Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I Can't Stop Eating This

It's so darn good. My enjoyment of it is kind of scaring me. Have I been eating cardboard by accident the last few weeks? Anyway, the pursuit of ricotta-using recipes (b/c of my rather large jar sitting in the fridge) led me to an old Real Simple magazine that had some, you guessed it simple but yummy recipes for the grill.

Enter grill. I don't have a grill. But I DO have a grill pan thanks to my recent trip to Beijing... which means IKEA. I am also a little concerned about my level of excitement about this grill pan. It really doesn't grill food-- but it leaves cool grill lines on them and that excites me. My inner artist just loves the way it looks. 

Anyway, I really hope if you read this that you will try this lovely, fresh, summery meal. I'm so in love with it I might need some accountability. I've eaten it for lunch for several days straight now and can't wait to share it with my man who is coming home TONIGHT!!!

grilled bread with zucchini, ricotta, and basil 
(originally published in Real Simple July 2009)

4  thick slices country bread
2 Tablespoons olive oil
4 small zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 cup fresh basil, leaves torn (I used dried, but added some fresh spinach)
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
Kosher salt
1 cup fresh ricotta

Heat grill to medium high. Brush bread with 1 T. of the oil and grill until golden and crisp, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to plates.

Grill the zucchini until tender and slightly charred, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Toss in a large bowl with the basil, pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, and remaining T. of oil.

Top the bread with zucchini mixture and ricotta.

note: I think the bread is kind of important... use a good, tasty country bread. I added tomatoes which was so fresh and colorful.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Palette's are not for Palate's

We are getting near the end of my list of things to do with the kids while Daddy is gone. A morning of color mixing and canvas swiping seemed like a good, let-keep-the-kids-well-rounded idea.

 I even hired babysitters to take the little Scout out in order to ensure a pleasant experience. Minutes before they came to pick her up, I set the previously unopened canisters of acrylic paint out on the table and walked away to get some water... only to minutes later hear my thrill-seeking toddler hacking and coughing as she slathered yellow paint all over her tongue and lips. Oh my sweet crazy child. I rung and rinsed her out like a dirty dish rag over the sink and she seemed to recover fine. Then I shooed her out the door with her faithful guardians, hoping she didn't smother her face in dog poop or jump over the railing or some such nonsense in her absence.

Then it was on to the mini-Picasso's.

In the end we had a self-portrait, the universe, celebration of turning 4, spaceship flight, and more celebration of turning 4 (someone's birthday is tomorrow).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Eeking out the summer :: getting wet helps

Just when I think I can't answer another "mom, what can we dooo?", the beautiful, magical gift of water saves the day. My favorite activities are ones that require little planning, no money, and keep the kids happy for a good length of time, preferably out of doors. Water enters the picture here and it can do wonders for a small, second floor patio, a low tide at the beach nearby, or even an afternoon haircut (who doesn't love getting their head massaged with warm cascading water and bubbles!). 

In the last couple days I've been thankful for the many moments this simple element has brought us. We've worked on our aim in tide pools while sidestepping crabs and other water lurkers, we've washed windows with mops and played slip n'slide on our porch, we've made buckets of green tea and who knows what else (with water and a pile of dishes... our salad recipes have no rival to these kid's concoctions) and all with something as simple as water. 

On one of these days I was reading in the UNICEF kids book about the water shortage in much of the world, and it struck me as we splashed and poured and let the water run through our hands as though they were rivers of sparkling silver coins, that our somewhat ignorant play is very fortunate indeed.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Easy Cheezy :: Ricotta Making

One of the wonderful things about living in China that is also one of the trying things about living in China is the lack of cheese. They don't eat it here and so anything we find is imported and thus expensive... and the options are limited. So delights like fresh mozzarella and ricotta, or varieties of blue and feta are not readily, and some of them never, available. 

But the more I learn from others and from some of my reading, the more I would love to make my own cheese anyway! Many kinds require rennet (the lining of a cow's stomach... who comes up with this stuff?) and milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized-- more items that are hard to get here. But Ricotta does not require either of these things and is pretty easy for a first timer.

The recipe is simple. You can also find a similar one here.
I used: one gallon of milk
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/3+ cups of distilled white vinegar
nylon stockings (never worn... just so you know)

Heat the milk to about 180-185 degrees, near scalding temperature, just before it comes to a boil (use a thermometer if you can). When it reaches that temp, turn off the burner and add vinegar, stirring for one minute. Add the salt. Curds will form. Cover with a dry clean dish towel and let it sit undisturbed for a couple hours.

Ladle out the ricotta curds into cheesecloth lined colander, or stockings if you don't have cheesecloth! Let the colander rest inside a large bowl to allow draining. Let drain for two hours or so.

And oala! you have ricotta. Place in a sealed container and refrigerate for up to about seven days.
Make sure to use whole milk. You can vary the salt amount depending on what you are using it for and your taste. I think I would add a little more next time.

Now for some ricotta recipes. It's been so long since I've used it that I forget what to make with it! You all did great with suggestions for salads... any ideas for ricotta? And I'm keen to learn some more cheeses so let's hope there's more of this in the future.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

summer salad inspiration

I talked to my dad this morning about his burgeoning garden. The produce is starting to come in like a tidal wave, threatening to take over the counter tops, freezers, wheelbarrows, anything that can be filled with lettuce and spinach, broccoli and cauliflower, onions and peppers, and loads of blackberries. Soon to come will be garlic, tomatoes, snow peas, muskmelon and next year... asparagus. 

I wish I could run over to the backyard of my childhood, leaping over the peeling picket fence, and lie down in all that warm dirt and fragrant produce. I wish I could hike back through the freshly cut grass with him in the early evening light and pick a fresh salad and bowl of berries. I wish I could string up all that garlic and hang it from the timber rafters in my kitchen (I don't have timber rafters in my kitchen).

I can't do any of those things, but I love that way over there in the middle of the armpit of America, my dad is doing dirt work, following in the footsteps of man since the dawn of time, cultivating food from the earth. 

All this talk of lettuce and radishes, colorful sweet peppers and homemade cheese (hopefully in the next few days) is making me salad inspired. I keep running into them everywhere... pictures of leafy greens piled high with grapefruit and walnuts or goat cheese and cranberries... I can't even remember all the combinations but I know I want to try them ALL and summer is the perfect time to do so. 

I'm going to try a new salad combination as often as I can, with the available ingredients here in my seafood loving city, and see how long the inspiration lasts. If you know of any unique, favorite or summer-terrific salads... or food blogs, please share!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beijing and Back

Sometimes we will do anything for love. There are songs about it... climb mountains, swim through rivers, travel great distances, endure great hardships. I merely flew by myself with three kids, but it seemed at moments like an incredible sacrifice. Regardless, as Pa Ingalls likes to say at the end of every death-defying Prairie-almost-burnt-down-our-house-and-the-natives-stole-my-cornmeal-circumstance, "all's well that ends well."  And outside of wrestling my head-strong toddler for hours on end in a confined area (that we are so blessed to be able to afford and access!), the trip was all kinds of wonderful. 

We stayed with some wonderful people who have a special gift of hospitality (you know who you are and I love you!) and I come away learning a lot about inviting others into your home by watching them. My children received some some serious Daddy-time which they soaked up and he seemed to as well. They also were blessed by our hosts who are like automatic grandparents... they just seem to know how to naturally love on and connect with kids. There were chores and books, baking and treats, balloons and little trips. It was so sweet and special for my kids who miss their grandparents sorely and it was one more way we were made to feel right at home. 

Then there was the Backstreet. You can spend a lot of time there if you want when you stay at this house in Beijing. It's just a line of little restaurants, lining up their charcoal grills every night to start cooking up chuars (meat on a stick) and other authentic goodies. We found a little muslim place at the end of the line that served delicious meat, grilled bread, noodles, and simple veggies, and we ate there several nights. This little girl was playing quietly with her chopsticks after dinner on our way home, happy to look imploringly at me as I snapped her photo and showed her the result. 

When we returned home last night, Skills announced that his dream house would have a backyard and a pool inside (neither of which this house had, but we did go swimming, and they do have a patio area in the back instead of a  20 foot drop off like at our apartment). 

We all miss Daddy again. My inspiration seems to have left me and my patience might have gone with it. Could that have something to do with my sweet little thing looking like THIS a lot lately?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

pride goeth before the pictures

It seems only right to follow up a post on pride with tons of pictures of my beautiful and talented children. I would post pictures of your beautiful and talented children, if only I had them. But it seems all I have is ones of mine. A ridiculous amount of them. What does one do in the age of digital cameras when you can click and click and click and pile them all into your computer without spending a penny? Even after weeding out, they still pile up like a stack of  kindergarten papers, meaningless and and superfluous except that they hold a scrap of his work, a scrape of his pen, a stroke of his artistic or literary genius beginnings. Why can't I just pick out that one representative piece, that perfect moment that encapsulates all the myriad of moments that lie there stacked and collected and begging to be let go?

I can. I will. Before I do though, I will throw them up all over you and this space that begs to be filled with narcissistic behavior. Some of which include talking about myself and showing pictures of my family. What would Jack say??

My friend who is an amazing photographer is doing this thing on her blog called Dog Days where she takes a photo ever day this summer, cataloging the days that can seem long and challenging when you live in a city with not much to do and little ones who don't have off switches. I think that is a lovely idea. I don't know how fully I can join in, but maybe once in awhile, or once a week. Today our "exciting" activity was playing in the little fountains down the road from our apartment.

Tomorrow the exciting activity is heading to Beijing for a long weekend to visit the Man! We started packing at about 7 am this morning and some of us were so excited, we asked to "pack all day long." But since we're only bringing one bag we soon discovered that was not a very feasible idea.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pride-Aholics, Not-So-Anonymous

Pride scares me. I think it's because I know I have it, and I know it finds its way into every pore and fiber in my being, like sand that clings to the crease between your toes after a few hours at the beach. You find it rolled up in your pant legs, clinging to your scalp, hiding in your pockets and waistband, sticking to the nape of you neck. You think you've brushed yourself off completely, but somehow those little grains just keep appearing long after the fun has gone.
The old guys have always said pride is the worst of the vices. It's because it works in that inner part of us that no one sees and is hardest to control, and yet plays out in every other area- making our greed into a hunger for power, our promiscuity, a way to conquer, our self-deprecation, an obsession with our worth that turns into a navel gazing neglect of others. The old guys are right about a lot of things... things the new guys with their Barnes and Noble bookshelves don't always see as clearly, being too up close and satiated with the present.

Jack Lewis isn't that old in terms of the history of writing and thought on these matters. But he is at least dead which makes me a little more apt to listen to him. Ah, the wisdom of a dead sage, whose remnants are only left to us in print and scrawls, not podcasts and shiny book deals. If you think you aren't proud, Jack says, then you know you are very proud indeed. The first step is admitting that it's there, and a biggish step too. The other thing about pride is to know that it can take many forms. The man or woman who is quite full of themselves, being preoccupied with their own amazing qualities is as full of pride as the man who is full of self-loathing and disdain, thinking always of his misfortune or mistakes, or the general displeasing nature he possesses. The trick is not to think of yourself at all. And to think of those around you instead. This is a steep litmus test... and because I fail it so miserably is the reason I say that pride scares me. I know it's all through me.

It's hard not to think of everything in relation to mothering these days. You understand don't you? It's just that I'm thick with the work of it, though I'm not sick with the work of it, and that is a thing of grace and beauty that doesn't seem quite normal or natural at this point. But I'm thankful.

The pride, it works its way through everything I do as a mother. It nags at me when I am grumpy and tired and show my impatience with harsh tones and misguided consequences. It makes me lament what I've become and hang a long face because of all my mothering shortcomings. It comes soaring in when things are going well. When we pull off a lemonade stand for instance, or have a fun day with creative ideas. It parades around with it's plumes held high making me think I'm such a grand ole thing, mother-of-the-year and I hope they all noticed kind of thing. It's ugly to admit, even here. But I know I'm not the only one... it appears to be a crisis with humanity. And yet, just because we all deal with it doesn't really make me feel any better. It's still ugly and bitter to the core and I want to be rid of it. 

I'm looking out at fog and it muffles my brain, makes me think in cliches, and I'll throw one down now. The way to cut through all this pride-heavy air, this thick-with-self thinking is to look for the Lamp. I can see it even now, it's brightness cutting sharp against droplets that threaten to mask it. But the Lamp Light is strong and I turn there for the Way. Barnes and Noble says to know and love yourself first, and there you'll find happiness. But the Lamp shows me different. It says pride cuts me deep, and wounds me and then others. The Lamp guides me narrow and straight, a path not easy to take- but it's clean and it's true, not things easy to come by these days. It says to forget about yourself, to love God and love neighbors. And who are your neighbors? Anyone but yourself really. 

Somehow I trust the Lamp Love, the words that promise if you love others first, you'll become more lovely than you ever imagined. But the first step is admitting. 

"Hi my name is C and I am a pride-aholic" Welcome C. Now forget about it and go show some love.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Instead of Eeking Through the Summer

I had planned to write of other things tonight, thinking some of you may be tiring of me plastering my daily schedule up and down this blog a lot lately. But then a lovely friend sent me a link to a little podcast on ideas to do with your kids for the summer... and it was simple and easy and helpful, and so I thought I'd share those ideas here with you. If you don't have kids or if it's not summertime where you live, well- come back tomorrow because I really truly want to talk about something else soon.

I've been thinking about Pride (now there's a crowd-pleaser) and reading more from my man Lewis about that (I read the Bible too I promise but he's more cheeky and thus more fun to quote), and I've really been wanting to make some cheese. Maybe now that I've named those topics it will force me to follow through on them.

Back to the summertime activities. You can listen to the podcasts here, (the June 7th and 9th broadcasts of Homemakers By Choice) but if that is not your thing, I'm posting her list and ideas below. 

One thing that stood out to me as I listened was the reminder that to be with your children is something you should embrace. It's something we should strive for. That almost sounds too obvious, like to say that out loud would imply that you are ever NOT striving to be with them. And yet, it's the way we talk when gathered groups of mothers giddily chat about the return of the school year and how ready we are to get them out of the house-- which is nothing less than realistic. Being full on all the time is hard and tiring, mentally, emotionally and (depending on the age of your children) physically exhausting work. But sometimes we do seem to fall into that habit of talking like we are owed any and every break we can get. 

Anyway, I shouldn't harp too much about that. It's just something for me (and I'm sure some of you) to think about. These are my children, given for a span of time, to invest in and nurture to my fullest capacity. It's not a chore, it's not just a job, it's my life's work really. That doesn't mean I have to think of it with rose-colored, June Cleaver-glasses all the time. Maybe it just means I should embrace it and not bear it like a burden.

As for me, I am certainly a rapidly flapping see-saw in this regard: embracer one day, bearing it like a burden the next. And I was fully expecting, in my bearing sort of way, to be spending most of these three weeks as a single parent in a state of mourning and depression-- eeking by on fumes of patience and barely held together strings of fortitude. So, it has been a pleasant surprise, a blessing really that these past 8 days have been filled with more joy and fun than I had anticipated. That's where the pride comes in that I hope to think more on later. It's so easy, when things are going well, to start patting ourselves gently on the back and then more vigorously as we ruminate over what an absolutely splendid job we're doing. Then a bad day comes and our impatience and ideas run out and we feel pouty and irritable, turning either to self-pity and excuses or to self-loathing, which is all sort of wrapped up in pride too. But really, that's for later. So back to the summer.

First, a thought (courtesy of Pat Mersiowsky): don't pack your summer full of camps and things to send your kids away to (really? not even an option here but still a good point to think on). Keep them with you and embrace it. Plan a summer full of simple, but fun and interesting things to do together.

Weekly Schedule Ideas: (courtesy of Pat Mersiowsky, with a few of my ideas thrown in there)
  • Music Monday (go to a concert in the park, make a musical instrument, learn new songs together, listen to things you don't normally, play broadway music, put on a family concert)
  • Tasty Tuesday (kids help make a big breakfast, special shaped pancakes, spend lots of time that day in the kitchen, teach them to make something by themselves, have lunch under the table:)
  • Wacky Wednesday (mix things up- breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast, backwards day, play outside in the rain, wear crazy outfits)
  • Thoughtful Thursday (quieter,down day, read for several hours at different periods-- kid to kid, child to parent, parent to child, alone, write stories, stories on tape)
  • Field Trip Friday (go somewhere fun! Fulfill some of their adventure dreams... waterparks or zoos, museums or farms, etc.)
  • Skillful Saturday (kids help with projects around the house)
  • No TV for a Week, Week. Or no TV Tuesday. You'd be surprised how much less TV you watch once you try it!
Fun, Simple Activities to Do with your Kids (courtesy of Donna Otto)
  • Read to others (the children read to someone, an elderly person, a sibling, a grandma or auntie)
  • Help a neighbor do anything
  • Plant something, somewhere, and watch it grow
  • Paint something
  • Feed the animals (birds, whatever you have in your yard, visit a farm?)
  • Fly a kite... make a kite!
  • Visit museums, statues, memorials
  • Chalk drawings (on your patio, driveway, outside walls to your garage)
  • swinging and climbing, even if it's supervised on a ladder set up outside!
  • Ride a bike (family bike rides!)
  • Have a parade
  • Walk, somewhere.
  • Bring flowers to someone (or a written message, or baked something, or all three) that they choose
  • Make a collection of something this summer
  • Paint each other (not with nail polish). A bald head is a great addition to this activity
  • Do something with water outside
  • Let your children be around elderly people
  • Go on a nature walk, with a bag, a notebook and a magnifying glass.
Last night the boys and I camped out in the living room. There was absolutely nothing spectacular about it except that it was different and felt special and brought lots of excitement with very little required on my part (except a much earlier wakeup call than normal. Thank you summer sun for shining at 4 a.m. when no one needs you yet!!). There were plenty of moments when whining and crying and sharp words gained the upper hand so don't be fooled by my sharing of our high points. But high points they are and we are exceedingly thankful for them.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    They're Not My Ideas

    I woke up to Mail Day. This is not an event wherein I receive any mail, but a Day that was pronounced to be so by my son before bed last night, who then pledged to write an individual letter to everyone who is out of the country right now, which then turned into nearly everyone he knows.

    There is something particularly sweet about those first attempts at spelling and sentence structure. I wish I could save all the little notes and scraps of writing from these upstart days, but that would require filing cabinets and closet space or something... none of which I have.

    Today was another good day, which keeps surprising and blessing me all at once. It wasn't without it's problems, but they were not the kind that wore my nerves raw or made me feel like quitting (which you can't do by the way). These three weeks without Daddy around I have small goals that are something like: avoid turning on the T.V. until 4pm, keep the house mildly clean so it doesn't drive you crazy, get the kids outside as much as possible, and give them something new or different each day to look forward to. So far, this plan seems to be working.

    As a child, my brothers and sisters and I would join our cousins every summer for a week of Grandma Camp. My Grandma was full of fun and creative, but quite simple ideas that made our time so special and something we always looked forward to. One of her standby's was a special Lunch Under the Table. She had fun toothpicks that we ate healthy finger foods with and she always cut our sandwiches into fancy little triangles. Who would have thought such a small thing could make such an impact in the mind of a child. But I know it stuck with all of us, her grandkids. There were many other special things as well but the principle that sticks with me is to change something normal, even if it's in a small way- to make it something delightful.

    I'll readily admit I did not do toothpicks or triangles today. Some things seem pointless at this stage when that Blue-Eyed Girl is always toppling things over or grabbing things she shouldn't. She does love to eat cherries though... pops them straight in her mouth and swallows, pits and all. Sometimes that makes her sit still. But I knew there would be lots of crawling over laps and grabbing at sandwiches, knocking over drinks, etc. so I didn't make the effort to cut things into fancy shapes or anything. It didn't matter. They still though it was great.

    We ended the day with a couple chapters from Little House on the Prairie, which prompted some pretty interesting discussions about Manifest Destiny (they didn't call it that). All Curls cares about is whether or not the Indians would play with us like our friends if they were here, but the older one has more serious questions stewing in his brain.

    Who was there first, the Indians or the White People (as they're called in the book)? And if the Indians were there first, are they good or bad... don't they kill people? Which then led to questions about the men we saw arguing quite violently outside the grocery store today. You see arguments of that nature much more frequently here than I ever did in the U.S. But there is an element of not losing face here that seems to be a heavy factor. You can imagine me trying to explain those cultural differences, while not discounting our moral responsibility, to my five year old. He's the oldest person I've had a conversation with in days, can you blame me?

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    The Beach, The Bus, The Bolted Door

    (If perchance you are wondering at the daily posting of late... the explanation would be a lone man who misses his family (and wants to see pictures), and a lone woman with kids on her hands and photo class requirements to fulfill. )

    This morning we headed out to the beach to play and kick soccer balls, throw rocks and eat sand. It was a beautiful, cloud covered day with shades of gray and the sun peeping out here and there to warm us. We watched this woman gather seaweed, and threw rocks at other rocks, presumably trying to ward off the little skeevy shrimp size bugs that skitter everywhere as you play.

    Next up was taking the bus into the city to get groceries and have lunch. By this time the humidity had risen considerably, sending spirally springs of curls straight up out of my pulled back hair and making me look all askew and wild as I herded not one, not two, but three (not that many to some of you, but here it always draws stares and comments) children onto the bus. I sat still and listened to the hum of chatter in the background, feeling conspicuous and uncomfortable and very hot.

    We made it home and I grabbed the small window of time to grab a few particular shots I needed, during the most opportune time, when one sits still and can't run off... toilet time. Yes, he is sitting on the toilet and I shamelessly snapped away, promising m&m's at the end if he would cooperate, which he did.

    Later, in the evening, we went to a friend's apartment for a wonderful dinner she had prepared, enjoying ourselves for a full thirty minutes (maybe), when our sweet little girl promptly shut the bedroom door and locked herself in. No keys. No outside access. The result: a broken down door. That would be broken-down door number two for little Scout this month. She had just previously done the same thing in our bathroom. They really need to get us some keys around here.