Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Stove top Popcorn, and Books Galore

I am a very reluctant movie goer, much preferring TV to movies. On the rare occasions that I get talked into it, the movie trip has to be incentivized with a big tub of popcorn. There's nothing quite like movie popcorn- the crunch, the savory aroma, the salt and butter, well, butter-like substance. It is so good and so bad.

Friday nights are family movie nights at our house but only rarely accompanied by popcorn; we tend to eat dinner while watching the movie. Part of the reason is that I don't like microwave popcorn, and I've tried making stovetop popcorn with very meh results. The popcorn on the bottom of the pot burns and there are too many unpopped kernels left behind. And so a jar of popcorn kernels was quietly hibernating at the back of the pantry.

Last week, in the throes of spring cleaning, I decided to use it or lose it. A quick web search led to a promising recipe (well, it had "perfect" right there in the title) and in one of those everyday miracles, the recipe actually worked exactly as it said it would, the first time around. The first trick is to heat the oil with a couple of kernels so that when those test kernels pop, you know that the oil is exactly at the right temperature. Then the rest of the kernels go in, at which point you use another trick, pulling the pot off the heat so that all the kernels get a chance to get heated up uniformly.

Stove-top Popcorn
(Inspired by this recipe)

1. Add 1/4 cup coconut oil and 3 popcorn kernels to a large pot.

2. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until all 3 kernels pop.
Remove the 3 popped kernels. 

3. Add 2/3 cup popcorn kernels, then quickly cover the pot and remove it off the heat.

4. Wait 30 seconds (set a timer).

5. Put the pot back on the heat and cook, shaking the pot once in a while.

6. After about 2 minutes, as the popping slows down, leave the lid ajar on the pop. This lets the steam out and keeps the popcorn crisp.

7. Pour the popcorn into a huge bowl, or divide among two large bowls (you need space to mix). Sprinkle with salt and honey-butter if desired (the latter made by melting together a couple of tablespoons each of butter and honey). Toss very well and serve right away.

This popcorn was delightful- no unpopped kernels, it fluffed up to fill my stockpot and is the perfect amount to serve a family. Even with my stale kernels which resulted in slightly chewy popcorn, the kids and I enjoyed every bit of it. 

Next time I will grind some kosher salt in the blender to make very fine popcorn salt which salts the popcorn more easily.

* * *
Image: Goodreads

Earlier this month, March 2 (Dr. Seuss' birthday) was celebrated all over the country as Read Across America day. It is a big celebration in Lila's book-loving elementary school. The kids get to go to school dressed as their favorite book characters. Lila has a huge love of dress up and pretend play and went as Fancy Nancy- the main character from a warm and funny book about a girl named Nancy who like all things fancy and glamorous. It was a fun and easy costume to put together- gathering together a tiara, colorful hair bows, sunglasses, a fancy skirt and glittery shoes and a bright orange duster.

Image: Goodreads
On that morning, parent volunteers went to classrooms to read to the kids. The day before, I asked Lila to help me pick a book to read to her class and she went straight for a book on our bookshelf- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole.

Her class is obsessed with learning all about penguins, and it was easy to see why she gravitated towards this book, which narrates the true story of two male penguins in New York City's Central Park Zoo who became partners and raised a penguin chick. I adore this book, with its sweet story of a non-traditional family; the illustrations are adorable. So I can't understand the fuss around And Tango Makes Three being as controversial as it is and the number one banned book in the country.

Not wanting Lila's (very excellent) teacher to be taken aback by my choice of book, I sent a quick e-mail explaining that I was going to read this book aloud and the teacher responded and said, go for it. And that's how I ended up reading a banned book in my kindergartener's class! The kids were excited to read a story about penguins, we all aawed at the penguin chick being born to two devoted daddies, the sky did not fall and a good time was had by all.

Here are a couple of other interesting books that we randomly picked off the library shelves recently.

I am different! Can you find me? by Manjula Padmanabhan has many fun features and kept Lila entertained for a long while- each page has an artfully done picture puzzle, the question "Can you find me" in sixteen languages including Hebrew, Hawaaian, Cree, Swahili, Hindi, and a little write up of words in English that come from that language. We enjoyed using our powers of observation to figure out the puzzles and learned interesting things, like that the words gumbo, tote and yam come from Gullah, a Creole language developed by people who came to America from different parts of Africa as slaves.

Human Footprint by Ellen Kirk chronicles everything you (in this case meaning the average American) will eat, use, wear, buy and throw out in a lifetime. It makes for some pretty spectacular statistics. Some of the facts were eye-opening to me. For instance, every year, you'll buy 48 new things to wear and will spend $52, 972 on your clothes in your lifetime. Really? In the picture above is Lila's favorite page, the one saying that you will eat over 14,000 candy bars in your lifetime, enough to fill 12 shopping carts.

It was fascinating to read through this book and see how we compared to the national average, and knowing that even in the cases where I personally am far below the average (in candy bars and clothes shopping, for sure), I consume far, far more than billions of humans on this planet. The book has a few tips for decreasing one's footprint- basic stuff like using cloth bags for shopping, using refillable water bottles, eating more plant based food, recycling aluminum cans, and not wasting food.

Finally, the best 75 minutes I spent this weekend- our public library hosted their semi-annual book sale, a gym-sized room full of gently used, donated or ex-library books that are sold to benefit the library. I was able to leave the kids at home and spend a glorious Saturday morning browsing through the tables. You can buy a large paper sack for $10 and fill it up with as many books as you can. As you can, I did just that, hauling home a paper sack bursting with 21 books. I found some children's books, baby board books, YA books, random novels, and an Alice Medrich cookbook. My favorite find- American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. I've read it and loved it, and bought it as a gift for V.

What are you cooking and reading these days? 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Vegetable Kadhi, and Many Doggy Pics

Among our favorite warming meals of winter- soups, dals and coconut curries- is the yogurt and besan (chickpea flour) based kadhi. My favorite style of kadhi is the mild, sweet, white Gujarati version but I haven't nailed down a recipe for it yet. Let me know if you have a good recipe for this style of kadhi. I've asked two close friends who happen to be Gujarati and they both claim that they don't like that sweet kadhi (ditto for the sweet Gujarati dal) and only ate it as kids when they were forced to. Sigh.

The current house favorite is this version, yellow with turmeric, with an aromatic tempering of several whole spices that just "makes" the dish. Basically you round up all the seeds in the spice cabinet and put 'em in there.

I add plenty of vegetables to the curry to make it a one-pot meal. This time I added carrots and those flat, broad Italian green beans (a freezer staple in my kitchen). Other vegetables that work well here: cauliflower, green beans, bell peppers, eggplant.

Vegetable Kadhi

1. Heat oil in a deep, heavy pot.

2. Temper it with
  • Mustard seeds
  • Hing (asafetida)
  • Curry leaves
  • Minced green chillies/ red chili powder/ broken dried red chillies
  • Turmeric
  • Cumin seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Coriander seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Nigella seeds

3. Add salt to taste and about 4 cups vegetables. I used carrots and frozen Italian green beans (the broad flat ones). 

4. Cover and let the vegetables cook until almost tender. Meanwhile, mix 2 cups yogurt, 1 cup water and 1/4 cup besan. Whisk together into a smooth paste.

5. Add the yogurt mixture to the veggies and simmer on low heat, covered, until the veggies and besan are cooked through. Garnish with cilantro if desired and enjoy! 

* * *

Our beloved pup Duncan turned 5 in December. His predecessor Dale got plenty of airtime on this blog, being the only child and all, while Duncan is the poor neglected middle child (not really) and I rarely get around to featuring him here. This weekend was the Chinese lunar new year ushering in the Year of the Dog, so this is a good time to post a few pictures of Dunkie.

Dunkie is an extra large dog (tipping the scale at 103 lbs) with a heart that is three sizes too big. He is seriously patient with our toddler. "Guckie" (Dunkie) was one of Niam's first words. He even learned to stand up by holding on to Duncan. Our boy is all over Duncan in his clueless and overwhelming toddler enthusiasm.  Dunkie puts up with it, and if it gets too much, he just shakes off the toddler and walks away. We practice "gentle hands" on Dunkie at every opportunity.

Dunkie has discovered that there is an upside for having a pesky toddler for a brother. Niam demands "Guckie kee-koo" (Dunkie cookie) every few hours- meaning a cookie that he can hand-feed the dog. Plus there are lots of tasty table scraps raining down by the high chair at every mealtime.

A kid and his dog
Dunkie is our one dog petting zoo. Wherever he goes, people swarm around, asking to pet him. People always think he is some exotic breed and are shocked to hear that he is a rescued dog and a one of a kind mutt. In that way he is an ambassador for shelters everywhere which are full of beautiful dogs just waiting for a home. Here are some pics of Dunkie doing what he does best.

Always with a slightly worried
hound dog expression

Snoozing on the biggest pet bed
I could find

His favorite spot in the world

His second favorite spot in the world:
the dog park
Waiting patiently for a treat

Enjoy the week! What are you cooking this week? Tell me about the pets in your life.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

One Hot Stove is a teenager, and Raising the Bar(bell) in February

This week marks the 13th birthday of this blog. Nearly 700 posts. Over 22,000 comments. 6.5 million page views. I started blogging when it was a pretty new thing, I was blogging during the golden era of food blogging and today, years after it has been declared that blogging is dead and people have moved on to twitter and Instagram and podcasting, here I am, still blogging away. What does this say about me? That I'm persistent or that I'm a dinosaur who missed the boat to the next great thing?

Meanwhile, readers have come and gone. Friendships have been forged. There's a lot of my life that has been lived on this little blog! Thank you for stopping by to read it.

* * * 
It is somehow already the second month of 2018. My January goal to streamline my sleep habits went extremely well, thanks to the kids who cooperated and slept soundly themselves. Most nights I was able to read peacefully and then get long stretches of sleep- which is such an unbelievable luxury. Even though we had a few rough nights in the last week (ah well, nothing lasts forever), I feel like a new person.

February's goal is to streamline my gym routine. In the last couple of months, I've been doing lots of thinking and planning about how to get my fitness routine in place. I am convinced that regular exercise is a must for me- it is not optional. The benefits are just too numerous to miss out on, and it gave me beautiful results a few years ago. But being convinced is just not enough- there have to be practical, doable, enjoyable ways of fitting exercise into my weekly schedule. It is taking me quite a bit of homework to figure out the what, when, and where of my fitness habit.

The What: I'm already doing ballet twice a week. What I really want to add to it is strength training- lifting weights and doing body weight exercises- to build muscle. It has been on my radar for a while, with friends telling me how strength training transformed their fitness much more than running/ cardio ever had. The research certainly supports these anecdotes. And my own small-framed physique clearly needs some muscle building and bone strengthening. To really get into the mode, I read a few books in December- The Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove and The New Rules of Lifting for Women, to name a couple- and got pretty excited about the whole thing.

The When and Where: The next step was to figure out how to start strength training when you don't have the first clue about it, other than what you've read from a book while sitting legs outstretched on a couch. There are people who do really well exercising in their own home, using their own routine, exercise apps or videos. Others do well with a gym membership where they can walk in anytime and use the equipment. The only thing, however, that has ever worked for me is fitness classes. I need a specific time and place and duration, and an instructor who knows what to do. Monkey see, monkey do, that's what works for me.

I started looking around for strength training classes- factoring in the timing of classes, convenience, cost, and whether it would be too intimidating for a beginner. And last week, I started doing something called BodyPump three times a week. I picked up a barbell for the first time in my life! The hour long class used barbells with weights, and handheld dumbbells, with the instructor taking us through a full body routine set to music- which is sometimes too loud and not my favorite, but it does make the hour go by very fast. Starting a new fitness routine is exciting and very hard at the same time. It is downright humbling when you can't do a single push up, not one. Also I am convinced that I am a medical anomaly because I have no triceps at all, none. But I am signed up for classes through the end of April and will see what 12 weeks of this class feels like.

Planning for stumbling blocks: It is very discouraging to start an exercise routine only to see it fizzle out when the inevitable realities of life get in the way- spouse traveling, busy days at work, house guests, kids falling sick, you falling sick and getting injured. Life has too many moving parts and the fitness routine has to be flexible. I am trying to account for that by joining a gym which offers dozens of classes every week, different styles of exercise and at different times of day. Hopefully, if I miss one class, I can go to another on a different day or time and keep the momentum going. 

My ultimate goal is to make fitness a daily habit that comes naturally, in a "do something every day" way, where that something could be an exercise class, dance class, neighborhood walk with the dog, run, weekend hike, playground time with the kids (where I actually run around and play with them and not sit on the bench and watch), walking for a couple of hours to do errands, and so on. Physical movement isn't something I am intrinsically excited about but I believe it can be cultivated and I am on my way to embracing it fully.

On this topic, here's an interesting article I read just last night on the development of an exercise pill. Spoiler alert: It won't be on a market for a while so don't cancel that gym membership just yet.

* * *
On the food front, there's lots of everyday cooking happening over here- vegetable kadhi, spinach lasagna, all sorts of wintry comfort food. I also made a roasted sweet potato soup on the fly yesterday- seasoning it with warm spices and coconut milk- and loved how it turned out, so I jotted down the recipe at the end of my other roasted sweet potato soup recipe from 4 years ago. Don't miss the great recipe ideas (for sweet potatoes, and for soup) in the comments on that post.

Do you fit exercise into your life? What do you like to do? What are your challenges and goals for being more active? 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Week 3: Snow days and Turmeric Milk

I saw the latest cover of The New Yorker magazine (by the brilliant Roz Chast) in the mailbox yesterday and laughed out loud. Last Wednesday our Southern town was colder than Fairbanks, Alaska, so the cartoon definitely resonated with me.

Last week looked like this-
Monday: MLK day, no school
Tuesday: Normal
Wednesday: Snow day and streets are icy, town shuts down
Thursday: Snow day again as many streets stay impassable
Friday: Hobbling back to normal

After this unsettled week of entertaining restless house-bound children, I am feeling under the weather. Not sick enough to take time off and not well enough to go about the day energetically- just sort of listless and achy and tired from coughing.

This sort of seasonal crud calls for a good old home remedy- haldi doodh or turmeric milk, now appealingly labeled as golden milk. I can't say I love the taste of it, but it does a sore throat good. I spotted a recipe for turmeric milk mix in a grocery store flier- ground turmeric mixed with coconut oil and spices, stored in a jar ready to be mixed into warm milk. It is convenient to use, and turmeric dissolves better in oil than it does directly in milk. The warm spices offset the somewhat bitter taste of copious amounts of turmeric. Be warned that in addition to being a wonderful spice, turmeric is a very effective dye and will stain clothes if you're not careful.

Turmeric Milk Mix

In a small saucepan, warm 1/4 cup coconut oil.
Stir in 1/4 cup ground turmeric, 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger and a tsp. or so each of  cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and let the spices infuse for a couple of minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in 1/4  cup sugar and additional 1/4 cup coconut oil. Stir well, pour into a small jar and store in the fridge.

 The mix is great, but does set up solid in the fridge, so to use it, either warm it gently or just scrape off as much as you need.

To make a cup of turmeric milk, heat a cup of your favorite dairy or non-dairy milk (I prefer almond milk), stir in 1 tsp. honey and 1-2 tsp. turmeric milk mix. Sip away!

* * * 

On my bed-side table this week is a novel, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, borrowed from a friend who recommended it. The story is told from the viewpoint of two people- an Iranian immigrant and a young troubled housekeeper- who are fighting over a house, a small bungalow in California. So far it has been an interesting, if bleak, read.

Image: Goodreads

In our mother-daughter book club, we are reading Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood, a fantastic story of three children who climb up the Faraway Tree inhabited by fairy folk that reaches up to magical lands at the very top. I was thrilled to find this copy from the '80s at a used book sale for our home library.

What are you reading these days?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Week 2: January is my SLEEP month, and a recipe for toddler-friendly pancakes

January is resolution season- did you make any resolutions in 2018? I rarely make real proper new years' resolutions but I like the idea of one-word resolutions, or overarching themes for the year. My word for 2018 is "streamline"- a word that sort of sums up my aspirations to organize, simplify and put into place helpful habits and processes in different parts of my life.

All through the month of January, I'm working on streamlining our family's sleep habits. I more or less took sleep completely for granted and never gave it a second thought, until we had two kids who are/were pretty terrible sleepers. So I have spent the last 6+ years reading every sleep book I could find and learning about how critical and indispensable good sleep is, while simultaneously racking up enormous amounts of sleep debt. Lately our kids' sleep has been improving/ stabilizing somewhat (famous last words? knock on wood, Nupur!) so I am attempting to climb out of the deep, bleary hole of chronic sleep debt.

January is a good month for sleep goals. December is fairly disastrous as far as sleep goes, what with holiday gatherings and travel and social drinking and bedtimes all over the place. There aren't many scheduled activities in January, it gets dark very early anyway and V's traveling a lot of this month so I am running ragged and ready to hit the sack at the first opportunity. Once the night begins, my sleep is at the mercy of two kids and a dog. A regular wake up time is always cited as a very good habit, but my wake up time is whenever the toddler decides he's "all done" or the canine decides it is time for a potty break. Likewise, when I'm woken up in the middle of the night, it can be a struggle to fall back asleep.

But especially at the start of the night, there are many things within my control and this month I'm trying to maximize those factors by making sleep a number one priority and creating a restful environment for sleep.

1. A regular bedtime, every day, no matter if it is a weekday or weekend. A fixed bedtime is a great way to set the circadian clock and over time, it habituates you to fall asleep quickly and easily at your bedtime. So this is probably the most important habit I'm cultivating in myself and the kids.

By nature I am a very early bird and school/work schedules also demand that we rise early (Lila's yellow school bus shows up at 7 AM!) so bedtimes in our household are very early. Niam's bedtime is 7 PM, Lila's is 7:30 PM and working backwards from my average wake up time (5 AM), I have to be asleep by 9 PM to even have the opportunity to sleep 8 hours.

2. Bedtime routines for my kids and for myself. A winding down routine provides a buffer zone between day and night and cues a good night's sleep. We do the usual stuff- baths, teeth brushing, story time, lotion and massage for the toddler, warm pajamas etc.

3. Stop using screens an hour before bedtime. This is the one I'm really working on this month. Going to bed at 9, shortly after getting the kids to bed and finishing household chores- this leaves me with almost no "me time" in the evenings, no time for crafting or watching TV or catching up on blogs. I have to fight against the feeling that "I deserve some time to chill out" and replace it with "I deserve my sleep". The good thing about screen-free time is that I have built in 30 minutes of reading time before bed- reading on old-fashioned dead-tree material, of course.

4. No tea or coffee after 3 PM. Not everyone is sensitive to caffeine but it definitely affects my sleep. Yesterday I had tea with a friend in the evening and sure enough, had trouble falling asleep. Alcohol also makes for a poor night's sleep. Yeah, good sleep is decidedly un-fun. But really, we get around this by shifting out socializing to the morning- friends come over for brunch and we eat and drink (alcohol! caffeine!) and make merry. Dinners, though? Nope, I just tell everyone I turn into a pumpkin at 9 PM.

6. Blackout curtains in the bedrooms. This made a huge difference in my sleep quality and I highly recommend it! The bedroom should be so pitch dark that you can't see your own hand when you hold it out in front of you. No blinking lights, clocks or electronics, and most definitely no TV in the bedroom.

* * *
After a good night's sleep comes a big breakfast. My toddler loves finger food and I was looking for a hearty pancake recipe with some eggs and oats. I found this one in, of all places, the comments section of a blog post. I personally don't like these pancakes- too bland and eggy for my taste- but the toddler loves them, so here is the recipe for anyone wanting to try it on the little ones in your life.

Toddler-friendly Eggy Pancakes

Measure 1/3 cup oats into a blender bowl. Blend into flour.

To this oat flour, add
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 tbsp. baking powder
  • pinch of salt

Blend everything into a smooth batter in the blender.

Let the batter rest for 10-15 minutes.

Make pancakes- this makes about 5-6 small (6 inch) pancakes.

Serve pancakes with butter, jam, applesauce, syrup or any other spread.

I usually spread the pancakes with jam or applesauce, then cut them into bite size pieces as a finger food. Pancakes can be stored in fridge (3 days) or frozen. Warm in microwave before serving.

Tell me about your sleep- do you get good sleep or is it something you struggle with? 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Week 1: Highlights of winter break, and a recipe for Gingerbread

Ah, December, the most wonderful and most exhausting time of the year. For us it was a month of holiday gatherings, gift exchanges and travel. And catching up with many old friends, which is the best part of winter break for me.

Lila's maximalist graham cracker "Hansel and Gretel"
house made in Kindergarten class. 

Christmas cards made simply with strips of
colored paper and a glue stick
I do lots of holiday baking most years, and this year I managed to do a little bit. For Lila's teachers, I put together boxes of almond biscotti (I finally got around to updating the recipe with pictures to make it easier to follow) and buttercrunch candy, with a few store-bought Lindor sea salt chocolate truffles (the only supermarket candy I like) tucked in for some color and sparkle.

For Niam's teachers, I made some silly-cute wine bottle hat and scarf sets plus gift cards.

I bought a few small gifts for friends that we visited. From a local holiday market, I found some beautiful leaf-shaped ceramic spoon rests for my friends who like to cook.

The favorite gift I gave this year came from a close source. My artist friend Bala published a coloring book last month called Meditative Mandalas. What really amazed me that she drew these perfectly symmetric graphic circles with her hands, using no software to design them.

A hand-drawn mandala from Bala's book
I gave Bala's book to my dear high school
friend in Boston and she has declared that she's
"addicted to coloring"
Lila got two "big" gifts from us- a pink dressing table that she has been wishing for, and tickets to see a beautiful production of The Nutcracker Ballet- we went as a mother daughter outing with my dear neighbor and her daughter. Santa got Lila a much-coveted unicorn beanie boo (Santa's helper had to google that one) and some chocolate coins. She also got several gifts from friends- a horse stuffed toy, a scarf, two art kits, a princess throw, a Playmobil kit and a book. The most off-beat and delightful gift was from our friend S who believe it or not is the production head of a candy factory that makes sprinkles and got her 14 pounds of multicolored sprinkles!

On Christmas Day, we took a flight to Boston to treat the kids to a snowy vacation much unlike what they get to experience here in Georgia. We stayed with friends in their beautiful new home and enjoyed sledding in the yard and looking out at the winter wonderland. The temperatures were brutally cold (even for Boston in December) and it was the perfect excuse to stay indoors in our pajamas all day, drinking chai, watching movies and playing board games (many, many rounds of Codenames).

My friend's Christmas tree in Boston
complete with a toy train running around it.
Festive and darling!
I have so many recipes for holiday treats and sweets and cookies saved, just waiting to be tried. This time around, I only tried one new thing and it was wonderful- a damp, cakey, light as air gingerbread with lots of fresh ginger and molasses. A friend made this gingerbread a couple of years ago and I loved it and asked for the recipe. I couldn't resist adding some cardamom to the recipe to add another note to the heap of fresh ginger and it worked beautifully. The aroma of this cake baking in the oven was enough to put me in a holiday mood.

Gingerbread Cake
(adapted from the Field of Greens cookbook)

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Grease a 9 x 13 pan.

3. Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl:
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

4. In another medium bowl, beat together:
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup light or dark corn syrup

5. In a large bowl, cream together  until fluffy
1 stick soft butter
1/2 cup sugar

6. Beat in the egg mixture.

7. Add the dry ingredient mix, alternating with 1/2 cup buttermilk (room temperature) until batter just comes together. (Note: you can also use buttermilk powder plus water, as I did, to avoid buying fresh buttermilk)

8. Stir in 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh ginger and 1 tsp. ground cardamom.

9. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a tested comes clean (or with crumbs attached). The cake is relatively thin and light so it is easy to over bake it- start checking at 20-22 minutes!

* * *
Week 1 of 2018 was a bit of home-related chaos around here. We narrowly missed the bomb cyclone up North and landed safely in Georgia, only to come home to a freezing house and a malfunctioning furnace. Suffice it to say that the week was spent chasing HVAC personnel and electricians and borrowing half a dozen space heaters from kind neighbors. But come Sunday night, I'm sitting here in a toasty warm home feeling very grateful to have heat since we have way-below-average temperatures this week here in the Atlanta area.

How did you celebrate the end of 2017? A very happy 2018 to you! 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Thanksgiving, and book review, The Opposite of Spoiled

Last week in the US was Thanksgiving. To me it is quite simply (a) a time to be grateful for all I have*, (b) a cook's holiday, therefore a time to bake and cook my little heart out and (c) a week-long break from school in which to entertain restless children.

This year we hosted a "friendsgiving" celebration at home with three families coming together for a feast - six adults and six kids ages 1 to 10. I didn't get around to taking pics of the meal but here's what we ate.

The afternoon started with drinks and a big appetizer spread. V's dabbling with mixing cocktails these days and he made a delicious Thanksgiving cocktail for the grownups with fresh apple cider and gin. I made faux samosas with puff pastry and veggie sticks with a herb-flecked dip, one friend brought over pimento cheese (the official appetizer of Southern gatherings) and another friend made brie wrapped in puff pastry.

After gorging on appetizers we all laced up our sneakers and trooped out for an hour long walk through the wooded areas of the neighborhood, then came back for the main meal as it was getting dark.

Lila very much wanted a turkey or something like it, so I bought two vegan turkey-less roasts from Trader Joe's and did not bother to make a main dish. To go with the mock turkey, I made mushroom gravy and orange cranberry sauce.

The sides were: mashed potatoes, mac and cheese (both made by my friends), green bean casserole (yes, the "traditional" kind with canned soup- My friend Bek sent me a link to this article about the woman who invented green bean casserole) and Thanksgiving slaw. My friend made a gorgeous challah (braided enriched bread) to go with the meal.

Dessert was a double crust apple pie (made by my friend- her first attempt at pie!) and chocolate pecan pie bars, with vanilla ice cream. It was a proper feast and a good time was had by all.

The rest of the weekend we spent taking the kids to the park to enjoy the sparkling sunny and crisp weather and I celebrated my annual "buy nothing" day on Black Friday.

*And "all I have" includes this little blog where I get to chat away and make friends. The medium might be virtual but the friendships are very real, so thank you. 

* * *
Here's a book I read recently that fits in quite well into this Thanksgiving post.

Image: Goodreads
The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber (2015)

As the title says, this is a parenting book exhorting parents not to make money a taboo but to teach kids all about money from a young age. I don't need any convincing here; I want my kids to know the basic of budgeting and personal finance before I send them out into the world.  It is a book written for relatively affluent families who are not struggling with money or living paycheck to paycheck, for the families where kids can grow up with a "money grows on trees" attitude if not taught otherwise. In parts, this book gets a little rambling and not everything resonated with me, but in general, it is full of engaging anecdotes and I took away many helpful tips that I have listed here by chapter.

1. Why we need to talk about money:  My favorite point in this chapter was this: "...every conversation about money is also about values". Allowance teaches patience, giving teaches generosity, work is about perseverance. Be grateful for what you have, share it generously with others and spend it wisely on things that make you happiest.

2. How to start the money conversations: The best response when asked a money question by a kid is "Why do you ask?" so you know where they are coming from (how that issue crossed their mind), and how to steer the conversation.

3. The allowance debates. Chores should be done without payment, simply as part of family life. The allowance should stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool. Start by first grade at the earliest. Around 0.5-1$ per year of age per week is appropriate. Make 3 containers- Save, Spend and Share to teach budgeting. Let children understand the difference between wants and needs. While not paying money for basic chores, do let children think in an entrepreneurial fashion and come up with ideas for doing tasks to solve problems and earn money for doing them. 

4. The smartest ways for kids to spend. Ask kids to estimate the hours of fun per dollar that something they want will provide. Teach thrift- coupons, thrift store shopping. 

5. Are we raising materialistic kids? 

6. How to talk about giving. Explain why and how we give. Let kids support local organizations in person. 

7. Why kids should work. Better chores, more of them and sooner. Facilitate paid work (help kids get jobs from an early age), and let kids contribute to their college funds. 

8. The luckiest. Foster a culture of family gratitude. Gain perspective by seeing the lives of others. 

9. How much is enough? Talk about trade-offs, because we can't have or do everything we want. Trade offs can be about not buying stuff in order to save for something bigger, or donating a toy for every new one that comes into the house. Try to have enough conversations about money and the values behind our spending choices.

I think I read this book at just the right time, because Lila is now 6 years old and able to understand a lot of these concepts. Our toddler's daycare does a "angel tree" event where they display wishlists from local children in need. The tags note the name, age and clothing/shoe sizes of the child and the wishlist has a few items that the child would like this holiday season- typically a toy or two, and often necessities like shoes, socks and underwear. This year, Lila and I went and picked out a tag for a 5 year old girl whose wishlist included a "princess toy"- Lila knew right away that she wanted to go shopping for this child. She was excited for days and we finally went one morning, hit 2 or 3 stores and bought a princess toy, crayons and art books, a party dress and shoes and socks and underwear for our friend, then packaged it and dropped it off at the school.

I had been brainstorming ways for Lila and I to volunteer together in the community on occasional weekends. Meanwhile, now that we have a daughter and a son and a dog, Lila has been pestering me that we should complete the family by adopting a cat. "I'm a girl and I have a baby brother, Dunkie is a boy dog and he should have a baby sister cat so we can be 3 boys and 3 girls", that's family planning, Lila style. I had an idea. We could go once or twice a month to the local animal shelter and help out with the cats there so she could get her kitty fix. Lila said she had an even better idea- let's just go to the shelter and spend a couple of hours picking out a cat that Dunkie will like and bring her home. But yesterday she told me she likes my idea and we are looking forward to volunteering at the cat shelter together. (Please pray for me that I don't fall in love with a kitten and bring it home.)

If you are in the US, how did you celebrate Thanksgiving? 

Do you talk about money with your kids? Do you volunteer with your kids and what are the experiences like?