Holiday Traditions, Nerd Style

Jump to How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Since my husband only worked a half day on both the 22nd (Yule) and 23rd and was off through the 26th, it felt like he had a whole week off.  He commented that it reminded him of the Christmas breaks we’d have in college and that I had in law school.  So we enjoyed the time being kids with our kids, playing games, eating lots of sweets, and basically basking in all the snuggle time we could get before we hit the years where wanting to hug our kids (especially in public) becomes an attempt to ruin their lives.

Of course, there are always things families do as tradition over the holidays.  Some traditions are pretty, well, traditional.  Many families do it.  Like opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.  Some traditions are pretty unique.  Some traditions reflect a particular culture or background.

One really cool thing about traditions is that, when you’re older, keeping parts of the traditions can evoke pleasant childhood memories.

For my husband’s side of the family, Christmas is a pretty solemn event.  But they live in Kenya, where people have bigger things to worry about than who gets an Xbox or the latest Elmo doll.  Like pissed-off Somali terrorists, militant government censorship and government-sanctioned violence against women (and other human and civil rights violations), and whether they or their neighbors or the refugees their country takes in will have enough food and medical care to survive.  For some people in his village, Christmas is one of the few times they can eat meat.  But it’s also a happy time–of singing and celebrating and having a great feast.

kenya 170

A Kenyan city - Image by Mister_Jack via Flickr

So my husband brings to the Christmas traditions of our family singing and dancing with the kids.  He taught us some hymns in Swahili and his tribal language (Kalenjin), which were fun to sing and dance to.  One of his favorites is “Lulu,” which is the Swahili word for “heaven” and is basically about getting there (you can watch the video here) and “Tarajet,” which pretty much has the same message, but in my husband’s language (video here).  I guess we could add to our traditions giving a bit of gratitude for sites like YouTube that let us dredge up obscure Kenyan spirituals (that is, so long as such songs are legitimately available–but I’ll not get on a SOPA-box).

And eating until we feel like we might burst.

From my side of the family, there are certain experiences that take me back to happy times that I want to share with my kids.  Seeing a can of sardines in winter time reminds me of eating sardines on crackers with my father while watching the NFL playoffs.  The smell of anise seeds always takes me back to a late aunt’s kitchen and the amazing Mexican breads and cookies she’d make for Christmas.  And Christmas break meant family game night, especially once I was in my junior year of high school and drowning in a rigorous academic workload (and living on campus).  And family game night in my family meant one of three things: spades or pinochle, dominoes (if extended family was visiting), or Dungeons and Dragons (called “D&D” within the gamer community).

So we watched the New Orleans Saints go down in history again on Monday night while eating sardines with crackers and cheese.  We baked and devoured cookies all weekend (as I mentioned earlier).  And, now that the girls are near preschool age and Starkitten is learning to add, we wanted to introduce them to the world of D&D.

Okay, so the rest of this may sound a bit nerdy.  I will try to explain anything that sounds too technical or supply a link for more info.  Most of this will sound pretty basic to anyone who’s played D&D for a while.

The challenge with D&D is that, at minimum, it is very complicated and would pose a challenge for a small child to learn.  And then there are some PG-rated aspects of the game, depending on the kinds of adversaries the dungeon master, or DM for short, chooses for the player characters (the dungeon master is the person who runs the game, and could also be called a game master, or GM).  Most role-playing games, like D&D are pretty rule-intensive, and it can be very overwhelming for someone new to the game.  But once you play for a little bit, you find that most of the rules are pretty intuitive.

And any good player or DM knows that the rule books aren’t the end-all of the game.  This is extremely important when playing with first-timers and young kids.  And patience is equally important.

How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Some of our D&D dice

I’d been playing D&D since I was 5 or 6.  My dad, who is something of a nerd himself, felt that his kids would learn D&D, Monopoly (that was more of my mom’s thing), and Stratego while other kids were learning Go Fish, Old Maid, and Candyland.  When we were older, he added Risk and taught us Spades and Pinochle when other kids I knew were learning poker and blackjack (to this day I don’t know how to play poker–but I could hold my own in Magic: The Gathering).  But the version of D&D my father had was the old school first version, which was very simplistic compared to later versions of the game.

However, growing up with D&D at an early age meant I was the family DM by the age of 11.  And, being 8 and 10 years older than my two younger brothers, it gave me an idea of how to include little kids who wanted to play with everyone else.  As a teenager, I figured out how to include kids who couldn’t really read or write yet into the game, and still make it fun for everyone.

Here are a few considerations for playing D&D with young children:

  1. Let go of some of the rules, and fudge the game in the little kid’s favor a bit–not too much, as they need to understand you don’t have to win all the time, but enough to still let them feel like they are doing better than the grown-ups.
  2. Be patient.  Expect to explain things.  But give points of reference.  Start off with monsters and situations that the child can identify with–maybe borrow ideas from his/her favorite cartoons or books.
  3. Animate the story.  And I mean by using descriptive words, maybe gesturing (or even act it out a bit).  Some DMs do this and some don’t, but–explain what the characters see or experience like it’s a story.  Tell it like a storyteller, putting emotion into your words:  “As the party walked down the stone passageway, everything got darker and darker.  Even the torches didn’t seem to bring much light.  The dungeon was quiet.  Maybe too quiet.  They could hear the skittering of the mice darting away before them.  Their own footsteps echoed loudly down the hall.  As they kept walking, they began to pick up a faint acidic odor.  And, soon, the sound of something scraping against stone.”  Seriously, kids love storytellers.
  4. Encourage the child to feel like a part of the story.  Just as much as kids like a good story, they want to be in the spotlight of the story.  Ask him/her, “Is your character scared of the dark hall?  What does your character think is making the scratching noise down the hall?”

    A D&D game session in progress

    A D&D game session in progress - Image via Wikipedia

  5. Let them be silly, especially if it encourages creative thinking.  For instance, when my youngest brother was 4 and learning to play the game, he asked me if his character could vomit into a bucket and toss it on the monster he was fighting, arguing it was acid vomit.  (Yes, this is gross, but that’s little kid thinking for you.)  Sure, why not?  If he can roll a “vomit check” (I picked some arbitrary number based on his character’s wisdom–can he make himself vomit?) then I’d give it the qualities of an acid splash spell.  I don’t remember the outcome of the roll, but it was hilarious for everyone and he had a fantastic time.
  6. You may have to adjust information on the character sheet for him/her, but explain what you are doing and why.  And turn it into a learning experience.  D&D can be a fun way to teach math, strategy, and empathy (once they are ready to learn to role-play).  For instance, have the child count backwards with you as you deduct hit points.
  7. Make the adventures short, until the child demonstrates that he/she can sit for a longer game.  And make the goals of the adventure simple: rescue the princess, find the secret treasure, that kind of thing.  Adventures dealing with mysteries and riddles and more complicated story lines should wait until they are older and/or get the hang of it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure I could think add more, but it’s meant to be a guide.  Also, every kid is different, and as a parent (or other relation) you’ll know best what would work with the child.  And the Number One thing to remember is:  It’s just a game, and the point of the game is to have fun!

That being said, I’ll share a little bit about the game we’re running with Starkitten and Sunfilly.

To begin with, we gave them a point of reference by letting them choose characters styled after their favorite fictional characters.  For Starkitten, that’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for Sunfilly, it’s Mulan.  So Buffy (who specifically fought the undead and demons) became a human ranger with undead as her favored enemy.  Mulan (a woman warrior) became a human fighter.  See?  Easy enough.  My husband decided to be a cleric, and we let the kids choose his character:  Yoda.  And, since they don’t have… whatever the hell Yoda was in the D&D manual, for the sake of simplicity, we made Yoda be a gnome.  And even though I was the DM, I rolled a character, too, so that they’d get the idea of what you can do in D&D.  I wanted to be Hermione Granger, a human mage, but Starkitten gave an executive veto and insisted I instead be Tinker Bell.  “Tinker Bell” to my girls really means any of the Disney fairies (or any fairy, for that matter), so I went with Rosetta, because she’s spunky, as an elf sorcerer.  I assigned them standard equipment (I gave Buffy an axe and a crossbow, instead of a stake, because on the TV show, when she’s pissed off, she likes to carry huge scary weapons like axes and crossbows).

The  pop culture points of reference are helpful in teaching the kids to role-play.  They know how Buffy would react to a scary situation (fight first, ask questions later), versus how Mulan would (come up with a plan, don’t jump right into the fray).  They know Yoda will stick back (they have only seen the original Star Wars, when Yoda is more of a teacher with “magic” powers–the Force) and guide the fighters.  And they know that Rosetta is little and fragile, and so most likely to be squished, but she has useful magical talents.  So when it finally did become battle time, we would ask the girls, “What would Buffy do?” or “What would Mulan do?”  It’s the first step towards imaginative role-playing.

We rolled stats for a very simplistic home-made character sheet (which I have made available for you here if you wanted to look at it and/or use it).  Starkitten read the numbers off the die and we guided her in adding them up: “The first dice reads what number?  4.  And the second one reads…?  5.  And the third?  5.  Let’s count.  4 plus 5 is 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  9 plus 5 is 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.  So we have 14.”

For experience, to keep engaging the kids with math, we changed it to “kill counts.”  So they just count the number of monsters that the party kills (we decided to go with party kills as opposed to individual kills to encourage a teamwork mentality).  To reach level 2, the party needs to kill 50 monsters.  Tough monsters, arguably, could count as more than one kill, but I don’t think the kids are at that point of understanding.

In the back of my mind, I was keeping up with all the more complex rules, like their saving throws and that sort of thing.  This way, there is still some consistency to the game and it could still be enjoyable for my husband and me.

The fun part for the girls, especially Sunfilly, was the actual playing of the game.  We just made a very simple, “let’s run through the dungeon and find treasure” adventure, as the kids have seen my husband play games like Zelda and Gauntlet and have a good idea of what that means.  And, since Starkitten has a huge fascination with zombies, why not let the kids imagine themselves running through the dungeon killing some zombies.

So I made paper tokens for the characters and the monsters using a spreadsheet I created (I’m sharing the blank template with instructions in Excel 2008 format here, and a PDF sample orc template here and zombies/kobolds here).  For a dungeon map, we just used the cardboard map pieces to a dungeon set I’d had for almost 10 years (but you can make your own or find one online).

Close-up of the kobold tokens

Then it was time to tell a story and set the scene.  The girls enjoyed the story, but seemed the most engaged once we got to the part where the party was ambushed by zombies hungry for braaaaiiiiiiiiiins.  Starkitten knew just what to do:  “Buffy wants to squish the zombies with her sword.”  I explained that she had an axe and showed her a picture of an axe, and she then called it an axe.  We acted out how we were fighting the zombies.  Sunfilly really enjoyed rolling the dice, so much so that I’d let her roll for the zombies as well.

Sadly, the zombies had no treasure, but I explained that the characters got a little wiser from fighting the zombies.  They got experienced:  “How many zombies did we kill?  Let’s count the tokens on the side here.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  We killed 6 zombies.  Good job!  Let’s write it down as our experience.”

Then the party wandered into another part of the dungeon and found a different set of monsters (kobolds) which had a different reason to attack the party (we were stealing things from their dungeon) and a different way to fight.  This helped the kids to understand that “bad guys” may have different motivations to want to fight a protagonist in any story: the zombies were just hungry, and the kobolds were just defending their dungeon (but they really don’t like meeting new friends or sharing and want to kill you if you try to visit them, and that’s not very nice, either).  We really did have a brief discussion about this.

Two encounters were all the kids could sit through before getting restless, as toddlers tend to do, so we called it a night and went back to dancing ourselves silly to “Tarajet.”

It was, overall, a great bonding event.  Everyone had a good time, and I think the kids could see that it was something my husband and I enjoyed playing.  Even now Starkitten is counting down until the weekend when she can be Buffy and “Buffy squishes more zombies and finds the secret pirate treasure.”  Pirates?  I guess I need to make some pirate tokens.  Arrrr!

This is what one of our battles looked like. I could totally imagine Buffy and Mulan tearing through those orcs and kobolds like they were paper dolls.

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Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

Yuletide Meanderings… and COOKIES!

Jump to Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Tomorrow is Yule.

Usually I’m super-prepared for it.  By this time, I’ll usually have a Yule log decorated, lots of goodies made, a duck or goose or turkey brining (and another one or a ham thawing for the subsequent Christmas festivities), and one round of presents wrapped for the kids.  The house is usually decorated with greens and reds and candles everywhere and, if I could find them while living in the big city, boughs of holly and evergreens and pine cones.  And, because Yule is a time of renewal, I usually do a mega-cleaning of the house, moving counter-clockwise through the house; it seems to bring in positive energies and sweep out the bad ones.

This year, it seems to have snuck up on me.

Apparently it’s one of the side-effects of parenting.  Time seems to fly way too quickly.

Yule

A Yule feast - Image by Jupiter Firelyte via Flickr

Reflections on Yule

For those who may not be familiar with the holiday, Yule is one of many ways nature-oriented faiths celebrate the winter solstice.  It’s Germanic in origin, but neopagan adaptations of the holiday include some Scandinavian and Celtic practices.  Specifics on how they celebrate Yule varies depending on the pagan tradition the practitioners follow.

But pretty much all neopagans treat it as the rebirth of the sun.  It’s the shortest day of the year, and so every day afterwards is a little brighter.  And because our ancestors, lacking the technological amenities we take for granted, struggled through long, harsh winters, they put aside their hostilities and got together to share their food and wealth and celebrate the coming spring.  If you could make it to Yule, you had a good chance of making it to spring.  It’s a time of hope, of goodwill–just toss in baby Jesus and it sounds a lot like Christmas, huh?

It’s a reminder that even the deepest, darkest, scariest things in life are not permanent.  Eventually the sun will shine through and will shine brighter, no matter what personal problems in life you’re facing.

In my family, we acknowledge the science behind the winter solstice, but it doesn’t diminish the spirituality behind it.  You can revere nature and still understand how it works.  Perhaps it’s also because we love outdoorsy hobbies that we find peace in connecting with the seasons and cycles of the world around us, but I personally find something deeply inspirational in knowing that, in all the randomness and chaos of the universe, life flourished here on Earth, focused around our rather average (by astronomical standards) yellow star and the influence of it and our moon on the stability of the days and seasons.  The solstices and equinoxes, which give a sense of predictability to our world, are not standard for other planets in the universe.  It was a rare chance that life evolved on Earth, because we had all the right conditions (distance from a medium-sized star, a moon with a stabilizing effect on the Earth’s axis and rotation, the fact that the axis is positioned the way it is, and so on) and that alone is something to be grateful for.

No matter what your religious or spiritual views, I think that taking time to reflect on the importance of the sun in our lives, considering how easy it is to inundate oneself in work and stressful events and mind-numbing technology, is key to a healthier outlook on life.

manhattan solstice 3

Winter Solstice in Manhattan - Image by Dave Kliman via Flickr

If you’re interested, you can read a more thorough description of the history of Yule here (Wikipedia) and here (About.com).  The celebration of Yule has been getting more recognition in the media within the past few years.  Mainstream parenting magazines, like this partial article from Kiwi Magazine, and even some newspapers and the US and Canada, like the Montreal Gazette in this article, cover how some neopagan communities observe Yule today.  Also, there is a beautiful and captivating children’s book that explores the winter solstice from the perspectives of both ancient religions and modern science called The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson.  In my opinion, it does a great job of illustrating the way that ancient peoples viewed winter and how some of these cultural practices have been applied to modern-day Christmas traditions without being disparaging to any worldview.  It reflects the sentiments I have expressed above.

Before we had the kids, my husband and I would watch the sun set on Yule.  There is something inexplicably beautiful about it, knowing that it’s the shortest day of the year.  Last year, the night of Yule was also a lunar eclipse, and so our family festivities were particularly exciting.

This year, I’m hoping we can brave the cold weather and watch the sunset over a local lake.  It will be an otherwise simple Yule, with a few baked goodies and brightly-colored foods like sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to honor the birth of the sun.

I like to make gingersnaps for Yule and Christmas because the flavor tastes bright and cheerful (in fact, the tradition started sometime in high school when I baked gingersnaps and sugar cookies for my friends as Christmas gifts).  They are popular this time of year, and I suspect that the flavor is part of the reason (aside from the health benefits of ginger that likely prompted our forebears to cook with ginger during winter).

Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Gingersnaps are fairly simple to make.  They require a lot of sifting, so if you don’t mind the dust (flour can get in the air and make you sneeze), it’s a great project for this time of year.

When following the recipe, I highly recommend having the egg already cracked and waiting in a cup or bowl, along with the sugar and molasses.  When you’re mixing the dough, you’ll have to pour them in gradually, and it saves some time to have them ready in advance.  You’ll also need at least two mixing bowls to carry this out.  As for sifting, if you don’t have a fancy sifter, a large strainer will serve the same purpose just fine.

Starkitten helps by mixing the cinnamon sugar.

Cinnamon Sugar Coating

To make the cinnamon sugar you’ll need for the coating, you need:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Simply mix the ingredients together very well.  If you’re baking with small children, mixing the cinnamon sugar is a simple task that they can accomplish while you work on the cookie dough.

The Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses

Directions

This is what it should look like if you use a beater to mix the dough. This was my first time trying it this way and, honestly, it's so much easier than mixing by hand--which had been a turn-off for me in the past.

  1. Preheat oven to 350 ˚F.
  2. Sift the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir the mixture to blend evenly.  Then sift and stir again, two more times.  (It’s best to sift from one mixing bowl into another.)
  3. Place the shortening into an empty mixing bowl and beat until creamy.
  4. Gradually beat in white sugar.  Then gradually beat in the egg and molasses.
  5. Sift 1/2 of the flour into the shortening mixture, and stir to blend it thoroughly.
  6. Sift in the remaining flour mixture and beat (or stir) until a soft dough forms.
  7. Pinch off small amounts of dough and roll into 1-inch balls.
  8. Roll each ball in cinnamon sugar and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
  9. Bake about 10 minutes,  The tops should be rounded and slightly cracked.
  10. When they first come out of the oven, they will tend to fall apart if you try to move them.  You’ll want to wait a minute or two before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Then place them on wire racks to cool completely.

Starkitten helps by coating the cookie dough balls with cinnamon sugar. This was her favorite task and she took great pride in making sure they were evenly coated.

Since Starkitten wanted to help me, I gave her the task of rolling the cookie balls in the cinnamon sugar.  It was a great experience for her, as it gave her a sense of accomplishment, knowing that those were her cookies, and overall a great bonding experience for both of us.

They don’t taste too sweet, which is great if you have members of your family who, like my husband, don’t care for sweets but still want a holiday treat.  They go great with a hot cup of tea or just a glass of milk.

This recipe made just over two dozen cookies.  And it wasn’t enough to sate my family’s cookie appetite.

The end product. As you can tell by the half-empty plate, they don't last long.

Mommysaurus

Comforting Chicken Soup Starts with a Good Broth

Jump to Homemade Chicken Broth

During cold La Niña episodes the normal patter...

La Niña phenomenon - by NOAA via Wikipedia

I learned that Ohio has been experiencing what is called an “Indian Summer” as a result of La Niña phenomenon, which has unusually occurred two years in a row.  An Indian summer usually occurs in autumn or early winter, when there has been some snow or frost, and then it’s followed by a period of unseasonably warm weather, followed by more cold weather.

In the South, we called that “normal weather.”

And the dramatic fluctuations in temperature, coupled with the wetness of “winter,” would typically lead to people getting sick (actually, the weather change itself doesn’t make people sick, but it can trigger their allergies and force them to stay indoors in drier air and around other germy sick people, and this makes it easier to get sick).

But here in Ohio, you can feel the temperature extremes more.  When it’s warm, it’s perfect weather for hiking and playing outside.  Then suddenly it’s cold and wet, and we get runny noses and have no desire to go outside, unless there is some of that strange, fluffy white stuff falling from the sky (which people call “snow”) to play in.

Because my kids are both under 6 (the age that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends is the minimum for taking over-the-counter cold medicine), it’s important to me to do everything possible to make sure they don’t get sick in the first place.

Common cold

The Rhinovirus, one of the viruses that causes the common cold, looks much like a snowflake. - Image by Robin S via Wikipedia

One of the best ways to combat the common cold and the flu is chicken soup.  This is one old wives’ tale that hasn’t been debunked.  In fact, doctors have found that it does in fact help to fight some respiratory illness.

Homemade Chicken Broth

There are many recipes for chicken soup out there (here’s a simple one), but they all pretty much require pre-made chicken broth.  I personally believe that if you’re going to make homemade chicken soup, you should use homemade chicken broth.

For a few years now, I’ve been using a recipe I adapted from Tapas Deck by José Andrés (it was a gift from a dear friend who spent a year in Spain).  It’s an amazing recipe and is very easy to follow.  All I’ve ever added is ginger.

Also, I try to use organic chicken whenever possible (and living near the Amish in Ohio, I’ve found I can also buy Amish chickens at some local grocery stores, and their chickens taste fantastic and are pretty much organic as well)–it tastes richer, was raised humanely, and wasn’t fed antibiotics (which may actually impair your body’s ability to fight certain infections later) or other harmful chemicals, like arsenic, which young chickens contain more of (and I know from having worked in the poultry industry that commercial chickens are about 4 months old when butchered–and a home-grown 4-month-old chicken still looks like a baby chick!–because they are also pumped full of growth hormones and other chemicals).

The ingredients for chicken broth have just been put on the stove to cook.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken, rinsed
  • 3 carrots, peeled
  • 2 onions, peeled and halved
  • 1 leek, well washed and outer leaves removed
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (if you don’t have fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon of dry thyme will do the trick)
  • 10 sprigs fresh parsley (if you don’t have fresh parsley, 1/4 cup of dry parsley will do the same thing)
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger root
  • salt to taste (I recommend kosher salt for better flavor)

Directions

  1. Pour 4 quarts of water in a stockpot (or any very large pot) and add all the ingredients except the salt.
  2. Bring to a boil.  As the stock comes to a boil, foam will form on the surface.  Scoop this off immediately, so that your stock will end up as clear and clean as possible.
  3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.  You don’t want to overcook it, or the chicken will fall apart and you’ll have a lot of tiny bones to pick out of loose meat pieces.
  4. Add salt to taste and remove from the heat.
  5. Strain the stock.
  6. You can store it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.  I prefer to store whatever I don’t use immediately in the freezer, separating it into 4-cup increments.

You don’t have to worry about discarding the leftover chicken meat.  I like to debone the chicken and use the meat in tacos or in the subsequent soup I prepare, but you can do many other things with the boiled meat.

English: Chicken soup and toast Български: Пил...

Image by Biso via Wikipedia

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

November Recap Part 2: Happily Hiking and the Awesome Cranberry

Jump to How to Hike with Small Children

Jump to Making Trail Mix

Jump to Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce

As I mentioned in my prior post, this is to be the second part in summing up November.  And as I mentioned before, we spent most of November hiking the local nature trails.

I’ll begin by sharing some of our adventures on the trails.

Probably the scariest moment was when Sunfilly threw a tantrum for no apparent reason (as two-year-olds are wont to do), throwing herself into a pile of leaves along a creek bank.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small, dark brown banded snake slithering out of the leaves towardsher.  My split-second reasoning was this: “Garter snakes usually get startled and try to get away from screaming humans.  This snake has a diamond-shaped head, a trait shared only by poisonous snakes.  Poisonous snakes tend to be more aggressive than nonpoisonous snakes.  Even baby poisonous snakes are poisonous.  It’s probably not a garter snake and probably poisonous.  It’s not worth waiting to find out.”

Possibly a baby copperhead.

This is the snake that I killed and the stick I whacked it with. It's a crappy underbelly shot. This is a lousy picture because I took it using my pseudo-intellectual phone.

Okay, well, actually it was instinct, but that was what pretty my instinct was saying.

In that split second, I grabbed the large branch Starkitten had been using as a makeshift walking stick and whacked it on the head with all my strength.  Three times.  Then it was dead.

I took advantage of this tragic situation (I don’t like killing things that aren’t for food) to explain to the girls why I ask them to be careful when going through leaves, or why I instruct them to stay on the trail, or simply why they need to listen to me.  Starkitten is old enough to understand when I say that something can hurt her, but I think that when she observed the snake die, she understood what I meant when I explained that snake bites could make her die, too.

Since the snake’s head was crushed pretty badly, I couldn’t determine for sure what it was, but I suspected that maybe it was some kind of water moccasin, which I thought was pretty common in North America.  Then after talking to one of the volunteer park rangers I meet frequently during our hikes on the trail, I’m led to believe it may have been a baby copperhead, which was his suspicions based on my description of the markings and the aggressive behavior of the snake. He informed me that water moccasins don’t live this far north, which surprised me, considering how cold it does feel in humid Louisiana; and those nasty buggers made a terrible habit of getting into the house I grew up in and sleeping on the black curtain rods, blending in with the viny design of the metal.  I assumed they did something similar here–hiding in warm buildings to weather the cold.  But apparently it gets too cold for them in Ohio.  I was also surprised that copperheads do live here, as I always thought of them as preferring warmer climates.

Well that was a fun little herpetology lesson for me.

A group of slider turtles sunning themselves on dead trees in a creek.

And speaking of herpetology, we did spot quite a few red-eared slider turtles here.  They are fun to observe, especially when there are many of them piled onto each other on some log, sunning themselves.  The game the girls and I played was to see how long we could watch them quietly before startling them into swiftly diving into the water.  Hopefully such games will prepare them for the eventual camping and hiking trips my husband and I would love to take them on, where you would have to be extremely quiet to spot an animal, or to avoid something spotting you.

And one thing that I have really enjoyed about autumn in Ohio is the plentitude of migratory waterfowl.  I never really saw them so numerous in Texas, and rarely in Louisiana.  Here, they are everywhere.  And what is really amazing is that, in the late evening or early morning, if the kids are asleep or being quiet, you can hear the geese honking and ducks quacking overhead as they fly south–past my old home–for the winter.  The stillness of late November, after the first snow, really made experiencing this seem surreal.

As we passed someone's farm along the trail, we spotted a flock of ducks. Too bad it wasn't a public hunting grounds...

But when it was still warm enough to hike, and since it rained quite a bit here (making me think of that song by Guns n Roses),  we would happen by flocks of waterfowl anywhere there was water.  And “anywhere” included low-lying spots in some farmer’s land that had just accumulated water from all the rain.

Ducks and geese were a lot braver than the slider turtles and certainly braver than the wood ducks in Louisiana that I grew up seeing, but not as used to humans as the ducks we would see at the public parks in Dallas (where the birds were used to being fed by humans).  They would stare at us as we passed, swimming off nonchalantly if the girls got too loud, and only flying away if they thought we were running towards them (which at first the girls would do–“Look, Mommy, a duck!  Let’s catch the duck!”).

The "mystery bird." It blends in with the tree on which it is perched.

There were also some kind of crane or heron that we would observe on occasion.  It would sit up high in the trees, and then suddenly dive into the water, and emerge with a struggling carp in its beak.  It looked very majestic.

Even more amazing to observe was the rare sighting of a bald eagle swooping over a lake and catching a fish in its talons.  We saw it happen twice, and both times Starkitten couldn’t stop talking about it.

How to Hike with Small Children

The trick to hiking with small children is all about patience and preparation.

You have to realize that kids do not have the stamina that adults have, even if they seem to have a million times more energy, and toddlers will have meltdowns about things over which you have no control (Sunfilly once had a meltdown because a dragonfly landed on Starkitten and not her).  And if they are in a foul mood, it is probably best to not take them hiking, because the odds that they will not obey orders that would ensure their safety are pretty high.  And you have to keep in mind that they cannot regulate the body temperatures as efficiently as an adult, so overdressing or underdressing them can lead to an unhappy toddler or ultimately even a sick one.

I typically took them in the morning, right after a big breakfast, and dressed them in layers.  This way they were in a good mood and it would be easy to dress/undress them to make sure they were comfortable.  And this way, by the time we returned, they would be nice and sleepy and nap well.  I also made sure they had comfortable sneakers for hiking (there are hiking boots for kids at specialty stores, but since we don’t have that kind of money, I looked for sneakers that seemed to have a lot of cushioning in the soles and arch support).

Maybe it’s because I’m a little neurotic, but I tended to keep my backpack stocked with things like:

  • an extra change of clothes and socks for each girl
  • diapers and wipes (and diaper wipes are great for washing your hands in a pinch)
  • a first-aid kit containing Benadryl, children’s pain reliever, bandages, Kleenex, Neosporin, and pain reliever for me
  • pocket ponchos for each of us
  • several bottles of water
  • a Thermos full of coffee for me
  • kid-sized Thermoses filled with milk for each girl (they are amazing at keeping drinks cold, even in the triple-digit Texas heat, for several hours, and they have convenient tot-friendly straws which detach for easy cleaning)
  • trail mix
  • a lunch box with our picnic lunch
  • a few empty plastic shopping bags in which to put garbage

Of course, the backpack was certainly heavy, and reminded me of my ROTC years in college, but it was worth having these things handy when we needed it.  I usually would carry Sunfilly on my shoulders on the way home, so undoubtedly my back was sore, but I was amazed at how much weight I was losing from all the exercise.

As for lunch, I usually packed fruits like apples, oranges, and peaches.  For protein, I’d pack tuna or egg salad sandwiches, although occasionally it would be hard boiled eggs with crackers and cheddar cheese squares, at Starkitten’s request.  If I forgot to freeze my ice packs for the lunch box, I’d pack the non-perishable lunch kits, like the tuna kits or chicken salad kits that you can get at any grocery store.  These kinds of foods are low-mess and can be eaten while sitting on one of the park benches we’d find strewn along the trail, or even while sitting by a stream and watching the ducks.

For conservation reasons, I’ve educated my girls about the harms of littering.   That is why I’d make sure to pack extra garbage bags.  I’ve explained that dumping your trash on nature can hurt the wild animals and plants.  Of course, now Starkitten complains when she sees an empty beer bottle or some other refuse marring otherwise pristine woods.

After the snake incident, I make sure to keep a walking stick handy.  The walking stick I use is just a branch from a tree chopped down by our landlord.  It’s straight, solid oak and is handy for whacking whatever nasties may try to hurt my babies.

Starkitten flaunts a maple leaf she found, which is larger than her head, and her makeshift walking stick.

And I cannot stress the “patience” part of hiking with kids enough.  Some kids love being outdoors, some don’t.  Some kids are content to walk and explore nature, others want to get messy in it.  Fortunately for me, my girls love being outdoors and are learning to not just grab at things.

But I still have to keep them engaged.

So we play games, like who can find the biggest leaf? or how many colors of leaves or flowers can we spot? or how many turtles can we find?

I’ve also noticed how easy it is to educate kids during a nature walk: that fungi and insects and vultures help to clean up things that have died and return them to the earth to benefit other living things; that the gingko tree is a living fossil; that some animals hibernate and some migrate; that not all trees shed their leaves for winter; and even how to watch the clouds for rain.

Making Trail Mix

Trail mix is really great for staving off growling tummies, and is packed with carbs and protein.  Since it’s expensive, I tend to make my own, as the ingredients can be much more affordable if you buy them individually (and in bulk).

You can really mix together any combination of ingredients, but here is what I tend to use, as the kids seem to like it best:

Homemade trail mix.

  • peanuts
  • dried edamame
  • sesame sticks
  • raisins
  • dried cranberries
  • dates
  • sunflower kernels
On occasion, I may toss in some M&Ms, as it makes the kids happy.  I’ll also toss in dried blueberries or strawberries or fiigs if I find them on sale at the local natural foods store (yay for supporting small businesses and organic farmers!).  If I was mixing it for myself only, I’d add wasabi peas, which are just amazing, and toss it all in some cayenne powder.  I like my food spicy.

Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce
I’ll spare you the cliche “why we should give thanks” Thanksgiving speech that everybody and their mother has said something about and skip right to the food.  I tried a citrus brine for the turkey for the first time, and it was divine.  Another thing I tried for the first time, and my family and our guests loved it so much I’m finding myself making it at least twice a week is homemade cranberry sauce.
I honestly never thought it would be so easy to make, but it was.  And, frankly, I don’t think I can ever eat canned cranberry sauce again–and my husband made that declaration on Day 1.

This is where the cranberries started popping.

Ingredients
  • 4 cups (about 1 bag) of cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
Directions
  1. Pick through the cranberries for any that look overripe or moldy or just gross you out.  Rinse them and let them drain.
  2. Pour the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir occasionally so that the sugar dissolves better.
  3. Let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the cranberries.  Reduce heat to medium and boil for about 10 minutes, or when the cranberries start popping.
  5. Reduce to a simmer, add the spices, and stir.  Let it simmer for another 2 minutes.  Then remove from heat.
I’ve read that most people cool it and then refrigerate their cranberry sauce, but my family likes to eat it while it’s still warm.  With the spices, it gives all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings that are classic for this time of year.

Okay, so I'll get a little Thanksgiving-sentimental here. I'm thankful for evenings like the one pictured here, enjoying a perfect sunset to a perfect day lost in Mother Nature with my family.

November Recap Part 1: Foraging is Fun

Jump to Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

First, I must apologize for the hiatus.  November turned into a month full of crazy stressful events that swept me away from much me-time.  So now that all of that has passed, I am going to play a little bit of catch-up.  This is the first of two parts of my recap of November.

This chipmunk lives under my patio. He is hibernating now, but during autumn, when he was still active, the girls would happily gather acorns for him and drop them in the hole that served as the front door to his little home, to help him get ready for winter. He was a challenge to photograph, as he would see me and dart away before I could snap a good shot of him.

The first couple weeks of November were beautiful.  They were warm, the way I think of autumn in the South.  It was perfect for going on long hikes with the kids and exploring nature.  When my husband was home, we would also go fishing.  I liked the long hikes the most, because Starkitten is such a little trooper–she can walk an entire three-mile trail and be happy about it–and Sunfilly is small enough that I can carry her on my shoulders when she gets tired, and her weight, plus the weight of my backpack, meant that I got a lot of strength training and actually lost a jean size during that two-week stint.  (Granted, I gained it back with interest after Thanksgiving.)

A praying mantis on my doorstep.

There were a lot of things we saw and did during those two weeks.  I took advantage of the falling leaves to teach my girls about the seasons and explain about autumn.  I explained that some animals are getting ready to hibernate, trees are losing their leaves and becoming dormant, and birds and butterflies are flying south for warmer weather.  We made a game out of it: spot the flocks of ducks and geese, and which trees were still “awake” and which were “going to sleep.”

Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

There was also the foraging.  Wild walnuts are everywhere.  I’m allergic to walnuts and pecans (it is a tragic allergy, indeed), but my husband and daughters certainly enjoyed finding them and eating them.  And with two handy manuals–Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide: Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms–I was able to identify quite a few delicious (and, more importantly, safe) berries and mushrooms.  I loved these guides because they are reputable, well-organized, and pocket-sized.  I’d pack them in my backpack for quick reference, in case I saw something that might be a great hiking snack.

My interest in botany (and mycology–the study of mushrooms and fungi–I will use “botany” to refer to both disciplines for the sake of simplicity, even though they are in fact completely separate) began when we first moved to Ohio and I was amazed at the abundance of wild mushrooms and berries not only on our rental property, but all along the local nature trails.  So many of nature’s goodies looked delicious, and yet I was well aware of the dangers of eating heedlessly.  Since I wanted to learn about my new environment, as well as eat of it, I researched well-respected field guides and went with the two that I mentioned, along with a few larger ones to supplement.

So the general rules to follow in foraging are:

  1. Take a notebook and pen with you, and a camera if possible.  You’ll need to record details about the plants that you found for the most accurate identification.  It’s also wise to have several small containers or ziplocs handy to store what you find separately and to prevent them from being crushed.
  2. Never eat what you find right away.  Take it home to identify it fully.  In some instances, you may need a microscope.
  3. Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  You need to be absolutely sure that what you think you’ve found in the forest or on the trail is in fact what it is.  Use more than one book and take advantage of the internet to look at pictures and find detailed descriptions.  In fact, one of the things I love about my two pocket field guides is that they will let you know what plants or mushrooms can be mistaken for each other.  This tells me I need to read up on not just what I think it is I’ve found, but what its look-alikes are.
  4. Don’t over-harvest.  Remember that plants and fungi are food for wild animals, too.  If you gather all the morels in the woods, it can spell starvation for all sorts of critters.  It can also lead to a shortage next year, as the plants you harvested would not have been able to make seeds–or the fungi to make spores–sufficient to reproduce.
  5. Quality of what you find is important.  Once you know that what you are looking at is edible and you want to go back and harvest more, pay attention to the quality.  If it looks like it’s had bugs in it, or looks squishy or overripe, don’t pick it.  You wouldn’t buy a nasty fruit or mushroom at the grocery store–why take it from the forest?  Besides, leaving the unwanteds on the plants helps ensure food for the wild animals and a steady harvest for next year.
  6. When eating a new fruit or mushroom for the first time, sample only a small amount and wait at least 48 hours.  This gives you time to see if there are any allergic reactions or if there are any toxins.  Don’t give any to your kids until you experimented on yourself first (and if there are multiple adults in your household, I’d recommend that you each try it and wait 48 hours, but taking turns).  Also, don’t try more than one new food at a time.  This way, if you do get sick, it will give your doctor a better idea of what to treat and to act quickly.
  7. If you have any questions or concerns, contact your doctor and/or a botany or mycology professor at your local university.  Especially if you have any doubts as to the identity of what you have found, it’s best to defer to the experts.

For fruits specifically:

  1. Observing the leaves is important.  How many are on a stem?  What shape are they?  Do they alternate or are they symmetrically ordered on the branches?  If you can, cut a piece of the branch to take home as well.
  2. The bark may also be important, so take note of it.
  3. Notate whether the plant was growing in the sun, partial sun, or shade.  Did you find it in the woods, or along a stream?  This can be important, too.
  4. Notate how tall it is, or whether it was a vine or tree or shrub.  Some plants are edible in one related form but not the other.
  5. Notate any smell the leaves or fruit emit.
  6. Once you find edible fruits, be sure to rinse them before you eat them.  I usually bring wet washcloths in a ziploc to wipe down the berries I know are edible so we can eat them on the trail.

For mushrooms specifically:

  1. If you’re a novice mushroomer (as I am), avoid gilled mushrooms completely.    When I first moved here, I spoke with a local park ranger about this, and his words of wisdom were repeated in several mushrooming guides I’ve since read.  There are too many fatally toxic gilled mushrooms that too closely resemble the edible ones, so much so that they are easily mistaken.  Until you have lots of mushrooming experience under your belt or are in the company of an experienced mushroomer, it’s safest to just leave them alone.
  2. Notate where the mushroom was found, how much sunlight can reach the mushroom, and how much precipitation fell the day before.  What it was growing on is extremely important.
  3. Notate whether the mushroom has any smell.
  4. When you harvest the mushroom, be careful not to yank it out.  The threadlike roots, called mycelia, are what actually produce more mushrooms.  If you damage the mycelia, you risk that chance that no more mushrooms may grow there anymore.  You wouldn’t chop down an apple tree to get the apples; be equally considerate to mushrooms, too.
  5. While the mushroom is still fresh, press the spore-producing underbelly against a clean sheet of paper or index card.  This will create a spore print and will be integral to mushroom identification.
  6. If you have identified an edible mushroom, never eat it raw.  Aside from the cautions about cooking out possible toxins and germs, I’d like to point out that it may have been hit with the errant droppings or urine from a bird or dog or some other critter.  You’d want to kill those germs.

While this list of considerations may seem long, it’s by no means exhaustive.  I highly recommend that you look up other guides to foraging to make sure you are well-prepared.  Remember, it’s not to be anal about science.  It’s for your own safety.

Also, don’t let it seem daunting.  I found that on my first trip down the nature trail–with two toddlers in tow–gathering and identifying wild berries and mushrooms actually went by pretty smoothly.  I learned a lot about autumn-producing plants in Ohio very quickly.  I also learned to identify poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade very quickly–and to explain to my girls not to just eat any berry they find, but to let me tell them if it is safe.

Here is a sampling of some of the yummy and/or interesting plants that I found during November.  You can click on the image for a better view.

Honeysuckle berries

Honeysuckle (the Lonicera genus) makes berries.  I guess I should have known that, but it never crossed my mind.  I know that you can use the flowers to make tea, but it turns out the berries are inedible for humans.  Birds, however, seem to love them.  They are easy for me to identify, because I’ve seen the vines all over the South (the smell of honeysuckles in May is intoxicating for me).

Dogwood with blue fruit

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a blue fruit that looks deceptively delicious, but can actually make you sick.  This is also considered an endangered plant in North America according to the USDA, so chancing upon one was pretty exciting.   (If I am wrong in its identification, then it’s the stiff dogwood, which looks fairly similar.)  These dogwoods are important for preventing soil erosion; they grow along stream beds and lakes and their roots hold soil to prevent runoff.

Poison sumac

If you find white berries in Ohio, as a rule of thumb, assume they are poisonous.  This poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is one example.  And this is also an example of why you want that field guide with you.  Just touching any part of this plant can result in skin irritations (like poison ivy) or even more severe allergic reactions–people with sensitive allergies can get sick just from being near the plant.

Rose hips

Roses (Rosa genus) are best known for their beautiful flowers and sweet smell… to the point of being cliché.  Wild roses are a pain in the rear for anyone wanting a manicured garden and take cliché to painful levels, especially if you’ve ever listened to country music (I’ve heard, ad nauseum, the phrase “you can’t time a wild rose” as a metaphor for country women).  A lesser known, and even cooler, fact about roses is that they make a very delicious and beneficial fruit, called rose hips.  They are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. Wild roses grow all over the place along the Miami-Erie Trail and Buckeye Trail in Ohio, especially along streams and the canals.  The fruits are smaller (because the flowers are smaller), but they are incredibly sweet.  We would just suck out the juices from the fruit, however, because biting into the core was unpleasant: the core has a fuzzy texture and tastes rather bitter.  I’ve read that some people make jellies out of them, and I’ll be curious to try that next year.  As it was, this was our favorite snack along the nature trail.  You can also make a tea out of rose hips, and apparently the nutrients in it help boost your immune system–useful for this time of year.

English: Hen of the woods mushroom

Hen of the Woods - Image via Wikipedia by Gargoyle888

But berries weren’t the only thing I found.  I failed to bring my camera the day I found them, but I found a hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) during one of our hikes.  It weighed about four pounds and, after I cleaned it and cut out the wormy parts (a lot of worms and pill bugs like to live in between the folds of the mushroom) and diced it, it filled about three quart-sized freezer bags.  I’ve since found two locations where this mushroom is growing on our property (the largest one weighing about nine pounds), which is cool, because the hen of the woods will keep growing back on the same spot.  And they taste delicious–I’ve read that some rate them as just a few steps down from truffles–and apparently also have some beneficial vitamins and antioxidants.  They only grow on oak stumps or branches and they are easily mistaken for a pile of leaves, which is why I didn’t notice them when we first moved here.  But I’m so thrilled to have found so many of these amazing mushrooms, as they have since been used to jazz up spaghettis and soups and many other dishes.  It even tastes fantastic by itself, just sauteed with butter and onions.

And that reminds me of another nifty pointer I’d like to share about mushrooms: the best way to preserve them is to freeze them.  Cut them up into whatever slices you’d like beforehand, because you cannot thaw them.  When it’s time to cook, you just toss the frozen mushrooms into the pot or pan and cook them.  This preserves the flavor and texture best, and it tastes just like the ones you’d harvested that day.

I couldn't get close enough to inspect it, but it sure looked delicious. Because I couldn't reach it to examine it, I'm not sure if it is edible. But it was too pretty not to share with you. Growing next to it is what appears to be poison sumac.

Next blog post: adventures on the trail, what to pack for hiking, and homemade cranberry sauce.

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