We haven't taken a big family summer vacation in years due to a variety of predictable challenges (not enough time, not enough money, too much work, not enough) but this summer Ted and I decided to be a little more pro-active and do the proper planning to make a bona fide vacation actually happen.The plan was to pack up the car and head northeast to New England to see friends in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and a first for me, Maine. I must say, I was more nervous about this trip than any other trip I've taken in a long time. First of all, we have never driven more than 5 hours continuously as a Clan. This trip would entail covering 1,000 miles with two days of at least 8 hours trapped in the car. (I swear, I was less nervous flying solo to Australia with Ben was he was only 11 months old.) And then of course, things got really busy right before our trip and we also had family come for a visit right beforehand. We did have dates lined up with friends and the motel booked in New Hampshire but that was it. We were to leave on Friday morning. On Wednesday evening Ted whispered to me, "We haven't discussed our route." I whispered back, "I know," and tried to avoid eye contact. Hopping in a car to go crash with friends with no particular route in mind is great when you're 22 and don't know any better, but it gets a little trickier when you've got a 5 year-old and a 9 year-old taking up residence in the back seat.
But we somehow managed to pack up the car, grab snacks, books on tape, dvds, cds and pull out the big map and thrust our car East. We must have had the travel gods looking out for us Big Time because other than a dingy motel room in Erie, PA our first night on the road, every place we visited and all the friends we saw, the food we ate, the lakes and ponds and beaches we swam in, the walks we took, the tiny but meaningful discoveries we made, it was just damn near perfect. I think it was a combination of great luck, truly wonderful and generous friends, impeccable weather, gorgeous, gorgeous landscapes and a little bit of planning that went a long way and allowed for flexibility on the getting there and coming back. And the value of friends was just huge on this trip. The Lucas Clan, The Steedman Family and Linda Lutz all literally flung open their doors to us. Being welcomed into these homes really made the trip and allowed us to deeply and genuinely relax into the places we were staying. Everyone knows I like to eat out, but on this trip, it was eating in our friends homes that made it all come together for me.
I'd have to write an epic post to tell the story of the whole trip, so I am going to share some of my favorite images and a few thoughts. It really was a wonder-filled adventure.
Sam at Squam Lake, Holderness, NH. Swimming to raft and practicing diving over and over are what he did for three days straight. He also kayaked around one edge of the lake solo. I got a few solo kayak trips in as well.
We stayed at the Boulders Motel, a funky little roadside motel overlooking Squam Lake. Every day the boys discovered something new. On this day it was climbing one of the giant boulders near the beach.
The joke in our family is that I made them all drive 1,000 miles just so that I could have a lobster roll in Maine. But that's not quite true. I actually ate three lobster rolls in two different states! The most delicious one (that I don't have a picture of) was eaten in the dining room of my friend Sarah's parents' amazing home. They don't mess around with lobsters in Maine. And they don't disappoint either.
Ben at Sunset. We were waiting for a Shrimp Po-Boy and a Lobster Roll at The Big Catch, he was more interested in hopping along the rocks. We are lucky, once we get our boys out, they can pretty much entertain themselves for hours at a time. They had a lot of that on this trip . . .
The boys made new friends every place we stayed. I love that about kids. Here they are at the stunning beach in York, Maine.
They also got to go off and explore solo and see nature in totally new ways. Sam and his new buddy Henry found 11 starfish in the tidepools of these rocks. (Also at York Beach.) When's the last time you saw 11 starfish in a tidepool? I'd say that was worth the price of gas right there.
I wasn't kidding about being mad for lobster in Maine. And I don't know if you can see it, but they were going for $3.99 a pound. This little shop was just plucked right in the residential area near the Steedmans home. What, we've got a 7-11 around the corner but here it's a live lobster shop. Awesome!
This is the Fireman's Parade in York on our last day in Maine. Sarah's family has deep roots in the York community and especially around the Fireman's Muster. (I think her Dad is the third generation to be involved in it and now his sons and his son-in-law are a part of it.) I geek out hard on small-town parades and so this was just magical to me. They threw out locally made salt water taffy! They wore old-fashioned (funny looking) hats and these cool red shirts that say "Protection" on the back. They pulled old out the antique fire rigs. OK, you get it, this was a really high note for leaving, especially since I didn't want to leave Maine at all.
This is my friend Linda, she has a place in Leyden, MA. The original "plan" (eeked out whilst on the road and via Facebook and very spotty internet action) was to just get together and have a cup of coffee and be on our way to a motel somewhere in Western MA. But the next thing you know Linda says we should just stay at her place and that is exactly was we did. It was completely spontaneous and I think that spontaneity when travelling can lead to some of the most amazing experiences. She ended up making a lovely meal--with lots of veggies grown right in her garden --which we ate al fresco on her deck. The boys went out into the woods and collected sticks for a fire that they really got to build and feed and marvel at. Later as we sat on the deck the stars came out, just carpeting the sky. And just as we were gathering things to bring in the kitchen, the owls started hooting in the forest. Another magical ending to the last leg of our trip.
If I can somehow figure out how to get some images off my phone, I'll share those next. But either way, we are so happy we made the trip and are seriously already talking about how we might do another version of it next summer.
Happy end of summer, everyone. I hope that you were able to go someplace amazing!
At Garfield Park Conservatory last week. This is Pyrotechniq and they were part of a glorious, magical Sing-a-Long to the Plants event that I went to solo. If you think singing to plants sounds weird or awkward (as I initally did) this event changed all that.Totally dug the giant Earthworm that Operamatic created and articulated on our parade around the back garden as we sang the Inchworm Song. I only wished I'd channeled my inner Rachel Carson, and made it perfectly right on for the boys to come with me and stay up a little later to have a great, big summery moment of wonder. I have another chance (as do you, my fellow Chicagoans!) on August 22nd when they will be hosting another event with storytelling, capoeira and more fire dancing. I will definitely have the boys (all three of them, I hope) with me for that one. Let me know if you can join us, we can picnic on the lawn and I am happy to teach you the Inch Worm song.
I don't know why I've had such a hard time writing posts the last few months. I've been busy but not that busy. So rather than throwing in the towel and shuttering the blog, I am going to try a little experiment. At least once a week (and maybe even more often) I am going to simply post a photo and hope that it can tell a small story about what is going on in my rich and unpredictable little world. We'll see how it goes, and if the words start to creep back in.
So here goes . . .
The boys are out of school and it is now offically summer vacation. One of the things that I wanted to do with the boys last summer, but never got around to it, was to take a Water Taxi to Chinatown. I love any chance to get on a boat and I have actually never been to Ping Tom Park, the new-ish park where the taxi stops in Chinatown. So when I heard that it was going to be in the mid-70s on Tuesday and saw that I had no meetings or calls or anything pressing on my calendar, I knew just what we were going to do.
Last summer Ben was terrified of getting on a boat of any size. He didn't even want to go on the Tall Ship Windy for a Pirate Cruise, it was that bad. On Tuesday he wasn't quite as fearful but he also wasn't quite convinced that it was going to be enjoyable in any way.
We took the #147 bus downtown and got off at the Wrigley Building, then we walked down the steps to the Riverwalk. And sitting there as if on cue was a bright yellow and black Water Taxi. We climbed aboard and sat up in the front. As soon as the taxi took off heading south, Ben turned around to look at me and his face was covered with a huge grin. He was totally hooked. I was both thrilled and relieved. "This is fun!" he hollered as the boat picked up speed.
You actually have to take two taxis to get to Ping Tom Park. We took one from Michigan Avenue to Madison/The Ogilve Center and then from there we took another one to Ping Tom. The boys didn't mind at all, they actually dug that we got to get on two different taxis. It's so good sometimes to think like a kid!. Two taxis isn't a hassle, it's twice as much fun!
We arrived at Ping Tom Park and my plan was to walk in to Chinatown and either get a snack or a light lunch. Maybe duck into a few shops and get a little trinket of some sort. But what I didn't realize is that in the park itself is a neat little playground. Ben pointed at the playground and said, "Please, please can we go play?" Seeing how this was all about having a fun adventure, I said "Of course!" I'm really glad we did because I got a much better sense of the park than if we would have just walked right on through.
Ben dug the mini climbing wall and jumping off the slide. Sam wasn't feeling so hot so he just chilled out in the shade listening to Harry Potter on his headphones. I sat down under a tree and read the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living.
There's this totally cool, almost universal thing that Chicago kids do with their local parks: They give them their own names. Oh sure, there might be an official green sign with white lettering annoucing the name of the park but that really doesn't matter, because the kids are going to make some connection or observation and then come up with a name. So in our hood, our go-to playlot is known as "Giraffe Park." Not because there's a giraffe structure there but because years ago there was a faded mural on the building next door that had a very modern 70's-style silhouette of three giraffes. The building was torn down years ago as part of an expansion of the playlot but all the kids still call it Giraffe Park. (It's official CPD name is Bromann Playlot.) So if I were a kid and I had to come up with a name for Ping Tom Park, I reckon' I'd call it Train Park. And the reason for that is, as I was sitting in the park I realized that three different trains "encircle" the park. There's the el train right overhead, so close you can hear the automated announcment of "The doors are closing." To the west, across the river, I saw several Amtrak trains pass through a beautiful old steel bridge. And then, just as Ben was running to get a drink of water, the bells starting clanging and at grade level a pretty impressive (and long) frieght train came lumbering past. I felt like a big little kid, standing there just digging it.
And I think my favorite word for 2012 might be "Intermodal" and with the taxi and the river and the trains surrounding us, it was all that and more in Ping on Monday!
We did walk towards Chinatown but Sam's tummy was giving him a wee bit of trouble. We managed to duck into Aji Ichiban, a crazy good candy shop in the courtyard mall on Archer. (It's amazing how a brighly lit shop filled with oodles of sweets can make you temporarily forget about your tummy troubles.) The boys each picked out three pieces of candy and I scored a wee bag of dried mango. And Ben was once again wearing a very large grin. I highly recommend it if you're ever in Chinatown, they have an amazing array of Asian & Ameircan candies as well as an entire wall of dried fruits and nuts. I actually bought dried Hawthorn Berries there once.
We also managed to duck into one of those goofy Chinatown shops filled with lots of well, crap, but Sam perked up when he picked out some Chinese firecrackers, "snails" and smoke bombs. Ben picked out a hyper-cute big-eyed Panda and a bag of chocolate Fortune Cookies and I scored a Bento Box for less than $3. Ben turned to me and said, "It's like we're on a vacation!" Yes, there is something to be said about acting like tourists in your own town. And as the title of this post proclaims in a somewhat Dr. Suessian way, (and is what I absolutely adore about the fine city of Chicago) there (really) is always something new to do!
I think we might find ourselves back on the water taxi before summer ends. Sam said he wants to go back when he's feeling more like himself and he wants to go to a proper Chinese restaurant. Sounds good to me, who know what new things we'll find the next time we head out? Here's to summer, hope yours is full of happy adventures!
Ever since he tore through The Hunger Games, Sam has been extremely intrigued by archery. Right after he finsihed the book, I read an article in the Tribune about an archery range in the Humboldt Park neighborhood that was getting a major spike in business due to the book and the movie -- especially with young female students. I told Sam about the article and the range and well, he practically leapt out of his chair. (Which he never really sits still in anyway.) And so, for the past two months, Sam's been asking repeatedly if I'd had a chance to contact the archery place and get him signed up for a lesson. And for 60-something days I said,"No, sorry, Sam, I haven't gotten around to it." I couldn't even use the excuse that I haven't had enough time because that would have been a lie. Sam was being such a good sport but I could tell he was starting to wonder whether I was ever going to make good on the offer and get him signed up. And I was starting feel that not so great pang of guilt for not following through. So when Ted asked me what I wanted to do for Mother's Day, I immediately sent him a link to Archery Bow Range Chicago's website. It turned out that they were having a Mother and Child Special Class just for Mother's Day and that Dads and other siblings could also attend. So that was that, Ted signed all four of us up.
Let me be clear, I am no avid fan of archery, in fact, I'd never done it before, not even at Camp Merrimac back in the day. I have terrible eye/hand coordination, spindly arms and while I dig that the main character of The Hunger Games is named after an aqautic plant, (Katniss) I had neither read the book nor seen the movie. But I knew I did not want to go out to brunch somewhere staring into a Mimosa for Mother's Day. And I knew I wanted to make my kids happy. I mean, why not have fun with your children on the day that's all about being a mother, right? So I didn't walk into Archery Bow Range Chicago dragging my feet, I just went in thinking that it was an urban adventure for our whole clan and that I was probably going to pretty much stink at it.
The range is housed inside the Kimball Arts Center and it sits right on the Bloomingdale Trail -- they even had a map of the trail's future access points taped to the door, which made me smile. It appears to be run by archery enthusiasts who do this when they aren't doing their Other Jobs. A good thing because it means everyone that's there wants to be there. Our teacher Bill (an engineer by day) was soft spoken but very clear in showing us how to safely handle the bow and how to position our shoulders, arms, fingers and even up to our faces where you can choose to hold the string to your nose or your jawbone. (I chose the jawbone.) We had three arrows each in PVC pipe "quivers" and we placed the arrows on our bows (easier said than done for total rookies) and began shooting at our targets. Even little Ben got in on the action, not caring if his arrow thwacked into the hay bale instead of the target. You can learn a lot about joy and process by watching a 5 year-old.
About 5 minutes into it, Bill came up behind me, put his hand on my back and said, "If you relax, it's going to feel much better." Trying to relax while also trying to tap into physical strength (especially in my arms) isn't an easy thing for me -- but he was so right. I took a breath, relaxed my hunching shoulders and my arrow shot out nicely. Then Bill told us that there are two ways to aim your arrow at the target: either look at the little notch on the center of the bow or simply look directly at the tip of your arrow and point that at your target. So I focused on the metal tip, took a breath, counted "one, two" and let the arrow fly. Guess who got a bullseye?
You should have seen me, I was actually jumping up and down, whooping and hollering. I cannot think of a more satisfying, electrifying Mother's Day gift! We kept shooting for about 45 minutes. I loved how I had to focus so it got me out of all the "noise in my head." And here I thought I was doing Sam a bit of a favor by taking him to do archery, when in fact I was totally digging it. (Sam was pretty happy as well.)
Towards the end we played a game -- Sam and I teamed up and tried to hit as many hearts as we could. By then, my arms were actually trembling and Sam said his were feeling rather noodle-y as well. So we didn't hit that many hearts but it was a lot of fun to just be working towards something together.
What a memorable and super satisfying Mother's Day. I'll take shooting some arrows over a mimosa any day. And I don't think that was my last appearance at Archery Bow Range Chicago. Not by a long shot.
Yesterday was my 45th birthday but the celebrating took place pretty much all weekend. Aren't I the lucky duck? Not surprisingly, food was a big part of the celebrating. Here are some highlights:
A German-style breakfast at my friend Heather's new home, with salami, cheese, rye bread, really good butter, tea and strawberries. It was simple and lovely. (And long overdue.)
Prairie Berry ice cream with Sam and Ben up at the 75 year-old Homer's in Wilmette. (Totally worth the drive and we'll back soon for their famous summer Peach.)
An easy-going, happily chatty dinner with girlfriends Sarah, Suzie and Rachel at my new west-side favorite and feel-good food endeavor, Inspiration Kitchen. I wish we could gather like that more often.
The yellow cake with chocolate frosting that Ben and Ted made for me. It's out of the box and out of the can and exactly what I crave and treasure when it comes to my birthday cake.
Going on an Urban Forage with Sam as my date and my old friend Nance Klehm as our amazing leader. Sam tried everything but it was wood sorrel and the fennel fronds he liked best. I was smitten with the broccoli flowers and the violet leave pouch that Sam filled with homemade yogurt cheese for me. (And now Sam wants to plant some Valerian in the Parkway!)
Slurping miso ramen with the boys, Ted, Grandma Franny & Grandpa Bob at Takashi during their Sunday Noodles Lunch. Hand-pulled noodles made with imported Japanese flour and a deep, rich broth. You pretty much know how I was feeling right at that moment.
Rounding out the celebration with Ted at a new Italian bar (right in our very own 'hood) called Ombra. Its specialty is cicchetti: Italian small plates, which were perfect after our giant bowls of ramen earlier. The decor is total Spaghetti Western, the booths are chunky and funky, it was on the loud side, but sitting there with Ted (and a generous glass of Prosecco) it was just right.
It's one thing to have a wonderful teacher in the room with you, guiding you through a process or a doing a bit of hand-holding, but it can be a different story (requiring some amount of self confidence) when you find yourself alone in a room, trying to launch or continue on with the same process or project and the teacher is nowhere to be seen.
Well maybe I am overthinking this just a skinch but anyhow, the other night, I realized I had a giant bag of organic spinach that was in full-blown "use it or lose" mode. I also had brown rice cooking on the stove and I had a five year-old who snacks waaaay too much before dinner handing me his plate with a completely un-touched breaded chicken cutlet on it. I realized I needed to channel Fumika, the lovely young woman from Tokyo who, a month ago, had taught me and the boys as well as my friend Sarah and I, how to make several popular Japanese dishes. "Gomae," I said aloud to no one in particular and decided right then and there I would transform that bag of spinach into the super simple but satisfying Japanese side salad. Fumika had made it for us when she taught us how to make Tonkatsu back in March and I still had most of the ingredients.
The first challenge was when I realized I had never written down Fumika's recipe for gomae. I was too busy pounding the bejeezus out of the pork cutlets and making sure Sam didn't deep fry his pinky finger in the hot oil. So I got on the internet. The first recipe I found didn't sound quite like Fumika's but the second one, this one, did. Sort of. When Fumika had said we'd need sesame seeds for the gomae (we were shopping for ingredients at Mitsuwa) I told her I had a large bottle of black sesame seeds at home. "No, I have never heard of using those," she said matter-of-factly and we purchased a small bag of ground blonde-colored sesame seeds. Then I found this recipe where everything was pretty much as she had done, except it called for, you got it, black sesame seeds. It's probably a regional thing, but what I was reminded of immediately is that all cultures and countries have different regions and these regions use varying ingredients. So while black sesame might be completely foreign (and possibly "wrong") to Fumika, to someone from say, Osaka or who knows where, they might be the everyday standard. And in my kitchen, ready to make gomae, all I had was black sesame seeds so I went ahead and used those. I toasted them quickly in a skillet and then ground them up with my trusty old mortar & pestle. The kitchen smelled divine.
My second challenge was that when I was starting to pour the Japanese "Mirin" sauce into the measuring spoon, I realized it was rather thick, kind of like corn syrup. We had picked this sauce up at Mitsuwa and so I assumed that it being imported from Japan it was superior. I stopped pouring, turned the bottle around and looked at the ingredients and sure enough, the first ingredient listed was corn syrup -- the second was high fructose corn syrup! (Apparently plain corn syrup isn't high enough in fructose.) So I poured the tablespoon of imported "Mirin" sauce into the sink and reached for my sugar bowl and my little bottle of straight Mirin (sweet rice vinegar) and used those instead. It wasn't a big deal but I'd just rather use straight cane sugar than a sauce that's basically just two types of corn syrup with some rice vinegar thrown in. So my lesson there, as I was "cooking on my own" is that one person's "secret sauce" can easily be substitutued by something else. They both work, it's just a matter of taste and preference.
I was ready to toss the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sake and ground black sesame seeds with the quickly blanched spinach. But I stopped myself and remembered one trick Fumika had taught me about the gomae that I did in fact remember, even if I didn't write it down. She said that tossing all the ingredients together with chopsticks "just makes it taste better." So I grabbed a pair and did just that. And she was right. And I realized (once again!) that cooking is an on-going, wonderful, life-long learning process. I need to be inspired and educated by people like Fumika (otherwise I get bored and stuck in a rut) but I also need to go with my gut or riff on a recipe when it is necessary or i simply feel like it.
I quietly enjoyed my solo dinner (Ted was heading out to soccer) of gomae, a gringo version of chicken katsu, sticky brown rice and a simple salad of sliced cucumbers doused with a bit of sesame dressing. I think Fumika (who has since moved away to Austin, Texas) would have been pleased with what I came up with in a somewhat impomptu manner. And besides, it tasted really good -- especially the gomae. And I think that's what she really wanted to teach me.
Sorry for the extended absence. I have some good excuses (a nice long trip to Florida, an uptick in work with the Bloomingdale Trail, a nice long Passover/Easter/Peaster weekend up in Michigan) and some not so great ones (I've been struggling with time management in a rather unstrctured work situation and though I'm loathe to admit it, I've succumbed a bit to the time-suck that is Facebook --wince). Oh, and in the midst of all this, I went and left my thoroughly beat-up, on its very last legs camera at a friend's place in Florida. So I am simply going to share this shot of a brilliantly stunning Cherry Tree that was in full bloom a few weeks ago at one of my favorite spots in the city of Chicago, the Osaka Garden. I usually think of Osaka as a place of quiet beauty. But this tree was anything but quiet in its gorgeous, fluffy, sproinged-out Spring pinkness. I looked up and was so happy to be standing right there in that very moment. I hope you have moments such as this in this time of new growth and things coming back. And I promise to be back here sooner rather than later!
This time we made Tonkatsu! Before I can talk about learning to make Tonkatsu from Fumika, I must first mention Sunshine Cafe. Sunshine (as we call it) has been in the neighborhood forever, or at least it seems like it has. It is a simple, non-fancy Japanese Restaurant that serves straightforward, comforting homestyle food. It has almost no ambience other than its lack of ambience, it has dusty plastic food in the window and I've always said, it feels like you're eating in somebody's Japanese Grandma's living room. What makes Sunshine so special for us are two things -- the food, which always, always tastes great and lovingly prepared -- and the staff, namely Dan the waiter, who always has a twinkle in his eye and always seems genuinely happy to see us. And the other thing that I appreciate about Sunshine is that this is one place where my picky eater Sam has always been a bit more adventurous. (Probably because he's been coming since he was in utero.) Sam likes their gyoza, their potato croquettes, their Udon and Soba and most recently, he's become a huge fan of their Tonkatsu -- which is a breaded and fried pork cutlet. I know, not the most exotic thing in on the planet, but that he is eating his way around the menu is progress for Sam.
When Sam heard I'd taken a cooking class with Fumika he pleaded with me to have her teach him how to make Tonkatsu. He didn't have to plead, I was happy to have another chance to cook along with Fumika and thrilled he was showing some interest in cooking. (I get a little bit lonely flying so solo in the kitchen at times.) So last Monday afterschool, Fumika came to our place and showed us how to make three dishes: Tonkatsu, Gomae (spinach "salad") and Miso Soup with Japanese Sweet Potatoes.
To be honest, I knew that I could easily find the recipe for the Tonkatsu and Gomae on-line (But Miso Soup with the Japanese Sweet Potatoes was totally new to me) but I wanted Sam and Ben to meet Fumika and have the experience of learning how to cook something from someone other than me. We gathered all the ingredients, put on our aprons and each had different tasks. Fumika toasted the sesame seeds for the gomae and quickly chopped up green onions and the sweet potatoes. I washed the spinach in cold water and got the super fun (and satisfying) job of pounding/tenderizing the pork. And Sam and Ben got to work the Tonkatsu station, dipping the pork cutlets into the flour, egg and then the panko crumbs. They were in heaven! And I was so tickled to have my boys and Fumika in my tiny kitchen with me.
Sam even worked the meat in the hot oil, learning to respect it and to be careful of it.
The other thing I liked about this experience is that our dishes didn't taste exactly like the same dishes at Sunshine. Fumika added the toasted, ground sesame to the blanched spinach and it gave this version of gomae a nuttiness that I liked. (But Ben, a Sunshine gomae freak, wasn't as impressed with this subtle change.) And the Tonkatsu that we made were larger and more tender than they are at Sunshine. Sam was super proud of this and ate his entire cutlet.
And I prior to meeting Fumika, I didn't know what made a Japanese Sweet Potato different than an American one until I tasted it. Oh my, it's like eating chestnuts, quite nutty with that sweet creaminess you get only from chestnuts. And bobbing around in the miso broth made for such a hearty and comforting soup. I will definitely be making this soup again. Ted joined us just as dinner was being served and we sat around the table, talking about food and Japan and soccer and school. It was coming around the table in the best way for all the right reasons.
We are so lucky to have met Fumika. Unfortunately (for us) she is moving to Austin, Texas on Tuesday so this was almsot like a chance encounter to cook with her two times. We hope to stay in touch via letters (thereby feeding my letter writing jones) where we can share recipes and news of our everyday lives. See what cooking together can do?
You can check out Fumika's post on our tonkatsu lesson (as well as a silly shot of Sam) here.
And now I am going to keep my eye out for other people in the city who might like to teach us other cuisines . . . pierogis, tamales, raviolis, so many opportunities!
About a month ago, I was checking out the "community board" over at The Coffee Studio, when I saw a plain piece of white paper with very neat and rather small writing covering it. Upon closer inspection I saw that it read "Hello, I am from Tokyo, Japan and I can tutor you in Japanese or how to cook Japanese food." I pulled off the little tab at the bottom, went back to my laptop and proceeded to email a young woman named Fumika to inquire about teaching me as well as Sam (who is big time into Japanese culture & a few typical foods, especially Ramen) some typical Japanese dishes.
She responded quickly and we tossed around some possible dishes. I had originally intended to cook with Sam but then we were having a hard to finding a date and a time so I asked my friend Sarah if she'd like to be a part of the cooking action and she said yes without any hesitation. Fumika and I ended up going to Mitsuwa, the Japanese superstore in Arlington Heights and she basically led me on a tour through the store showing me all the things we needed to buy.
We decided on making Okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake filled with "crazy" (= Yaki) ingredients. I cannot tell you what a treat it is to go up and down the aisles of a Japanese store with someone who knows all the ingredients, can read the labels, can point you out to things you didn't even know existed (hello burdock root fish cakes and fried wheat flour). And before we even did any shopping we were even able to enjoy a couple of bowls of ramen from Santoku in the food court. Even if we hadn't cooked a thing, I so enjoyed meeting Fumika and shopping and slurping ramen with her and sharing stories with each other.
But we did get to cook together and not only once but twice! The first session was at Sarah's house and Fumika worked with us to make the Okonomiyaki. These are wild and "piled as high as Mt. Fuji" (as Fumika put it) with mashup of ingredients and textures. Fumika told us these are popular as street food, something fast, cheap and very filling. Every region has its own take on them (some are filled with seafood, others with meat, others just vegetables) the version we made was of the Hiroshima style. But it really seemed to be a Midwestern-meets-Japan Okonomiyaki since it was filled with cabbage, bean sprouts, pickled radish, seaweed flakes, fried wheat puffs, bacon, cheddar cheese, Yakisoba noodles and then held together with a fried egg and the thin pancakes. Talk about comfort food! Here's Fumika deftly flipping a pancake.
I was chuckling, saying that I would never, ever be able to flip the heft of those pancakes filled with all those ingredients and a few minutes later, Fumika had Sarah and I making our own Okonomiyaki and flipping them several times over. And we didn't even flub anything up! In fact, it was a lot of fun -- and isn't that the point? That and it's a plus if the thing you created tastes good. And did it ever . . . here's my beauty shot before I dug in (using only chopsticks I will add, a proud moment for this wobbly chopsticks user). Dig the thick drizzle of Japanese "Kewpie" brand mayonaise and the sweet Okonomiyaki sauce. The green is some type of dried seaweed flakes.
The pancake was delicious and yes, humungous, I could only finish half, but brought the rest home to share with Ted. Sarah and I really enjoyed Fumika and her teaching style which was efficient and quick and sweet. It's not every day that you open your kitchen to a stranger and you don't know how things might go, but we got very, very lucky with this.
Fumika has her own blog and posted about our lesson, you can check it out here. I was so happy with the experience and when Sam heard about it he said, "But what about us? I'd like to make Tonkatsu with Fumika." And so I emailed her and we set up an evenng to do just that. I'll share you the wonderful details on that cooking lesson in a day or two. But I will leave saying again that opening your kitchen is a way of opening your eyes to new things, your head to new knowledge (people, I now know how to make crazy Japanese pancakes filled as high as Mt. Fuji!) and even your heart to others and their experiences. And you know that i just love it when food brings us all together.
Two of my best friends, Suzanna & Sarah, have been collaborating on a few different creative projects of late and dang, the outcomes have been amazing. Pre-Valentine's Day they hosted several "Love Birds" classes at Suzanna's newly open Binth Studio & Shop in Forest Park. The premise (as well as the materials) was simple: choose a raw paper-mache bird (made of newspaper and wire) and paint it however you like. And maybe give it to someone you love -- or keep it for yourself. Sarah constructed the birds out of old New York Times newspapers. She made them in different shapes, sizes and positions. You came into the shop and picked out your bird and got your supplies -- paint, a brush and a jelly jar of water. And she also set out different bird field guides so that if you wanted to make a realistic version of a bird, say, an American Goldfinch or a Chickadee, you'd have something to reference.
I think they had anticiapted this to be a mostly adult audience, but it turned out that most of the class was kids. And they were so great because, you know, kids don't tend to edit themselves on art projects, they just dive and get started. This energy helped me immensely because I tend to do just the opposite, Sometimes I get so stuck on what it's going to be, I just don't even get started at all. So I grabbed my bird, sat down next to two eight year-old boys and got started. Once the birds were done, we set them on another table to dry.
I mentioned that Sarah used the New York Times for the birds and so when I was choosing my "blank" bird, I came across one where the newsprint actually had all these teeny red lightbulbs on it. Sarah said that the article had something to do with "ideas." "Well," I said, "then I'm just going to have paint an Idea Bird. And so that's what I did. Being a writer and a lover of words and also being married to someone who feels the same, I also knew that I wanted some of the letters and words from the newsprint to show through the paint. And not having to paint a realistic, actual bird that you might see out your window, took tons of pressure off me and my creativity. And so here's my Idea Bird. I gave him to Ted for Valentine's Day.
Here's the lightbulbs up close. I love them.
I think I must have done an okay job, even if it isn't a "real" bird. Because as I was trying to take the shot of the lightbulbs, a certain feline friend named Ricky showed up to investigate.
And as if making this little bird wasn't sweet enough, while I was at the Binth Studio, Sarah came up to me and gave me this incredible Cardinal as a gift. "I want you to have this," she said. Notice the little fuzzy red sweater (hand knit by Sarah herself) and the tiny teeny buttons. I have had my eye on this Cardinal for more than a year. I first saw it when she was getting ready to have a bird "trunk show" at our frined Patti's store, The Sweden Shop. I just love its personality and in the real world of birds, I am a big fan of Cardinals. I love their flash of red in bare winter trees and how they mate for life and feed each other seeds. Ben shares my fondness for them and even knows their call. Anyhow, I was just blown away when Sarah gave me this. I think you can see why.
So I went home with two birds: one for my valentine and one for myself. Both handmade and made with love and attention. What a lovely thing. What a couple of love birds.
ps Sarah does sell her own unique painted birds at Binth, so if you're interested in taking home one of your own, head over to the shop. You might just come across something like this:
Even though Valentines Day is still 10 days away, Ben's classroom always requests that the valentines come to school a week prior, so that the little guys and gals have plenty of time to fill their classmates' special treat bags. If you've ever watched a 3 year-old working the assembly line, it starts to make sense. Ben's teacher Amy has always gently encouraged that they be homemade and I am on my fifth year of Ginkgo V-day celebrations and we've fulfilled that request thus far -- no reason to not keep the tradition going.
This year I simply looked all around the house to see what we had. I found a stash of wee muslin bags that I use for my different herbal workshops, so they pretty much dictated what our sweet treat would be housed in. The challenge with these kinds of projects is striking the balance between doing enough so that the valentines actually get done on time but also involving Ben so that he is a part of the process without overwhelming him. My initial plan was that he would draw a heart with colored markers and I'd color copy it. But he was not interested in that at all. So plan B was I'd just take some of his colorful drawings and make color copies and cut them into hearts myself. But he wasn't interested in that either. Then Ted tried to get him to write his name and again the plan was to copy that and tuck it into the bag, but he had a bit of a meltdown, saying he just can't do the letter "n" yet. So we totally backed off-- I mean, the whole point is not tears and frustration but rather love and sweetness, right? I said "Ben, what do you think should be in this little bag?" and he said, "Chocolate." And so here's what we came up with.
I made a simple greeting and printed it on regular cheap white paper. It looked a little blah so I busted out this tiny and charming, mysterious but cute animal stamp (I think it's a hamster, Ted insists it's a bear) and printed him to the side. Ben actually helped with a few of these before he wandered off to go play with Legos. (And I liked this critter so much, I decided to put him on the front of the muslin bag as well.)
Can you say you scored something if you got it in the crappy and usually predictable "Seasonal" aisle at the Jewel? And is your valentine still considered "homemade" if you purchase pre-made stickers from a large chain grocery store? Well, no matter, I got these a few weeks ago, they are super simple stickers that were old-school perforated and had to be carefully torn apart. Ben loves animals so this seemed to be a sweet connection to him. I adore the chubby dancing pink bear.
Of course, we had to have chocolate, so from the same Jewel I purchased some Kisses & Crunch Hearts. Again, I had had a different plan. I was going to buy the cool Japanese gummy hearts I used a few years ago when Sam was in the Ginkgo classroom, but 1. Ben hates gummy stuff and 2. I actually looked up the ingredients this time and Corn Syrup was first and Sugar was second. But mostly, Ben had said emphatically that he wanted chocolate, so chocolate it was.
I was feeling a bit guilty, like this was pretty much turning out to be me making Ben's valentines. But then he came in the dining room and asked me if he could help. Of course I said an enthusiastic "Yes!" And so we did set up an assembly line, the 5 year-old friendly version. I had the muslin bags in front of me as well as the little paper greetings and the tiny sheet of stickers. I tucked these into the bag and then handed the bag to Ben. He had the Very Important Job of stuffing one Kiss and one Heart into the bag. We needed to fill 24. I reckoned he'd do maybe 6 or 8 or maybe 10 tops. No way, he took his job seriously and filled all 24.
And he was having fun combining colors. "I am going to do a silver Kiss and a red Heart in this one, because they look good together." As we were finishing, Sam came home from a late-night sleepover (looking like something that the cat dragged in) and I snuck a couple of Crunch hearts to Sam -- he digs all things Crunch, so he was happy as well. Ben said, "It's like our house is a pretend Valentines candy factory." I'll take that as a good thing. Especially the pretend part.
Here's the finished product, I like how the text of the little message peeks through the muslin fabric and the "second" mysterious but cute wee critter as well.
And here's sweet Ben, proud of finishing up all 24 bags and excited to soon stuff them all into his Ginkgo friends' Valentines bags. And I am one happy Mama that we got them done happily, creatively and together, not with tears or frustration but a a swift and sweet Valentine-making team.
And then Ben and I ate a few Crunch hearts. I think we earned them.
I was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday with some painful sinus action thrown in, so the thought of reading or staring at anything electronic just wasn't appealing. I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself (and Ted had taken the boys ice skating) but then I remembered that something fun I'd ordered online had arrived: my Japanese mini-envelope template from JetPens. I'd seen these over on Angry Chicken's blog a few week ago. I justified needing to have one as I am teaching a class at North Park Village Nature Center on November 11th and the theme is The Art of the Envelope. (Oh and that's our cat Caddilac's paw, he wanted to play with the template.)
I am a sucker for wee little envelopes. Not only are the adorable but they're perfect for holding teeny-tiny notes or a few stamps or a handful of seeds. And with this template, you can recycle old catalogues, magazines and discarded books and transform the pages into something new. I like to use old children's encyclopedias and reference books that I pick up at yard sales and thrift shops. Yesterday it was Life and Its Marvels.
Here's a quick tutorial -- but it's super simple. First grab the template, a pencil, scissors, a glue stick and whatever paper you'll be using for the envelope paper. This template actually makes four different sized mini envelopes. I went for the biggest of the four.
Trace the lines onto the paper. I actully used a black pen instead of a pencil since I was having a hard time seeing the pencil on the paper.
Cut along the tracing lines, your envelope shape should look like this:
Fold the two smaller side tabs first and then the two larger tabs last. Pull the folds back "open."
The envelope should be vertically-oriented in front of you. Run the glue stick along the edge of the large tab on the left. Fold the right tab down and give it a good crease. Bring left tab over like you are closing a door and and press it firmly. Run the glue stick along the small tab at the bottom, fold it up over the glued "doors" and press firmly. Voila! You now have an envelope! This might be totally stating the obvious but don't glue the top tab. At least not until you've put something inside it. Here's the back of the envelope:
And here's the front. Love that floating "butter" banner!
I made four envelopes, three were from old book pages and one was from the cover of an old Anthropologie catalogue.
I stacked them up and tied them off with a little bit of baker's twine. All ready to be given as a simple little gift. Maybe I should give them with a tiny pad of paper ane one of those mini gel pens?
Or maybe I'll just hold onto them and find something marvelous to tuck into each one.
I am thrilled to report that were almost as many books as toys under the tree this year. Sam alone received 10 or so and he paused on each one to peek in and read just a bit. (Towards the end of the opening of presents, Ben wasn't quite so enamored and refused to open any "flat" presents. Oh well, maybe next year.)
I was quite the lucky gal in the book-receiving department. So I thought I'd share with you what I happily scored as well as one that I bought for the entire family.
I got this book from my lovely friend and consummate gift giver, Sarah.
She got it at the New York Historical Society on a recent trip to the Big Apple. It's a wonderful reproduction of an instructional book for children. The original text on the back states, "The amusement of finding objects and their parts will continue long after the ordinary story book has lost all charm." And it goes on to state quite practically, "It will instruct youth and even adults the correct names of many common objects."
Yes indeed, and I even learned a few new words for old things that might not be so common now, like "shawl-strap" and "cuspidore." They are in the picture above, um, somewhere. I could see creating stories by looking at all the objects -- I am going to try that out with Sam and Ben.
Speaking of children's books, Ted gave me two. Not necessarily to read to the boys but just because I love children's books, especially old ones. Right before Christmas we had a nice breakfast with Grandma Franny & then all of us headed over to Open Books. If you haven't been, you should go. It's a non-profit used bookstore and they have tons of books and a rocking children's section. Apparently when I was in another section Ted got me this one.
I love the illustrations . . .
He also got me this wee little book, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
It's about a naughty little sister who goes into her older sister's room and plays with her things and draws on the walls. Hmmmm, I know someone who used to do that sort of thing. The illustrations are totally classic Sendak. And it has a happy ending.
Ted also gave me this book, which is a companion to my other book Our Plant Friends & Foes by the fomidably named William Atherton DuPuy. (Which I got up at the Armadillo's Pillow used bookstore in Rogers Park last summer, another fine used bookstore here in the city). Anyone who knows me knows that I have a soft spot (or maybe a it's becoming a problem) for old nature-based books. Especially those geared toward children. I just learned that Mr. DuPuy also wrote Our Insect Friends & Foes, might have to put that one on my wish list.
It was illustrated by Edward Herbert Miner, "Animal Painter to the National Geographic Society." Check it out . . . so beautiful.
In the Christmas box that my father sent, he included a copy of "Beyond the Perf" which is a magazine out out by the US Postal Service. So techincally this isn't a book, but it provided me with lots of quiet, geeked-out stamp-loving pleasure on Christmas afternoon after all the presents had been opened and the floor was littered with scraps of wrapping paper. It avaliable on-line as well, so if you like reading the stories of how stamps come to be and who designs them, dive in here.
Since 2011 was the year that I fell in love with stamps old and new and re-kindled my long love affair with the glorious machine we call a typewriter, I'd have to say this was my numero uno stamp in 2011. I read all about its designer in the magazine, you can read about it here.
And finally, since the spirit of this post is how books bring so much satisfaction and joy, I am going to end with this little red book that I purchased a few nights into Hanukah.
As a family that celebrates both Christmas and Hanukah and is sometimes sort of torn on how we do that with grace and humor, The Latke That Couldn't Stop Screaming was just what we needed. It is kind of dark but also tear-inducing hysterical. I love the little latke . . .
and the boys (including Ted) loved collectively screaming "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh."
It has a surprise ending too, well, two of them actually. But I can't tell you, you'll have to read it yourself.
I hope you received some deliciously good books for the holidays and that you've had a bit of time to curl up with them. Here's a toast to lots of reading in 2012. Cheers!
Happy New Year . . . may it be filled with health, joy, beauty, change, wonder and humor. And whatever it is you need it to be filled with.
I love this list of New Year's Rulins from Woody Guthrie. # 19 is particularly wonderful: "Keep the hope machine running." Cheers to that. And #18 is important for me to remember: "Stay glad." Indeed.
You can read his amazing list much better here at his website -- which I didn't even know existed until about 12 seconds ago. I am quite glad for that, Happy New Year!
I was worried it would be too quiet, too alone, too "not enough" for the Xmas holidays this year. I was so wrong, it was one of the best Christamsas we've ever had. Just our pace, just our style. I think we hit our groove this year. Just quiet and mellow enough that I didn't feel overwhelmed/freaked out and just social enough that I felt connected and celebratory.
And Sam reminded us about what it's all about in this lovingly homemade, totally inclusive holiday card:
With all our happy hearts, we hope you are having quietly beautiful holidays. Peace out.
Last weekend I taught a class on "green" or recycled gift wrapping for my local (and fabulous) Nature Center. It was titled "Re-Thinking Wrapping" and my challenge was to come up with ideas and examples that went beyond the wrapping with the Sunday Funnies.
I started looking for and gathering materials a few weeks ago and I have to say, it was a blast to start looking at what my be considered garbage or something to thrown in the recycling bin as rather an awesome opprtunity to wrap something.
My materials generally fell into one of the following three catergories: a box of sorts, a bag of sorts or literally wrapping something around an object. I found almost everything right in my home -- mostly from the kitchen and specifically in my recycling bin. But I did keep my eyes out for things that I could use as wrapping, such as scarves & maps at thrift shops but also things that other people might be tossing out, like old posters from a holiday craft show.
Here's a peek at some of the things I came up with and a brief-ish description of the materials I used.
Small salsa can with a band of red & white paper from a Trader Joe's bag. The ric-rac came from my always teeming box of recycled ribbon and string.
Cardboard mushroom box base with stretchy polyester "ribbon" that I found in the laundry room. The tissue is biodegradable.
Old "Melissa & Doug" wooden box that held play food (was sitting in the thrift shop pile), soft old bandanna from my large collection and a tag made from an old Binth card (using Fiskars 2 inch circular hole punch.)
Speaking of Binth, my friend Suzanna recently opened the Binth Shop & Studio in Forest Park. I was there before it opened helping out with whatever needed to be done. Suzanna had ordered these felt banners from her homeland of Germany that said "Frohe Weinhacht" in grey fuzzy letters. They came in the cool bag above. She was going to toss the bags but I pounced on all three of them. I love the old school typewriter font on the white label. So German. I used a snowflake hole punch for the flakes and used old Binth cards for the paper.
Tiny green mesh garlic bag with skinny purple ribbon (that was wrapped around a gift my friend Heather gave me recently). The sticker is from The Small Object Labels & Stickers collection. Produce mesh is super fun to work with, it comes in lots of bright, punchy colors. It can't be recycled so this is a good thing to keep out of the landfill.
Being a "green" class, I just had to do something with a toilet paper tube. So that's what this is: toilet paper tube wrapped in recycled tissue paper and stripey ribbon from my collection. (I tucked candy inside the tube, so it looked like a big bon-bon.)
Thoroughly washed black styrofoam meat tray with saved/re-used plastic wrap and old twine. The black and red pot holder inside is from the thrift shop. I call this my "manly urban explorer kit."
Ball jar with a vintage tea towel (also from thrift shop) and leftover butcher twine. The tag is from old crafty paper.
An old map of Michigan with "ribbon" of old cassette tape. My friend Molly gave me this idea. VHS ribbon looks great as well.
This is a mint tea box I simply turned inside out and glued it back together. The waxed blue linen thread is from my box and the stripey Japanese tape was not repurposed but I thought it looked great on the brown of the box.
This paper is from a School of the Art Institute student magazine I saw downtown one day. I love the igloo images. The purple ribbon is from my ribbon box. Just because it's not green or red or white doesn't mean it can't feel Christmas-y or Wintry.
I think this is my favorite, so I'll end with this one. (There were many others, but I didn't get shots of them all.) The green tissue paper was wrapped around an Anjou pear that I purchased at the Korean Supermarket called H-Mart. The maroon wool is from a spool I scored at a garage sale back when we lived in Denver more than 13 years ago. The red tape is Japanese tape that my friend Krista gave me for my birthday. The tiny red map dots were left over from the charrette I put together in October. The tissue paper was pretty small but I loved it, so I used it to wrap a bar of soap. I love the blue "USA" print on the paper.
Well, I guess that's it. I just boxed up packages for my family in Australia as well as my family in Colorado and not one single piece of wrapping paper was used on any of the gifts. I'm not bragging, I am letting you know that if you have time to just be a bit cunning, creative and open to trying new things, you can easily wrap your gifts in just about anything. Besides, it is better for the environment (those overloaded landfills will thank you) it's almost free and it's a ton of fun.
Happy Holidays to you all!
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Letter Writing gathering at the Hideout. It had been a really tough day. Actually, it had been a supremely awful day, one that I wish not to repeat anytime soon. But it was quietly coming to an end. And so I limped on over to the Hideout, said hey to the lovely Letter Writers Alliance ladies, grabbed a beer, picked out some stationery and a pen, found a place at the table across from my old friend Nance and wrote a letter to my 11 year-old neice Claire. It wasn't my most inspired letter writing: I asked fairly basic questions ("What's new? What are you reading?") and kept it pretty short. But it got me out of my own head. I had a feeling Claire would appreciate getting an actual letter in the mail--it coming simply out of the blue and for no good reason other than to say hello and let her know that I was thinking about her. And so my letter to her was put in the mailbox and that was that. I really didn't think much more about it again. Until yesterday, when I came home and in a plain, white envelope with my name on it was this:
A hand-written, two page, exclamation-mark filled letter from Miss Claire. I think you can read the really big exciting news in the center "I MIGHT GET A BUNNY!" (!!!!!) But what you might not to be able to read is Claire telling me about her Thanksgiving and then she asks about the Letter Writing party I was at. She asks if I've been to Korean bbq lately (I took her and Sam to San Soo Gab San when she visited last summer) and then recounts how recently she had to endure eating escargot at a French restaurant for her father's birthday. "Happy Birthday, here's some snails!" she quips and draws a teeny version of their curly-moustached waiter, who she simply calls Mr. Mushtash. She also tells me how she is reading this series of books called "The Secret Series" and how they are so, so much better than "The Lord of Rings" which she says "was probably the most tedius (sic) book of all time. 75% of the book was: They walked. It was cold. They walked. It was cold." Her summary of "The Lord of the Rings" killed me. (And I totally agree with her.) And then she ends the letter with this drawing she made for Sam, since she knows he digs Calvin & Hobbes. "Ask him 4 me if it looks OK."
I haven't been this happy with getting something in the mail in a long, long time. It just totally filled me with the kind of joy that has no price tag. A simple letter filled with news and snippets and questions & comments. I adore it. And so I am going to write her back and tell her just that.
Oh, and I hope she gets the bunny. I'll tell her that too.