Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 6: Books Again, and Boys

My first grader is learning to read. It's the coolest thing in the world, and I love being a part of it.

We recently arranged an elaborate hand off on a Kindle so I could get an upgrade (thank you, family!!) This sparked Duncan to ask when he could have a Kindle of his own, like his big sister. Answer: When he could read chapter books as well as Charlotte. This seems to have lit a fire under him, because he has been very patiently and laboriously working through a Junie B. Jones story. Have you read Junie B.? She uses lots of big words, like actually, situation, and frustration. As in: "he got frustration in him."

The cool thing here is that the method of instruction used at our school encourages kids to use the pictures to deduce words that are giving them trouble. Not so many pictures in Junie B., so D is having to remember phonetic rules and rely on reading a sentence to the end to deduce a hard word. Which he is doing, with a degree of patience that my daughter never, ever exhibited. It is fun to watch and a relaxing way to spend an afternoon snuggling my growing guy.

Quentin distinguished himself at school today by making a BB gun out of paper and craft tape. Complete with a little paper BB. He couldn't even get out the door before he was telling me about it. I checked with the preschool teacher to make sure he hadn't violated some kind of school rule (as he certainly would have been doing at the elementary school), and then spent a few minutes apologizing for my violent boy. The other moms laughed. Another boy picked up a six-foot-long fallen branch and began threatening our sons with it -- so I felt much better. Then I put Quentin in the car and listened to a dissertation about the nature of and uses for BBs all the way home. It's nice that he falls in the fat part of the bell curve.

I'm looking for a reasonable follow-up to Warm Bodies. I'm contemplating another zombie book (but I'm also a little bit afraid to), or maybe Gone Girl or the Rob Lowe biography I'm supposed to be reading for book club (which, by the way, ladies, I am so grateful for all of you as well!!). Any thoughts???

What are you grateful for?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Days 4 & 5: Books and Girls.

I didn't write a post yesterday because I was totally absorbed by a book that I found because of my Day 3 gratitude.

Can I just say... WOW.

Warm Bodies is a debut novel by Isaac Marion which, fortunate man, was not only optioned for a movie but actually previewed at the Breaking Dawn Part 2 screening I saw on Sunday. The preview looked fun (see the trailer here), but the book is a lot more. (Isaac Marion has a blog, rather more sporadic than this one, for anyone who wants to connect with him.)

The idea behind Warm Bodies is kind of Zombie Romeo meets Post-Apocalyptic Juliet, but the book reaches deeper than that, into the path to apocalypse, the difference between a zombie and a human, the nature of hope, and the elements of a high-quality life. Don't read this book because you want to read a zombie novel -- although Marion offers a witty, funny, compassionate first-person perspective on zombie existence. Read it because it's a damn good read.

I also finally finished Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd. Lytton Strachey was a contemporary and close friend of Virginia Woolf's, a fellow writer and, in fact, was even momentarily engaged to her when she was still Virginia Stephen. He was also a homosexual who was 13 when Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor for a homosexual love affair. He is famous for his dramatic and subversive biographies of the lions of the Victorian age, and for his rather Byzantine personal life. This 700 page tome took me a looooong time to finish, so I'm grateful for Holroyd's insight into Strachey's life and character, and also that I can recommend a movie, Carrington, to anyone who is interested in the gossipy arty bits and willing to pass on all the thoughtful analysis.

So my gratitude for today is my girl, and her girlfriends. Those zany, goofy, silly girls spent a long afternoon at my house today, and they wrestled in the backyard, did homework together, dressed up and put on crazy makeup, pretended to be zombies in the front yard, baked cookies and ate them, played "Call Me Maybe" at top volume (but only once, thank goodness), and generally behaved like girls having a wonderful time. They never beat up on any of the little brothers who couldn't resist their crazy energy. When they left, my girl hugged me and thanked me for their fun day, cleaned up nicely, ate her dinner, and passed out in bed 45 minutes earlier than usual.

I like making my kids happy. Sometimes they surprise me by making it easy to please them. I am grateful.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 2: Yes.

View of the houseboats
on the Bay Trail
It was a day of YES.

I heard Quentin squirming on the floor of my bedroom where he was camped for some reason, but instead of getting up with him as usual I said YES to more sleep and had the pleasure of waking up ninety minutes later to my husband delivering a fresh cup of coffee to my bedside table.

I'd made plans to see Breaking Dawn Part Two with a friend, and when she called to adjust them a bit, I was able to say YES to an early lunch and matinee. She chose the lunch location and so I got to enjoy a really delicious tomato soup and brussels sprout salad at a new restaurant that I wouldn't have tried otherwise. YUM and healthy too!

When I got home from my date my daughter asked if we could take an outing on the Bay Trail. YES meant I raced my kids and held my husband's hand for a few minutes, and got a little exercise which made us all more cheerful.

I could have said NO to any of these things. I could have acted JUST from responsibility, kept my eyes on my to-do list, gotten the laundry done and the sheets changed. But I said YES. I am so grateful.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 1: Bridge, Not Barriers

Photo Courtesy of Peter Nijenhuis
(Creative Commons Free to Use or Share)
Friday I took my visiting family members, my husband, and my kids for a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. I've walked the bridge many times, a few times with a kid in tow, but my husband never had, and neither had his mom.

It beat the daylights out of spending the day throwing elbows at Target or Best Buy (we saw the crowd control barriers when we took the kids shopping for their grandparents on Wednesday), it only cost us the little bit of money we spent getting greenscreen pictures of the kids taken for the Christmas cards, and I for one (perhaps the only one) really enjoyed the five mile walk the outing entailed.

So my first day of gratitude is multilayered: I'm grateful we had family visiting to share that great outing; I'm grateful that all the members of our family are healthy enough to undertake that big walk and still be happy (and happy with one another) when we got home again; I'm grateful for the afternoon nap that followed; and I'm really, really grateful to be satisfied enough with my lifestyle that I don't want to be chasing down crazy sales in an environment that absolutely kills the pleasure of the long holiday weekend.

What are you grateful for? Share in the comments -- and let's spread some of this contentment around and share it on your social media field of choice as well!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


One of my friends is posting a gratitude a day on Facebook as a nod to "Thankful Month."

I wish I had thought of that.

So I'm thinking I'll adopt December as my gratitude month, as an antidotal lead-up to the consumer frenzy known as Christmas shopping. As my own little protest against the insanity of Black Friday, I'll start a post a day of thankfulness, every day from Black Friday through Christmas Day.

Are you in?

Share your gratitudes in the comments below, and please, share the joy with the rest of the world. Post on Facebook, or Twitter, or when you meet a friend for coffee. Let's not let consumer craziness rule our holidays any more.

(the remainder of the transcription explains who built the road and left the stone, dated 1814)
Argyll, Scotland

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Don't Have to be a Domestic Goddess to Make Homemade Broth

Homemade Broth

When you think of stock, which of these comes to mind? 

I used to buy stock as a staple. It has about a thousand uses, not least of which is making homemade, custom-seasoned soups in 30 minutes. As I've gotten more and more aware of how many insane things are in our food chain (thank you to every parent of a child with significant allergies that I've ever met, for starters), I got a lot more careful about reading labels. I expected to see something like "water, chicken bones, carrots, celery, onions, salt, pepper, and seasonings" when I read the ingredients list, but here's what I actually found:

...and that's for a premium brand stock! Sugar? Yeast? Organic chicken flavor? What IS organic chicken flavor?

The same brand discloses the ingredients list of their beef broth as follows:

        • Beef Stock (Water, beef stock powder)
        • Beef Extract
        • Autolyzed Yeast Extract
        • Sea Salt
        • Garlic Powder

I don't know what "beef stock powder" or (especially) "beef extract" are, and I'm not sure I want to. According to Livestrong, autolyzed yeast extract is a kinda-sorta natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and is used in the same way. Many other brands actually use MSG; Campbell's discloses the following list of ingredients on their beef broth:
        • Beef Broth
        • Yeast Extract
        • Salt
        • Hydrolyzed Yeast Protein
        • Monosodium Glutamate
        • Caramel Color
        • Hydrolyzed Soy Protein
        • Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten
        • Dextrose
        • Flavoring (This one right here is a personal favorite. Why even bother???)
Just tackling one word that occurs in this list three times, hydrolysis, according to Livestrong,

Hydrolysis is a method of extraction that boils the soy protein in a vat of sulfuric acid. Manufacturers mix the resulting acidic substance with caustic soda to neutralize the acid content. While hydrolyzed soy protein contains most of the nutrients and health benefits of soy, when you consume this type of soy you also consume the unhealthy chemical byproducts of the manufacturing process. According to "Soy Protein and Formulated Meat Products," the potential harm of consuming hydrolyzed soy protein comes directly from the hydrolyzation process.

Um. Ick.

(Note that I'm choosing Livestrong as a resource for this information because it's very readable and has external links that can refer readers to more scientific sources if they so desire.)

Caramel coloring is another one of those "ingredients" that has a wide range of uses and a varying range of toxicity, with certain forms of it listed among those products disclosed as potentially carcinogenic or reproductive toxicity. Regulating agencies recognize four classes of caramel coloring based on their manufacturing process, but since packaging only discloses "caramel coloring" without disclosing which class, the consumer has no means of knowing if s/he is consuming a relatively benign form or a much more toxic version. (See the Wikipedia link for more information.)

OK, so I can never buy packaged broths again. But I still love my speedy soups, and broth is still a foundational ingredient in a lot of home cooking. So. Here's the solution.

  1. Get your self a nice-sized container that you don't mind dedicating to the freezer. For this purpose, I don't mind plastic since the fact that it will be living its life in the freezer means that the chance of chemical leeching into my foods is significantly reduced. I do not like freezer bags because they can't be reused, and the Zero Waste Home groupie in me objects to them. But as a size guide, the gallon-sized bags would be about the volume you're looking for in your container.
  2. Every time you plan a meal around a meat item, try to make it a bone-in version. In fact, even if it's going to be a boneless dish (like a nice chicken piccata, yum), buy the bone-in version. It's less expensive than the boneless purchase and you can put those bones to good use.
  3. Whether you have the bones left over at the end of the meal or take them out as part of your prep, toss the bones in the nice big container in your freezer. I usually mix pork and chicken in one container (makes for a lovely, rich stock) and keep the beef bones separate. If you have roasted (or bought) a whole chicken, put the entire carcass in there, including any aromatics that might have been in the cavity. You can add the skin as well, if you'd like, but keep in mind that it's going to add a lot of fat to the broth that will need to be skimmed off. Additionally, I usually keep salt out of my stocks so I can manage the taste of my finished soups; skins, especially of bought rotisserie chickens, are generally highly seasoned, so you'll want to take that into account as well.
  4. Hopefully, every week the night before trash day you do a fridge clean-out. During that fridge clean out, you will inevitably come across a couple of carrots or celery stalks that are floppy and not that appealing, but not really so bad off that they need to be tossed. Great! Pop those in the bowl with your bones. Every time you stem mushrooms, pop those in the bowl. Garlic, ginger, and leftover herbs all play beautifully in homemade broths. 
  5. When your bowl is full, put the entire contents in your slow cooker, add a few peppercorns, any other aromatics you might not have put into your freezer container, and top off the crock with plain cold tap water. If your container had only bones and you're making the stock for a specific recipe, it can be helpful to check that recipe for specific aromatics -- carrots, celery, leeks, onions, garlic, ginger, etc. -- that might help to make your finished product really stellar.
  6. Turn the crockpot on Low and let it cook 12-24 hours, or on High 6-12 hours. 
I have a six-quart crock pot, so when I cook like this I end up with a little more than four quarts of stock. I keep mine in mason jars. I usually use up my stock quick enough that it's not necessary to freeze, but if you make yours to freeze, be cautious about your containers. I learned the hard way that mason jars sometimes crack in the freezer (I think I have better success freezing in mason jars when they've chilled overnight in the refrigerator first). It is possible to buy BPA-free freezer containers, or you can just use your delicious ingredient in the same week that you make it.

Note that a beautifully made stock like this one will yield a high gelatin content (from the bones) so when it is cold it really will look like a semi-congealed meat Jello, which sounds awful. But once you heat it in your soup, it will be flavorful, rich, and satisfying. 

Bon Appetit!!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You Don't Have To Be a Domestic Goddess To Make...

Chocolate Syrup!

Here's the recipe:

1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup cocoa powder (some recipes specify dutch-process)
pinch of salt
1 tsp of vanilla extract

1.  Water and sugar in a saucepan. Heat gently to a low boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2.  Whisk cocoa powder into the syrup and let simmer gently for a few minutes to thicken.
3.  Stir in salt & vanilla.


Finished syrup will thicken as it cools.  I found out the hard way that chocolate syrup should be refrigerated even though the components don't need to be. Don't make my mistake!

The whole recipe takes about six minutes to prepare. In fact, I am usually making the syrup while I make the kids' breakfasts on school mornings because I have just discovered that we're out as I was trying to prepare Quentin's chocolate milk. Syrup stirs into warm milk more efficiently than cocoa powder. Because my kids don't actually like milk very much, chocolate milk was the alternative to no milk at all; but that doesn't mean I have to feed them high-fructose corn syrup out of a bottle that leaches BPA.

And speaking of BPA, part of what I like about this recipe is that it makes it possible for me to avoid another plastic bottle. I can buy the salt, sugar, and cocoa powder from the bulk section of our grocery store, so I avoid almost any kind of waste at all (my vanilla comes in a glass bottle). Plus, I can customize the syrup.


  • Although this syrup is quite rich and chocolaty, you can up the luxury factor by reducing the sugar (slightly) and increasing the cocoa powder (slightly) to make it even richer.
  • Add-ins like a touch of cayenne pepper, cinnamon, or alternate flavors like orange or almond extracts bring a grown-up touch to the syrup. 
  • Instead of using orange extract, simmer a few strips of orange zest in the simple syrup, and then fish them out before adding the cocoa powder. (you can do the same with a cinnamon stick instead)
  • This chocolate syrup is also yummy in coffee, over ice cream, mixed in your favorite chocolate martini recipe, in sparkling water for an Italian soda (would be divine that with orange flavoring), or as a glaze over cakes and muffins.
Bonus: If you are going to make a chocolate martini or an Italian soda, you can make a rimming powder by running a quarter cup of sugar through a tiny blender or food processor and then mixing with a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and/or ground cinnamon (to taste).

Why not to buy chocolate syrup:

1. The plastic bottle is unnecessary waste. Even if you go to the trouble of cleaning out the bottle so it will be recycled (dirty bottles won't be), the squirt top will not be recycled. Not to mention that you have bought and paid for a bottle that could be leaching BPA into your syrup. Yum!

2.  Convenience. The ingredients have a long shelf life without getting icky. I always have cocoa powder on hand, I always have sugar, and I always have salt and vanilla. Ergo, I always have chocolate syrup available. If I always bought my chocolate syrup, I would risk not having any available for that third child who has been patiently waiting for the hot cocoa, only to discover that he's going to be getting gypped because I ran out halfway through making the second kid's cocoa.

3.  Convenience II. Chocolate syrup dissolves into milk way better than cocoa powder and sugar, meaning no disgusting bitter lumps surprising picky kids.

4.  Quality. I love chocolate. I do not love sugar. Call me crazy, but I don't actually have much of a sweet tooth. Making my own means my chocolate syrup actually tastes like chocolate.

5.  Ingredients. See what you're paying for when you buy commercial chocolate syrup: