Definitely breaking out a few of these this weekend…

SlowMama's Summer Recipes
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good recipe round-up around these parts, but the Fourth of July — a.k.a., America’s High Holy Day of Summer — seemed like as good a time as any. The SlowMama archives are positively busting with great summer dishes; here are some of my favorites that seemed particularly grill-worthy:

Homemade Sodas

Homemade Sodas
You’re so fancy. (And if you prefer your lemonade sans gas, try Ann’s basil variety — still one of my favorite summer drinks.)

Boiled Peanuts

Make them for the nostalgia factor, make them because they’re best eaten when it’s a million degrees out — just make them. (Or, if you prefer your peanuts Thai-inspired, go with these chili lime peanuts instead.)

Guacamole Salad

Recipe: Guacamole Salad
I make this side dish every chance I get in the summer. Would go great with some grilled chicken and corn on the cob…


Another tomato-based side, but a little more Italian-y. If you’re lucky enough to be seeing fresh tomatoes at the market or in your garden already, make this one immediately.

Summer Ceviche

A little something different from your traditional burgers and dogs. This would be amazing as a starter.

Quinoa Salad with Corn, Tomatoes, and Roasted Pepitas

Ann’s technique for making perfect quinoa is the secret to this dish’s awesomeness. A great change of pace for a summer potluck.

Curried Chicken Salad

chicken salad plate
I just made this one last weekend, and it felt like it was gone five minutes later; it’s a total crowd-pleaser. Throw a couple extra chicken breasts on the grill, and you can pull it together in no time.

Triple Berry Pie

Triple Berry Pie
Still my favorite summer pie, hands down — and we’re just about entering peak berry season, when it really shines. (And look how patriotic it is!) If you prefer something a little more traditional, though, try Zoe’s recipe for basic pie crust — and don’t forget the dairy-free coconut whipped cream!

Chocolate Mint Pudding Popsicles

Pudding Popsicles
I completely forgot about these! This is definitely happening.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

cookie plate
Can’t have a cookout without ’em.

I feel like there were so many other recipes I could have added here — the watermelon granita Ann posted just this week, for one, or a Pimm’s cup, or even this peach crisp… Got any particular favorites? What’s on your July 4 menu?

Images: SlowMama


by Margaret Cabaniss

“The Moscow Mule Sucks.”
That was the title of the Thrillist article that popped up in my Facebook newsfeed recently (though the article itself is a year old) — and based on the title alone, I knew I’d have to read it.

Have you ever had a Moscow Mule? It’s a simple combo of vodka, ginger beer, and lime, usually served in one of those gorgeous copper mugs. The bartenders polled in the article didn’t even object to the drink itself so much as its ubiquity: It’s pretty popular on bar menus these days and thus doesn’t really lend itself to distinction. (Of course, that’s really more of a concern if you make drinks for a living; if you just find them delicious, probably not so much.)

It was interesting to read what cocktails they found “overrated” by that standard today — including one of my standbys, a total classic: the Manhattan — and what they suggested ordering instead. Frankly, drink trends come and go faster than I can keep up, and I’m not giving up on my favorites just because the cocktail scene is obsessing over something new — but I did like the suggestions for under-appreciated drinks worth trying, as well as the reminder that any of these drinks are only as good as their ingredients (and I have had enough sad Manhattans to prove their point). Whatever you get, make it a good one — and when at home? Drink whatever you darn well please.

So what do you drink during the summer? Two of my favorites ranked pretty high on the “underrated” list: the negroni and the good ol’ gin and tonic. Both of them are old standbys, I know — but when well-made, they’re pretty much perfect summer cocktails. The Wall Street Journal recently listed some ways to “seriously upgrade your gin and tonic,” and I plan to try them all. (For research purposes, of course.)

One of my go-to drinks at home is actually a play on the Moscow Mule, most commonly known as the Kentucky Mule. You could probably guess the major difference: bourbon instead of vodka. (I am nothing if not predictable.) Something about the bourbon mellows the bite of the ginger beer in the most fantastic way, making them spicy and smooth and delicious. If you like Moscow Mules, consider this an underrated alternative to try; you can find me drinking them pretty much year-round — in a copper mug, naturally.

What’s your favorite summertime cocktail? Any underrated favorites we should give a try?

PS — A few of my other favorite warm-weather drinks: Pimm’s cups, a grapefruit shrub, and a rosemary rhubarb cocktail.

Images: Thrillist


by Margaret Cabaniss

Not exactly the most lighthearted subject, I know, but I just came across a couple of excellent posts on the topic and had to share. One is from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, talking about what she has learned in the 30 days since her husband passed away unexpectedly while they were on vacation:

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

It’s so hard to fight the urge to want to do something when someone is suffering — and, of course, there’s a time and a place for helping out in tangible ways. But it seems the more important (and difficult) part is to simply be with them — not expecting them to feel a certain way on a certain timeline, not trying to find the perfect thing to say (or worse, trying to cheer them up). It’s definitely something I’m still working on.

Speaking of timelines, Joanna Goddard shared a great insight about grief “progress reports,” as it were, from the book Lament for a Son:

Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.

Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it… Every lament is a love-song.

Such a beautiful way to reframe the whole idea of “helping” someone through their grief. Sadness over the loss of a loved one is not in itself a terrible thing; it’s also simply a part of acknowledging “the worth of the one loved.” And if that’s true, then grief itself isn’t something to be fixed but to be shared in love.

How do you approach a loved one who is grieving? Has your perspective on grief changed after suffering a loss of your own? I would love to hear.

Image: Simon Hilton


by Margaret Cabaniss

Mothers Day 2014
Mother’s Day is this Sunday! If this is coming as a surprise to you right about now, never fear: I’ve rounded up some classic SlowMama gifts, treats, and recipes that you can easily tackle in the next three days and make this Mother’s Day one for the books.

St-Germain cocktails
To Eat

If you’re the breakfast-in-bed type, try Ann’s family recipe for pancakes — or, if you want a heartier option, Zoe’s easy quiche or this make-ahead breakfast casserole. Serve with a St. Germain cocktail for an appropriately festive touch.

How to Make Silhouettes
To Make

Homemade bath products come together quickly and make lovely gifts — like these lip balms or scented shower scrubs. If you’re up for some (beginner) sewing, try a set of placemats, mitred napkins, or a sweet tea towel apron. These paper silhouettes are slightly old-fashioned and totally adorable — or, for a more kid-friendly project, go with this cheery wax heart garland for the kitchen. All that said, I still have yet to top this box of letters to my mother.

The Stella Cake
A Special Treat

There are just too many of these. Make her favorite pie, or this slightly more ambitious but totally stunning and delicious Stella cake. For something quicker but no less impressive, go for these chocolate truffles or coconut macaroons.

What are your favorite gifts to give (and get) on Mother’s Day? Any special traditions in your home?

Images: Zoe and her sweet girls from last Mother’s Day; everything else by Z and me.

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by Margaret Cabaniss

What follows is one of the first recipes I ever posted on this site, and it’s still the best julep I’ve ever had. Make you one this weekend. 

This weekend is the running of the Kentucky Derby, traditionally an important date in the Cabaniss household. As my mom was born and raised in Louisville, our family watched the Derby religiously growing up: We did the whole crazy hat thing; we placed side bets on our horses; we rolled our eyes as mom nostalgically crooned along to “My Old Kentucky Home.” It was good family fun.

When I moved to Baltimore, I invited some friends over for a little Derby party of my own — complete with the official food and drink of the event, mint juleps and Derby pie. Of course, that year also happened to be the race where one of the horses shattered its leg crossing the finish line and had to be put down — right there on the track, on live TV. You know, just the thing to get your guests in the party spirit.

So my traumatized friends may not have been completely sold on the idea of the Kentucky Derby — but happily, juleps aren’t just for Derby day. By their very nature, they are the ideal slow drink: meant to be savored over a period of hours, preferably on a front porch in the sunshine. In fact, because juleps can pack a deceptive punch, trying to drink them any faster can quickly knock you sideways. This is strictly a sippin’ beverage.

With the weather warming up, now is the perfect time to host a Derby julep party of your own. I’d even say they would be just the thing for Zoe’s graduation party next weekend… if she didn’t happen to dislike bourbon. (It’s a character flaw that I am willing to overlook for the sake of our friendship.)

I’ve tried lots of different julep formulas (er, for research purposes), and they range from the sublime to the gag-inducing. (A general rule of thumb: Steer clear of anything labeled simply, “Mint Julep Mix.”) The best I’ve tasted was, oddly enough, a recipe from Southern novelist Walker Percy, found in his essay “Bourbon, Neat.” We followed his instructions more or less precisely at a julep party held in my sister’s backyard, and they were revelatory — ice cold, not too sweet, with just a breath of fresh mint, all mellowing what Percy aptly describes as “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx.” That’s a drink.

His instructions are quoted below, with photo illustrations as a guide. (No horses were injured in the making of these beverages.)

“You need excellent bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water.” We added a few leaves of mint here, muddling them in the sugar and water to release their oils.

“Next, very quickly—and here is the trick in the procedure—crush your ice, actually powder it—preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet” — yes, the towel trick really does work! — “so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand.”

“Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better.” Using a long spoon to stir up from the bottom helps the sugar dissolve and disperse a little better.

“The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.” We served ours with cucumber sandwiches and fresh berry shortcakes and proceeded to have a glorious spring afternoon. I highly recommend it.

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


by Margaret Cabaniss

For my recent trip to Rome
, I knew I wanted to avoid checking a bag if at all possible — and judging by one of my colleagues’ experiences, who had his checked luggage sent on a cruise without him, I definitely made the right call. Surprisingly, it was easier to do than I was expecting; here’s what worked for me:

Color-coordinate everything. I purposely stuck to one general color palette so that everything I packed could be worn with everything else, which gave me a ton of mileage out of the fewest number of pieces. For this particular trip, I embraced my inner Claire Underwood and kept it pretty neutral; adding an (easily packable) scarf, belt, or piece of jewelry was a simple way to add some interest.

Take pictures. This felt ridiculous while I was doing it, but it’s also probably the single most useful thing I did. Pull everything out of your closet that you’re considering packing, try it all on, then snap a picture of the outfits on your phone. (This part is much less painful if you can enlist the services of an obliging friend. And a bottle of wine.) When I was finished, I was surprised to find that certain pieces I was sure I wanted to pack didn’t end up working together or being all that versatile, so I didn’t bother to take them “just in case” — the impulse that usually leads me to overpack. Instead, I was able to easily scroll through the photos, see (and delete) what didn’t work, then pack the rest; once I arrived in Rome, all I had to do was to check my phone and pick an outfit, saving me time and hassle.

Layers are your friend. Rome in March would be in the low 40s in the morning and the low 70s by the afternoon, so having easily shed-able layers was the way to go. The one thing I was always happy to have: my blanket scarf. I’d wear it with my coat in the chilly evenings, as a wrap in drafty restaurants, or use it as a blanket on the plane. It was never not useful.

Roll, don’t fold. I was skeptical of this one, too, but it works: Layer your bulkiest items in the bottom of your suitcase first (jeans, jackets, etc.), and then roll — don’t fold — everything else. I was amazed by how well everything compressed: I was able to fit two blazers, two pairs of pants, two skirts, four t-shirts, three button-downs, two silk tops, two cardigans, a dress, pajamas, and all my shoes and unmentionables without a problem. For extra space-saving, pack bulkier items in a large ziploc bag first, then squeeze out the extra air.

Maximize that “personal item.” All my clothes and shoes went in the carry-on bag, but my camera, guide book, iPad, and liquids went in a tote bag as my (slightly oversized) purse. I also wore my bulkiest clothes and shoes on the plane, leaving that much more room in my suitcase.

Things I was glad I brought: There wasn’t a day that passed when I didn’t consult this guidebook; I was also glad I had this map on me, particularly when I wanted to wander off the beaten path. This packable tote took up no room at all in my purse, but it was great to have for hauling home my loot after a long day of souvenir hunting. I also brought a packet of laundry detergent with me so I could do a little hand-washing in my hotel room whenever the need arose (though I likely could have just picked that up there — see below).

Things I should have left at home: New shoes. One bum pair that I hadn’t broken in yet left me in a world of pain — not ideal when you plan to be walking all week. Remember, too, that they sell things like toothpaste and shampoo where you’re headed; don’t stress about fitting everything you need in that one-quart ziploc bag.

Looking for more advice on what specific items you should pack? It’ll vary based on the where, when, and why of your trip, of course, but Jordan Ferney has a great packing list (for two weeks in France!) to get you started. (Mine looked similar, though I swapped out most of the dresses for button-downs and skirts instead.) Also, Erin of Earnest Home Co. demonstrates the handy outfit-photo trick so you can see its usefulness in action.

What about you? Any tips for packing light on an extended trip?


by Margaret Cabaniss

Ciao, ragazzi!
 Even though I got back from Rome last week, it already feels like my trip happened ages ago. (I can still taste the gelato, though…)

I know I said that I’d give a full report once I got back, but Rome turns out to be a hard place to recap: The food is amazing, the scenery is ridiculous, and you can’t turn around without bumping into another famous piece of art or architecture — but you knew that already. What else is there to add, really?

What I can say is that my approach to “doing Rome” subtly shifted through the week as I got my bearings. Before my trip, I must have checked out four or five different Rome guidebooks, consulted Pinterest “best of” lists, and put out a general call for tips on Facebook. But as the trip got closer, all the (truly wonderful) recommendations started to make me slightly panicky: Suddenly everything felt like a must-do, and there was simply no way that I was going to be able to do them all. I was failing at Rome before I even started.

It was somewhere around Day 3, after a couple days spent herded through various tourist sites and speedwalking all over the city, that I started to slow down and take a different tack. I finally accepted that I wouldn’t be able to see everything, and that even trying would take all the fun out of it; I got over the deadly fear of missing out and focused on the handful of things that were really important to me. I did a lot more aimless wandering and drinking in cafes. It was glorious.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go with a plan — just that the best plans should leave plenty of time for soaking up the city, and maybe less time for racing between major attractions. What ultimately worked best for me: I made a short list of my absolute must-sees, looked up a few restaurant recommendations in the neighborhood, then checked the maps to see what could reasonably be done in a day — making sure to leave plenty of time for strolling (and gelato breaks). If at all possible, I’d recommend leaving a free day at the end of your trip: Trust me, after you get there, you’ll find something that you desperately want to work into the schedule — even if it’s just pondering the beauty of the place over a few negronis. (Nota bene: Barnum Cafe makes an excellent one.)

My big takeaways: Major tourist attractions — the Spanish Steps, the Trevi fountain, the Colosseum — are more impressive, and less crowded, at night. Don’t wait to see the most important stuff on your list — particularly in Rome, where St. Peter’s basilica will suddenly up and close for the two-year anniversary of the pope’s election on your last day in town. (To use a completely random example.) Take locals’ dining advice whenever possible; ask your waiters for their favorite thing on the menu, then order that thing. The Eat Rome app is the best $4 investment you can make for your trip.

And to crib from a friend’s truly excellent advice: If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, turn in any direction and marvel at the beauty right in front of you. In Rome, it’s not hard to find.

Questions? Tips of your own to share? Leave ’em in the comments. Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about how I packed for the trip entirely in a carry on — and what I wish I had done differently…

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


Slow Travel Tips for Rome

February 26, 2015

by Margaret Cabaniss

Rome! I’m going there! Like, next week!

Sorry, I’m a little excited about this trip (it may or may not be the thing that has kept me going through this ridiculous winter). It’s for a work conference, but the conference itself is scheduled in such a way that participants will have plenty of time to explore the city, and I. can’t. wait.

I’ve been to Rome once before, but it was only for a week in college (so, many moons ago), and all our activities were carefully orchestrated and tightly regimented — so while I saw plenty of spectacular things, I mostly went where I was led and didn’t develop any independent sense of the city. I’ll definitely go back to some of the must-see sites on this trip, of course, but I’d also really love to take more time simply to wander, experience the character of different neighborhoods — and, of course, stop in every cafe I can manage along the way.

To figure out the best way to make my wanderings not too aimless (hey, I’m still a planner at heart), I’ve been poking around various travel websites that I like for their tips and ideas. One great resource so far has been Ashley Muir Bruhn’s Italy travelogues over at Hither and Thither. Her post about her trip to Rome last summer with her husband and their two kids (3 and 6 months!) is total eye candy and a great argument for skipping the lines at major tourist attractions (a necessity in their case, with two little ones) and just…walking. Also, I basically want to eat everything she photographs.

Speaking of eating, Ashley offered a great tip for finding restaurant recommendations in another city: checking special issues of food magazines like Bon Appetit or Saveur. I imagine they’ll have much more detailed information than the one-paragraph blurbs you’d find in most travel guides — plus you’ll have a better chance of avoiding restaurants likely to be overrun with other eager travel-guide disciples. And though fresh offerings might be somewhat more limited in the winter, I’m excited to try some Roman specialties while I’m there, like cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta).

One last tip I read isn’t really research-related, but I thought it was a great idea all the same: Right before your trip (or even on the plane ride there), read a work of fiction set in the place you’re headed. A good novel can capture the feel of a place so much better than any matter-of-fact guidebook could manage. Of course, Rome’s long history already reads like a novel, so in my case, I picked up another book by Anthony Everitt, whose biographies of Augustus and Cicero are a great introduction to the early days of the Roman empire. I expect I’ll get slightly more out of my visit to the Forum on this trip than I did when I was 19.

So what about you? Do you like to prepare before a big trip, or are you more the aimless-wanderer type? Have any tips for immersing yourself in the local culture while you’re there? And most important of all: What are your must-see/visit/eat tips for Rome? I’ll be sure to try out all your advice and report back in a couple weeks!

Images: (1) danjaeger, (2) dmitri_c, (3) scholle42