Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Recipe for keeping the holidays real

Holiday stress has been more real for me this season than at any other time I can recall. Yet I can't recall a more wonderful long weekend.

Throw in the hassles of traveling 10-plus hours with children, their excitement just because it’s Christmas, the challenge of juggling schedules and no less than four time zones’ difference among the family members, and the worry of making sure that the rest of the family’s expectations matches yours (yes, even “greener” parents worry whether the kids are going to feel that Santa stiffed them this year).

And for a little extra spice, toss in an ear infection and pharmacies closed for the holidays.

Top it off with a blizzard, about-zero wind chills, snow that drifted hip-deep in places and popped exterior panels out of vans, a “check engine” light that glared surreptitiously in the night, a niece that was stuck a city away and highways that were closed.

Yep. It was a recipe for a Christmas disaster.

But here’s the thing about Christmas 2009. It was one of the best holidays we’d had in a long time. (And it was nearly as good as two years ago, when we brought my baby boy home on Christmas Eve.)

We watched my little guy with his new-found obsession with his train set, even without enough wooden tracks really to play with.

We watched my daughter prance proudly in her new gymnastics leotard, jumping up and down with joy when we told her that her grandparents got her gymnastics lessons when she returned.

We teased my niece – who arrived home literally after stomping through snowdrifts to get to her mother’s car after the worst of the snowstorm had passed – about her very toothless grin.

We saw aunts and uncles and cousins who hadn’t gotten together for a positive reason since, very likely, the Christmas we left Kansas City.

We watched the Chiefs lose on TV. (But that was no surprise.)

The road conditions and wild winter weather brought an added blessing: An extra day of togetherness. No racing to cram in Crown Center, the Plaza and other holiday activities. Just hanging out with one another. While I’m happy to finally be back home and in my own bed, sometimes a little slowing down with family is worth the wait. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No beeping here

A word of warning to my family members who haven't done their shopping yet: No beeping, blinking, animated toys need apply.

Here's what we've learned in the week since the day care's Christmas party and a small family birthday celebration:

Out of a blinking, noisy dump truck, a noisy Thomas train, a Fisher Price dump truck (complete what's since been dubbed "Cool Guy" by the recipient) and a wooden truck, guess which toy won out?

The quiet one.

Yep, it's the truck and wooden horses sent from the grandparents that are the big hit. Those horses and truck have traveled around the house and back on a daily basis. The horses hang out at the kitchen table, climb into the crib, gallop on the hope chest and "neigh" the way across my bed. And yes, being in the hands of a now 2-year-old, they sometimes smash into one another as well.

Sometimes flash isn't as much fun!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snowman bread

snowman breadAs much as I enjoy holiday baking, there comes a time when you're just tired of getting and giving plates of cookies to others. Which makes Snowman Bread a fun alternative for holiday baking.

I found this recipe on Family Fun's Web site and figured it was worth a try. You'll need to set aside about two hours for this project, once you factor in the need for the dough to rise and time for baking the bread. But it's a very simple project, and for the effort of one batch of dough, you end up with four breads that you can wrap up, decorate with a ribbon "scarf," share or just enjoy yourself.

In case you're curious, the nose is a dried apricot and the eyes and buttons are dried blueberries. I did find that while the recipe calls for them to be placed on the bread before going in the oven, the fruits all fell off as the dough rised in baking. Instead, I'd recommend, after baking, gluing them on with a small amount of powdered sugar mixed with milk.

Based on the size and what our family eats, I'd guess one bread feeds about four at dinner. Happy baking!

Christmas cookie recipe - 6 generations of munching!

Christmas cookies - everyone has the "must have" recipe. In our family, we've happily munched for decades on my great-grandmother's sugar cookie recipe. And while the recipe says "Christmas," it wasn't just for that. Each year, when we came up to visit my grandmother in Wisconsin, she would trot up a coffee can filled with these cookies from the freezer, just so we wouldn't starve on the way home.

I'll preface this by saying that this makes a lot of cookies. And I mean a lot. Even with my inpatience of simply making these into balls and flattening them, I still counted more than 5 dozen of these larger than normal cookies. Enjoy! We have for years - and our kids are, now, too.

Grandma Johnson’s XMAS Cookies
2 cups sugar
2 cups shortening
4 eggs
2/3 cups milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups flour or a little more

Mix altogether. Roll out on a floured board. Cut with cookie cutter and bake in 375 degree oven until light brown. Frost when cool, or sprinkle with sugar before baking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Green journeys - Taking action

The materials of action are variable, but the use we make of them should be constant.- Epictetus (c.A.D. 50–c.A.D. 138)

“We have to join the Sierra Club,” my husband would announce once a year, cussing under his breath about the travesties George Bush would bring to the cause of the time.

And so, every 18 months or so, or whenever prodded in just the right manner, we’d concede and send off our student-rate check to join the Sierra Club. And that was that. No letter writing for causes. No joining local efforts. Just a card-carrying member.

Sure, they got our check. But they never really got our hearts.

For years, I thought I was environmentally responsible. I recycled my cans and newspapers. I turned off my lights. I combined my errands. I went to farmers markets. I even grew a few things that survived into the summer.

But I really didn’t think about it. What made the difference, though, were two little eyes looking at me. And I began to wonder what kind of world we’d leave for her. Would she have clean water to drink? Safe food to eat? Outdoors – that hadn’t been ruined by us – to enjoy?

And so, we started making more and more little changes. We cook more, and not from boxed kits or frozen packages. We actively look at the packaging we bring into our home – not to sweat over it, but to be smart about it. We try to offer more responsible in our shopping, from toys to clothes to care items. We get to know the people who help make our soaps, start our plants and grow our food.

Sure, it may not seem like a lot. I’m still not pounding the pavement to protest how endangered species are being treated or oil drilling. And once in a while, I do write a letter or two on saving the world. These days, though, I’m focusing on launching a quiet attack – by teaching my kids habits that can last for this generation and the next.

This is my submission for the December APLS Carnival on "Green Journeys." It's not too late to contribute yours - email consciousshopperblog@gmail.com by Dec. 15. And read about other bloggers' journeys on Dec. 18 at the The Conscious Shopper.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silence is golden

An overnight power surge took out our alarm clock and our surge protector, which meant that the router for our cable, Internet and phones were out most of of our day.

At first I felt strangely wierd. The TV I could live without. The Internet meant I couldn't sneak in some work time. But the phones? I felt disconnected in more ways than one.

While our morning meant church and errands, our early afternon posed some questions. Sadly, we'd gotten into the habit of letting our oldest have quiet time watching a TV show while her brother was napping. No such luck today, and frankly, they were wired and wearing on my nerves. (I think the sad fact I accidently typed "wierd" instead speaks volumes too!)

Then creativity hit. I sent my daughter upstairs for some mandated "rest" time in her room. Just read a book or listen to music, but you had to be in your bed. And I whipped up a batch of my great-grandmother's Christmas cookies. (I say that like it's no big deal, but the dough was practically falling out of the mixing bowl, the batch made so much.)

Company snuck downstairs, peeking around the corner into the kitchen. Not yet, I insisted, and she trotted back up the stairs.

I worked in an unusual silence. No music was blasted, no TV noise was on, no telephones rang to interrupt, no "Mooommmmm...." repeated over and over again.

Finally, after nearly an hour of baking and a dusting of powdered sugar covering me after my attempt at making frosting, we were ready to go. I presented my little chef with her own bowl of frosting, which she proudly dumped every holiday sprinkle known to man inside before coating a handful of cookies with her concoction - which was then unceremoniously slathered in more green sprinkles to make the "green sprinkle mountain." I heard stories of her imaginary friend and her excitement over the holiday. Best of all, we talked - uninterrupted - something that rarely happens in a family of four.

At the end of our adventure, our kitchen was trashed, but I'll tell you this - it was a wonderful afternoon. I was almost sad when my husband came home and brought us back to the 21st Century!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cranberry upside-down muffins (diabetic version)

Fresh cranberries are a great treat in the fall. The challenge is, a year later, when I'm faced with still-frozen ones from the year before.

It's difficult finding cranberry recipes that aren't calling for dried cranberries. This recipe uses fresh (or in my case, defrosted cranberries) and is based on one I found on the Food Network's site. Taking in the account a few missing directions and a couple of subsitutions, I came up with a more diabetic-friendly way to use up those leftover cranberries. The muffins were gone by lunchtime.

Cranberry Upside-Down Muffins (reduced-sugar version)

2 cups cranberries, picked over and rinsed
3/4 cup Splenda
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 large egg
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup milk

In a saucepan combine the cranberries, 1/2 cup Splenda, the sugar and the nutmeg, cook the mixture over moderately high heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, and boil it, covered, for 3 minutes. Simmer the mixture, uncovered, stirring, for 3 minutes and let it cool.

Into a bowl sift together the flour, the baking powder, the remaining 1/4 cup Splenda, cinnamon, orange rind, and salt. In another bowl whisk together the egg, butter and milk, add the mixture to the flour mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined.

Divide the cranberry mixture among 12 well-buttered muffin tins, top it with the batter, and bake the muffins in the middle of a preheated 400 degree oven for 25 minutes, or until they are golden. Let the muffins cool in the tins for 2 minutes and invert them onto a rack.

Note: The original recipe did call for buttering the muffin tips. I used liners instead and it was an awful mess. The writers are also serious about inverting the muffins - otherwise the juice collects at the bottom and makes the tops of the muffins mushy. Despite our culinary challenges, they were gobbled up by lunchtime!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Save the animals

Save the animals.

Really. As a parent, that's one of my greatest pleas this holiday season.

Just about any mother of a little girl can tell you that they're swimming in stuffed animals. Small ones. Fluffy ones. Musical ones. Ones so large that can wear their child's clothes.

If these were real animals, the codes people would be in force.

The problem with these fluffy friends is they're cute. Look at their sweet faces. The soft furr. The just-right-for-snuggling size.

And then they join the herd, forced to a lifetime of being squished in their corral of the parents' choice, largely forgotten until the day mom or dad decide they have had enough and attempt to clean out.

And what can you do with stuffed animals who have lost their love? Parents don't want them. You can hardly donate them. Instead, many of them meet the same fate as one Build-a-Bear, casually tossed on the curb down my street.

This holiday season, save the animals. If you think your family's or friends' children need someone to cuddle, there are little arms waiting for real hugs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First snow


When you're little, the first snow of the season in particular is just magic. The dusting of snow sprinkled over the leaves, the grass. The allure of stomping in fluffy, cold flakes. The dream of snowballs and snow angels.

I confess that our morning delays weren't 100 percent due to the roads (though Hoosiers' general ability to forget how to do winter driving the first snow of the year always amazes me). No, it was watching my two little ones' amazement at the world around them.

They stared out the window. "It's Christmas Eve!" my oldest declared. Boy, we have a lot of Christmases to contend with then, I thought.

The little one said nothing. Instead, he seriously pushed and pulled their chairs so the two of them could sit in front of the window and watch the world. I don't know when it is that our thrill of that first snow wanes, but sharing their moment this morning brought it all back.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A precious gift

This week, I'd learned through someone at my church that an area food pantry was trying to collect 1,000 shoeboxes of gifts for the children served by the pantry. The directions were simple: pack a gently loved stuffed animal, a gently used book, a few candies and an orange. But for the children who'd receive them at Christmas, they would be a welcomed reminder that they were loved, regardless of the circumstances their family was in.

I thought this project was the perfect way to reinforce to my daughter the idea of gift-giving -- and, selfishly, I admit, to get rid of a few unloved toys.
Fortunately, she was interested. She immediately thought of one bear she didn't want (a hand-me-down admittedly) and a book that she didn't like. It felt less about helping others than getting rid of things. As we wrapped the box, I wondered if she got the point of sharing at all, or if this really just was a cleaning-out exercise.

Tonight, I got my answer. Tossed aside in her room was a scrap of wrapping paper, nestled around a stuffed pink cat. I asked her about it, and she said she needed more paper, scrounging until she found a second piece of scrap. And then, she announced, she needed tape.

For 20 minutes, she moved and adjusted and folded and rattled the papers, painstakingly working to secure each and every loose edge.

Finally, I asked her what it was for. It was for her brother, she said.

I silently wondered if she was playing the "present game," when we pretend to give each other a "present" in a well-worn gift bag and practice saying our appreciation. But, no, she was too intense in her wrapping project.

Finally, I asked her if she liked her cat.

"I do," she insisted. "I just thought he would like it, too."
I don't know if next month, she'll remember this was her gift to her brother, but watching her love and care in such a small moment was a blessing in itself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FARMfood: Green living with chef Daniel Orr: A review

FARMfood is the type of book that makes me want it to be summer again.

A rainbow of colors and seasons pictured within the pages may be enough for some people. But reading the descriptions of the recipes and his stories of food make all the difference in this cookbook.

A good chef should have a love affair with food. While many cookbook authors, if they provide any background into a recipe at all, mention where they picked up an altered a recipe abroad or offering a substition, renowed chef Daniel Orr details the little things. Like how to get around the fact that "turkey burgers tend to satisfy the soul less." Or how to convert portobello mushrooms into "beer food." Or how to best cook a dish in a particular marinade. Or how a cultural lesson was learned while cooking:

This soup is one that I came up with while at CuisinArt in Anguilla. The
Anguillans eat hot soup all year round. I tried getting them to taste some of my
cold soups, but without success. I thought chilled soup would be a refreshing
tonic for the heat, but I was schooled by one old lady who said the hotter the
soup, the cooler you'll be. In the Carribean, squash and pumpkins are used all
year long, not just during the fall, when we think of using them. So this soup
can be served all year round. And for the record, it's not bad cold either.

The recipes range from curious ingredients (cattails, dandelions, wild garlic and smelts) to exciting dishes that are simple enough for a working mom to recreate. I was able to try several recipes with items on hand and was able to confidently juggle the preparation. I will say, that some very basic cooking skills are required. Orr does not stoop to tell you what temperatures oils should be heated in a pan, for example.

What's great about this book is he not only sells you on the ingredients, he shares his love of them and their secrets: from scavenging and growing to how to prepare according to the time of year. And Midwesterners should not shy away from this: Orr shares tips from mushrooming in Indiana to where to find locally produced foods ranging from White Pekin duck to elk. (Want other tips? Check out his podcast.) It's a welcome addition to any food lover's bookshelf.

In full disclosure, I did receive a review copy from Indiana University Press. But you probably knew that.

December rose

Yes, it's December. Yes, I live in Indiana. Yes, I had quality time with my car's window scraper this morning. Yet, I came home to see this treat in my yard:

Just a little way to brighten a dreary day!