Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Seedlings Update #1

Leek seedlings, 1 week

The leeks were planted one week ago today. My, haven't they grown? Do you see how they come sprouting up as a long, folded stalk, and then gradually straighten up? Fascinating!

Today we planted thyme seeds -- German winter thyme, specifically. This is my first year growing it, but the bonus is, it's a perennial. So hopefully these plants will establish themselves and I can then ignore them. Which I am really, really good at doing.

So our seedling update:

Leeks: 1 week, doing fine
Thyme: planted today, 14-21 days to germination

And the remaining seeds that will be started indoors to get an early start: parsley, eggplant, broccoli, sage, tomato, basil, cucumber, pumpkin, zucchini. Oh, and daisies, because the five-year-old insisted.

Check back every Sunday for a kitchen garden update!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Impromptu Adventure to the Zoo

National Zoo clock

One of the true gifts of an unstructured day is the ability to follow a child's interest, wherever it might lead. Today was a day with no particular plan, no errands that had to be run, no preschool, no ballet class, no mountain of laundry looming (okay, there was that, but we successfully ignored it). Most of the time, I have an outing or activity planned before the day even starts, but today was a truly blank slate -- a rarity.


So as the morning unfolded, we moved from reading books about animals, to asking a lot of questions about classification ("is fur the only difference between mammals and reptiles?"), to hopping in the car and heading to the zoo. Once again, I give thanks for being within a day's outing distance of our nation's capital and its wonderful FREE enrichment opportunities for children. The National Zoo is a treasure. And on a windy, 40-degree February day, it's also deserted. We had the place to ourselves, which was amazing. We spent the majority of the time at the indoor exhibits, since, um, it was 40 degrees and windy. It was so lovely to be able to linger at each window, read the plaque explaining who it was we were meeting, and go back and forth between our favorite animals.

It was tough to pick a favorite. The sleepy armadillo?

Sleepy armadillo

The gracefully swimming turtles?

Turtle in motion

This massive, regal-looking snake?

Big snake

The oh-so-casually-draped boa?


The frog that sleeps stuck to the underside of a leaf?

Frog sleeping under leaf

The Cuban crocodile who kept slowly opening and closing his mouth, like nature's equivalent of a neon sign saying, "DANGER"?

Cuban crocodile

One of the lizards, capable of super-human stillness?


Nah. I think we all agreed. It was the prairie dogs. Dang, those guys are just too cute!

Prairie dogs

Gone on any impromptu adventures lately? I highly recommend it. The best part was, since we brought our own lunch and gave the gift shop a wide berth, the whole experience cost us just a couple of bucks in gas. Now that's my kind of adventure!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

5 Reasons to Join a CSA


First, what is a CSA? CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it is a way that we as consumers can support small, sustainable farming in our own communities. In a CSA, you pay a sum of money up-front to the farmers, usually around this time of year, in exchange for a share in their harvest. This means that the farmers have the cash in hand to get their crops planted. It also means that some of the great risk that our small-scale farmers inevitably must take (due to unpredictable weather, pests, etc.) is softened somewhat. You agree to share some of the farmer's risk. Then, during the growing season, you pick up a weekly basket that represents your share in the harvest. If it's a bumper crop, you share in the bounty! And if there's a drought or a pest situation, your basket may be on the lighter side. And of course, you don't get to pick and choose what's in your basket -- but what you get will always be seasonal, local, and fresh.

So, why is my family buying a share in a CSA? Especially considering the amount of food I plan to be growing right here in my very own backyard? Just how many vegetables can one family eat, anyway? Here are five of my reasons:

1. Farms that participate in Community Supported Agriculture are exactly the kinds of farms I want to subsidize. Even those that are not certified organic (mine is) tend to practice sustainable small-scale farming that is exactly what we need to see more of in this country. Even if I wasn't getting 20 baskets of produce out of the deal, I would want to be giving these people my money, just to help ensure that they can continue doing what they're doing. The best way to support a system is with your consumer dollars -- I am voting with my money for local, sustainable farms.


2. Joining a CSA gives you a relationship with a local farm. In our case, we will pick up our share every week from the farm itself. It will be part of our routine to visit the farm, and see exactly where our food is coming from. In some cases, you can even volunteer your time during times of greatest need (harvesting a fast-ripening crop, or getting a crop planted before the rains) in exchange for a larger share. Particularly for families with children, a CSA is a great way to demonstrate that food doesn't really come from the grocery store.

Oooh, tractor!

3. Produce from a CSA share will invariably contain things you've never cooked, or possibly even eaten, before. As adventurous as your palette may be, I'm betting that you haven't bought and prepared every single fruit or vegetable available. All of us tend to fall into food ruts, serving green beans every week. A CSA share guarantees variety, because different veggies are ready for harvest at different times. Consider it a culinary adventure. Don't know what to do with turnips? Hey, what better time to find out?

4. Even if you have a garden, you can't grow everything. Participating in a CSA frees you up to focus on those vegetables you know you can grow well. Maybe your yard's not big enough for sweet corn, or you haven't had time to establish an asparagus patch. Let the CSA share fill in the gaps, and enjoy growing your tomatoes and peppers.

5. Food from a CSA, unlike food from the grocery store, is guaranteed to support good health. Shopping for healthful food can be confusing, with competing health claims contradicting each other every other week. Low-fat? Gluten-free? Fish oil supplements? But guess what -- fresh vegetables are always in style. And, again, variety is assured by the reliance on what is local and seasonal.


If you're interested in joining a CSA this year, there's no time to waste. LocalHarvest has a good directory of CSA programs across the USA, or you can try the USDA's information on finding a CSA as well.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Kid's Eye View



When I was a kid, I had a Disc camera. I thought that thing was the coolest device ever, and I'm sure I took an obnoxious amount of pictures with it, costing my parents a small fortune in film and developing. (Thanks, mom and dad.) As a result, I have stacks of pictures of what I thought was important, at age eight and ten and twelve. It is a fascinating insight into my kid-mind, better than any of the many journals and diaries I kept at the time.


These days, you can hand a kid a digital camera and it doesn't even cost anything to take all those pictures! And they get the instant gratification of being able to see the shot they just took right away. My five-year-old now has a kids' digital camera of her own, but she's been shutter-bugging with various cameras and phones for years now. I will frequently go to sync my phone and find dozens of photos of teddy bears.

More dogs

I think kids learn a lot from the opportunity to take pictures. But even more important is what we can learn from their photos. From their perspective, from what they choose to frame... it's a fascinating glimpse.

Family portrait

Hand a kid a camera. You just might get a kid's eye view.

Creepy doorway

Mommy's goodnight kiss

This post is part of the Moms' 30-Minute Blog Challenge, hosted by Jamie over at SteadyMom. Thanks, Jamie!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

From Seed to Table: Step 1

If you're planning a kitchen garden this year, your first step -- besides planning, choosing, etc. -- is to acquire and plant seeds. Of course, many people start with plants, and there's nothing wrong with that. Especially for beginners, you have a dramatically better shot at actually eating something you grow if you start with established plants. But it is oh so satisfying to start from seed. Not only do you have far more varieties from which to choose, but you save a ton of money. And you get to witness the miracle of germination! Not to mention the nail-biting risk of all the many things that can go wrong!

I like a little excitement in my gardening. So I start just about everything from seed.

Moist soil with leek seeds

I made myself a nifty little calendar where I counted back from Mother's Day (the accepted planting date around here) the number of weeks necessary to start each kind of plant. So pretty much each Sunday from now until late April, I'll be starting some seeds. Today was quite a milestone -- we got to plant the very first seeds. Leeks, apparently, take forever to grow into those long, sleek stalks you see in the grocery store, so there was no time to lose.

I surveyed the supplies in the garage and found a small bag of Jiffy seed starter mix. And of course, a seed starting tray. (At one point, I had five of these. There are only two in the garage. Hmm.) Fill loosely with seed starter mix, water well, let the water soak in for about 20 minutes, and you're ready to go.

Prepared seed starter soil

We planted the leeks quite shallowly, both because my various guides said to plant to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 an inch and because I had a five-year-old helping me.

Ever wonder what leek seeds look like? They look like this:

Leek seeds

Cool! We tucked the seeds gently into the soil, and watered well. Then we put the plastic cover on to ensure the soil stays moist. (You only use the plastic cover until the seeds germinate. Once you have bona-fide seedlings, you lose the cover, since they'll need to, you know, breathe.)

Covered up

And now we wait. 4-12 days, saith my seed packet. Sigh, it always feels like forever. In the meantime, we just have to keep the soil moist. The trouble with watering seeds and seedlings is that they need very, very gentle watering. You have to be very careful not to damage the tender sprouts. A few years ago, I came up with a DIY watering bottle that does a great job of watering gently but thoroughly.

DIY watering bottles

Take any flexible plastic bottle, such as a water bottle or 20-ounce soda bottle. Use an awl or a hammer and nail to make holes in the screw-on lid. I have one bottle with just a single hole, for when I need a tiny, targeted trickle of water, and another with several holes. Fill with water, turn upside down, and squeeze gently. The single-hole one is great for when you want to water around the bottom of a seedling without wetting the leaves.

Holes in watering bottles

Ahh. I can't tell you what a thrill it is to have my hands in the dirt for the first time this year. Simple pleasures. Next week: thyme!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Progress Report

Olympic sock

A week later, and this does not, in fact, look like a sock yet.


I may need to pick up the pace if I'm going to have a pair of socks by the closing ceremonies.

Time to get crackin'.

Persian Sloppy Joes

Persian Sloppy Joes

I am always amazed when people say they have never heard of Persian Sloppy Joes. I have been eating this meal my entire life; it was one of the staple dishes in my household. And let me tell you, between picky me and my picky brother, we didn't eat weird food. It was strictly a hamburgers, spaghetti, and fish sticks kind of house. So I grew up thinking Persian Sloppy Joes were just one of those normal things that people ate... until I realized that my family are apparently the only ones who make it.

But it's delicious! And when you make it and try it for the first time, you will wonder where this dish has been your whole life. It is super easy to make, and a great way to introduce some Middle Eastern flavors to kids -- because it's not in the least bit spicy, but it does taste a bit exotic. And you eat it with hummus, which is always a bonus.

1 lb ground beef
3/4 cup water
2 small beef bullion cubes
1 Tbsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cinnamon

In a medium saucepan, brown the ground beef; drain off any fat. Add water, bullion cubes, and spices, and smush up the bullion cubes with the back of a spoon. Stir well and simmer uncovered over medium-low heat for 15 minutes or so, or until the liquid is absorbed. Serve in pita pockets with hummus.

And considering how easy that was, why not make your own pita? If you are an Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day kinda person, then you probably have dough in your fridge. If you do, then your task is ridiculously easy! Just preheat your oven with baking stone to 500 degrees, roll out your dough into small rounds 1/8 inch thick, and bake them directly on the baking stone for 5 to 7 minutes. (Seriously, I think it just took me longer to type that than it takes to do it. Okay, not quite, but close.)

Baking stone
It helps if your baking stone is really, really stained and ugly. It makes you look like a serious baker.

If you're not a ABin5 devotee, and you don't have dough in your fridge at all times, then I suppose you'd need to make dough, which might take a little longer. But it would still be worth it, because the deliciousness of fresh-baked pita bread cannot be beat! This recipe looks pretty easy, but you do have to wait for dough to rise and such. Yet another argument for always having dough in your fridge, but I'll step down off the soapbox now.

Homemade pita

In addition to hummus, which is the ideal condiment for Persian Sloppy Joes, I like to serve this meal with a simple cucumber salad. I love this recipe I found, in which you marinate the cucumbers in a sugary vinegar-water solution, along with white onion and dill. Yum!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fine Art for Children

Yesterday, we found ourselves with yet another snow day. And since we were not, in fact, snowed in, and since we have all but exhausted our stockpile of crafts around here, it was time for a field trip.

East Building atrium

Ever since my teenager was a toddler and we lived within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I have been a firm believer in exposing children -- even young children -- to art. I love how little kids seem to be able to respond to abstract art much more freely than us over-thinking adults. I love the things they notice in paintings, details I might never have seen. I love how their smaller stature alters their reaction to sculpture, puts things on a different scale for them. I love their lack of preconceived notions.

We are fortunate enough to live in day-trip distance of our nation's capital, and thus have access to the amazing -- and free! -- museums there. Usually we visit the Natural History (dinosaurs! bugs!) or American History (trains!), with a little Air and Space thrown in. But this time, we went for the art. We brought sketch books and colored pencils, and only a vague agenda. I find that our most successful outings of this kind strike the right balance between planning and serendipity. Yes, it's good to know in advance what the special exhibitions are, to prime some interest for some particular piece, to give a little background so things can be seen in some kind of rough context. But if you're simply dragging the kids through the museum ("hurry up, we still have to see the Rothko!"), you risk sucking the joy right out of it. So yes, I brought the art supplies with the suggestion that the kids might want to sketch some things that they see, but I had no idea what those things might be. I did my best to sit back and observe, to let them explore and see what they might find.


I can't remember the last time I had so much fun watching my kids experience something. The toddler was drawn to the sculptures, and things with bright primary colors. The teenager wandered off and found herself soaking in a roomful of Barnett Newman abstract paintings. And the five-year-old sketched, observed, and declared her intention to become an artist.

Rendition of stripes

But you know what? My kids were, it seemed, the only kids in the museum. Of course, it was a weekday, but I'm sure my kids weren't the only ones with yet another day off school. I know the hushed environment of an art museum might not seem like the ideal destination for small children, but you know what? It should be. Because kids should see these things, and not just in a book. Just as I consider reading and arithmetic essential elements of my children's educations, so too is learning to appreciate the arts. It's part of my role to expose them to these kinds of things when they are still young, still open, still able to see with unclouded eyes.

After Renoir

But most importantly, it's fun. As the five-year-old declared, "ten tons of fun." Right on, ma petite artiste.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Fortune cookies

Recently, we have been reading books about China and learning about Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year. This was inspired both by the beginning of the Lunar New Year falling on Valentine's Day, and by the departure of the beloved Tai Shan. Tai Shan is a four-year-old panda who was born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and has now been returned to China, as was agreed by the two nations (his parents are only on loan to the USA from China, and any offspring must be returned to China). Having seen Tai Shan as a tiny cub and watched him grow, it was hard to say goodbye, but we took the opportunity to learn more about pandas in the wild, and China in general.

Tai Shan in tree

So of course I found it fitting to make fortune cookies for Chinese New Year. Even though fortune cookies are not in the least bit Chinese. But they are one of those goofy cross-cultural phenomena that I kind of love, even if they're not "authentic." And I have kind of an obsession with making things from scratch that right-minded people never make from scratch. I found a super-easy recipe for homemade fortune cookies over at AlphaMom, and they turned out great. I did change it up a bit, and substituted lemon extract for the almond extract. Not for any good reason, except that I didn't have almond. And I printed out my own fortunes, using customized phrases for our family. They were delicious and quite fun. So fun, in fact, that things got a little raucous and the toddler ended up throwing his fortune into my wine glass.


Happy Year of the Tiger to you. May your year be full of good luck. I, for one, am feeling very fortunate.

This post is part of the Moms' 30-Minute Blog Challenge, hosted every Tuesday by Jamie over at SteadyMom.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sweet and Corny

Caramel popcorn

In honor of Valentine's Day, a sweet and salty snack. Caramel-drizzled popcorn. Ahhh, heaven.

I am a huge fan of popcorn. I make popcorn (cooked with just a small amount of oil, and dusted with salt) all the time. It is my go-to afternoon snack. But today, a little sweetness seems called for.

To make this, you just pop your popcorn as usual, and sprinkle a small amount of salt on it. Spread it out on a cookie sheet. Then to make the caramel, melt a tablespoon of butter in a saucepan, then stir in 1 cup packed brown sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook at a low boil until it starts to thicken, maybe 6 or 8 minutes? I don't know, I just eyeball it. Then drizzle over your popcorn, allow to cool (if you can wait that long), and enjoy!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Torch Has Been Lit!

Olympic socks

Last night, during the opening ceremonies, I cast on for the Knitting Olympics. I have never made a pair of socks before, and I picked up some gorgeous self-striping sock yarn last week. So my challenge (you have to pick a project that will actually be a challenge to complete in 17 days) is to make a pair of socks. I've been training hard lately, and I'm feeling ready. Can I do it? Stay tuned.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Alien Mittens and Other Beautiful Imperfections

Alien mitten at ease

Closely related to the blizzard mittens produced last weekend, except these have... a certain special... something.

I can't quite put my finger on it. Or rather, my thumb.

Alien mitten

I was just sitting here, watching Project Runway (one of the few shows on television I actually watch), and knitting away at this mitten. I was so pleased to actually get this one finished, knowing the five-year-old would be happy to have at least one mitten ready (of the pair she requested as soon as she saw her brother's). I wove in all my ends, snipped off the last tail of yarn, and proudly held it up to show my husband.

And we both dissolved into giggles.

"It's... it's... an alien mitten!" I gasped.

"Na-nu, na-nu!" he replied.

"If she needs to greet a Vulcan, she'll be all set!"

At this point we both had tears streaming down our faces and were shaking with laughter, letting out little shrieks now and then. The teenager came running up the stairs to see what was wrong. I held up the mitten helplessly.

She fell over, literally doubled over with the hilarity. "What the...?"

"I know!"

I know. I cannot explain what happened, except that I was apparently engrossed in the outcome of this week's Project Runway challenge. I must have, I don't know, lost count of some rows? Who knows. Will the five-year-old notice? Will she care? I don't know.

Cactus mittens

I do know that several years ago, I knitted a pair of mittens for my husband. I used the most gorgeous hand-spun wool, and I was so proud of customizing the pattern to fit his particularly long hand. I wanted to make sure they would be roomy, since he's a tall fellow and used to things not quite fitting him right. Well, I got a little gung ho. These mittens are long, people. Seriously long. And pointy. In fact, they are affectionately referred to around these parts as the cactus mittens. But you know what? They are cozy. And my husband wore them proudly through all these snowstorms we've been having around here, and commented each and every time how warm and dry his hands were inside these mittens.

Cozy cacti

Looks aren't everything.


Which brings me to the sweater. Oh yes, I have knitted a sweater. (I know! A whole sweater! Grown-up sized!) It's this very hip, comfy pattern from the original Stitch 'N Bitch book, and I was just about bursting with pride when I finished it. And then, months later, a fellow knitter pointed out to me that all of the stitches were twisted. I remember being flabbergasted... what do you mean, twisted? Well, it turned out that I'd been purling backwards ever since I taught myself to purl out of a book. Every single purl stitch I'd ever made was... backwards. Which means that every piece I'd knitted in stockinette stitch had these twisted stitches. Including my entire, gorgeous sweater. (I don't even want to tell you how much I spent on that yarn, or how many months I spent knitting that thing.)

Detail of funky stitches

You know what? It's still gorgeous. And very, very imperfect. And I'm okay with that. I'm proud of all these things that I've made, not because I did a flawless job or anything, but just because I made them. They contain my time, my care, and my good intentions. In the end, it simply feels good to have something made just for you.

Na-nu Na-nu

Even if you're an alien. Na-nu, na-nu.