Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bee Hero

I opened the slider to the patio to find Greta sitting at her sand and water table in a cloud of bees. She was completely calm, staring down into the water, unconcerned about the bee near her hand, or the bees buzzing all around.

I thought I'm going to have to do something about those bees.

Bees need a source of water but they don't like it to be too close to the hive. Our sand and water table must be the perfect distance because they have shunned the birdbath out front and other offerings and made the sand and water table their water bar of choice. (Experienced beekeepers, suggestions please!)

Here Greta's saying, "This bee crawled on my arm and it didn't even sting me!"

Then she gave a gasp. And picked up a stick. She reached down into the water and came up with a bedraggled bee on the stick.

She walked it over to the mini-trampoline and set the stick down.Look, Mama! she said, I'm a bee hero!
And there I saw four bees drying in the sun.

We try to leave a towel hanging into one of the buckets so the bees can land on the towel and drink. But many fall in anyway. Lucky for them the bee hero sits poised, ready to help.
This bee fell off the bee hero's stick onto the rim of the tubs. I loved watching her dry herself. In the right center photo she is wet and bedraggled. Look how she preens until she is fluffy all over. Then she bowed low to the bee hero (center top) and flew off to cool her hive with the water.

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Magic Wood

Hikes at Sunol Regional Wilderness are always magical. But this time the kids discovered something outside the ordinary magic of scorpions and darkling beetles: A wizard tree!

A hollow tree trunk beckoned from the path. We have passed by many times without noticing it. The girls' friends wanted to investigate, so down they went through the stinging nettles and miner's lettuce and lurking poison oak.

Inside the tree was a box.

Inside the box was a booklet and a stamp.

This is a wizard tree the booklet said. And inside it those who had looked in the tree and found the box had written their names and the date they passed by. The oldest was from 2005. Ev's friend Sasha recorded our names and the dates.

We all ran on toward the cave rocks, even more under the spell of the woods than usual.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Daddy's Little Girls

Ev and Clem were hard at work this week embellishing a corporate logo. Since their Dad works at at the company, I didn't mind too much.

They were participating in Doodle4Google: designing a doodle for the Google homepage on the theme What I Want for the World. It was neat to hear what they wanted for the world and see how they creatively altered and embellished the Google logo to express those ideas. I'll post their designs when the contest is over (I wouldn't want to accidentally disqualify them as I didn't read the fine print).

Greta had to get in on the act. "How do you spell Google?" she asked. I gave her a black and white printout of the logo and the above is what she did. She knew the colors of all the letters in the logo! I had to go to the homepage to check. I asked her how she knew which colors to use.

With cheerful exasperation: "I just remembered!"

The winner of the public Doodle4Google competition gets her doodle displayed on the Google homepage for 24 hours and a $15,000 college scholarship. Alas, daddy's little girls are not eligible for the public competition. But they sure have had fun.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Soup, Salad, Sorbet Behind the Scenes

The Menu:
Butternut Squash Soup
Green Leaf and Cucumber Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Grapefruit and Honey Sorbet

J.G. Wilder asked me to describe how we do our cooking thing.

This project started out as a way to romance the kids into trying new food. But the best part about it is how nice it has been to cook with the kids. To see them enjoying and taking pride in their creations.

The witching hour when the kids are tired and hungry and run around fighting while I try to make dinner is largely a distant memory. We work together to put the meal on the table. Nibbling at the veggies as we chop takes the edge off our hunger.

Here's a list of what we do. We don't do all of these things all the time, in fact, some we have never yet done. But as many of these as make sense, we do.

1. Look through cookbooks together to figure out what we want to cook, keeping in mind what is in season. I look for dishes I think we could "bridge" to.
2. Make shopping lists together.
3. Shop together. The kids have their own lists and run off to find all the items on their lists.
4. They carry in all the groceries. :)
5. We figure out together what order to make everything, or who makes what.
6. They peel and chop, eating the raw veggies and fruits as they work.
7. They cook and stir and taste for seasoning.
8. They set the table, light candles if they want them.
9. They set out condiments, salt, pepper. We have a salt tray and fancy salts to sprinkle. Greta likes the pink salt.
10. We sit down all together and eat!
11. I don't force them to eat anything. I woo. I charm. But I don't cajole or force (at least, I really try not to).

Here is how we prepared this week's Soup, Salad and Sorbet.

I was at the store and thinking I had not talked to the kids about what kinds of soup, salad and sorbet they wanted to make. I decided to buy some butternut squash and a chicken and give them the choice of butternut squash soup or chicken soup. Butternut squash soup seemed reachable to me as Clem once had a passion for sweet potatoes and loves pumpkin pie, and Ev loves soup.

Greta had said that she wanted strawberry sorbet, so I picked up several baskets of strawberries.

I chose a head of green leaf lettuce and two cucumbers figuring that a salad lies mostly in the dressing, and that all of them eat plain raw cucumber.

We took the strawberries to a history fair, and I baked the chicken for dinner one night. So much for the chicken soup and strawberry sorbet, and for the kids' opportunity to choose!

I peeled one butternut squash. Clem cubed it, pausing to be Captain Squash. I boiled it in stock.

Meanwhile Clem had the idea of toasting the seeds. Why not? I thought garnishing the soup with toasted seeds would be a great way to entice Clem and Greta to try the soup.

I was too sick to finish making the soup in the evening and we bought a chicken pot pie for dinner.

Clem and Greta ate all the toasted seeds.

The next day I woke up feeling ok and pureed the squash and returned it to the pot.

I felt terrible all day but just before Mike got home from hiking with the kids I popped enough advil and tylenol to get my fever under control and thought it was time to have that soup, salad and sorbet. I cut open the second butternut squash and toasted the meager few seeds it contained.

Greta thought the two halves of the squash looked like "babies wrapped in blankets". She loved and rocked her sweaty babies.

Evelyn picked a meyer lemon from our tiny tree and zested and juiced it.

I peeled a cucumber and Clem sliced it. Mike washed the lettuce and Clem tore it into bite-sized pieces.

Clem and Evelyn finished making their own dressings. Ev has not found a dressing she likes and was trying to make one without vinegar. Clem enjoyed mixing seasoned rice wine and red wine vinegar into her lemon juice, shallots and olive oil.

Our strawberries were gone, but there were a number of grapefruits that had hardened skins in the fruit bowl. I cut them in half and lo! they were all good inside. Evelyn juiced them with Greta's help. Greta helped me dissolve sugar and honey in a little hot water and poured the syrup into the grapefruit juice.

I put the mixture in the freezer to chill. Mike set the timer so that we could check on it and catch it just as it was beginning to get skim ice.

I finished off the soup with a dash of pumpkin pie spice and some cream. Clem stamped her foot and said that this was not going to be her dinner because she does not like butternut squash soup or green leaf lettuce. See pout at right.

Ev got the soup bowls out. I filled water glasses.

Greta cleared her story tapes from the table. She has cassettes of all different colors and she has been making Dagwood sandwiches out of them. The yellow are the bread, the green, lettuce and red, tomatoes.

I put out plates and forks. Ev got the soup spoons. Everyone who helped set the table got to light a candle (everyone!).

I served the soup in the kitchen, Mike carried the bowls to the table. Clem carried the salad bowl to the table.

I put five little groups of four butternut squash seeds on a doll plate.

We sat. Phew.

And passed the little plate around. Everyone sprinkled 4 tiny seeds on her soup (doesn't that make more sense as we girls outnumber the boys 4 to 1).

The seeds worked their magic on Clem. She inhaled her soup. Then half of mine, then most of Greta's. And then her salad.

Greta ate cucumbers. And made pretty patterns with her cucumbers. She may have eaten a plain lettuce leaf.

Ev tried her salad, but did not like her dressing. She seemed to enjoy her bowl of soup.

Evelyn remembered the book Pumpkin Soup. I pulled it off the shelf. The cover page was exactly the color of our soup. My soup eaten, I read the book to Greta hoping to entice her to try her soup.

In the story the duck always adds the perfect amount of salt. But he left in a fit of pique and the cat and squirrel oversalted the soup in his absence. I asked Greta if her soup was oversalted. She looked at me and dipped the very tip of her finger into the little puddle of soup remaining in her bowl and licked it.

"Not too salty," she said.

That was all she had of the soup, but I call it a victory. She chose to try it.

After dinner the sorbet liquid had chilled enough. Greta poured it into the ice cream maker. Everyone ate the grapefruit honey sorbet, served in liqueur glasses. Although Greta said it tasted like "lemon grease". I thought it was effervescent and intense and refreshing and delicious. Next time I'll have it with champagne poured over it as suggested.

So this time we managed to do, or at least partly do, numbers 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 on the list.

And I happily added Butternut Squash Soup to my list of dinners that 4/5 of us will eat.

Anyone have any tips to share? Points you would add to the list? I'm all ears.

Our Venus Flytrap Flowered!

If you are like me you blithely had kids even though you couldn't keep a house plant alive. I figured a baby would be more insistent about its needs than a spider plant, and boy was I right about that.

You are probably not like me, actually, you are probably a gardener. But I bet we have in common that we bought books on parenting. So when I bought these babies, venus flytrap babies, back in December for the kids for Christmas, I figured I'd get a book on raising them. The one I got was The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants.

We had tried to keep venus flytraps before, only to have them wither and die. I hoped to keep these ones a secret until Christmas morning, but even though I hadn't read the book yet I figured the back of a dark closet was not a good place to keep them until the big day.

So I stuck them in our shower which we didn't use as it leaked. It had the benefit of having frosted glass that let in just the sort of wan light the packing material said the babies would want after their traumatic cross country trip in a box.

One day shortly before Christmas Greta had a huge tantrum and said she wanted to be alone. She stomped off, tears pouring down her face. Only to return moments later, tears forgotten.

"Mom! You have venus flytraps growing in your shower!"

Ev read the book (phew!) and discovered that their pots should sit in a pan of water and that they liked humidity. So they've been the happy denizens of a bell jar on the kitchen counter ever since. And two of them have decided to flower. This was the first one to open. Alas, the book says you must chop off the flower as soon as it opens or the plant will go to seed and die.

So we admired its bloom and Clem snipped it off.

Whether this was what it needed or not, it gave no indication.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Growing up with Good Food

It's not as horrible as you might imagine, according to Alice Waters' daughter, Fanny. She doesn't even pine for McDonald's french fries! (Is that really so hard for people to imagine?)

Greta surprised me the other day by digging right into what we call egg and bacon pizza, or pizza with pancetta and an egg cooked in the middle.

Exotic? Perhaps.

I didn't expect Greta to try it. But she dips toast in her egg and she likes pizza, so I guess it was an easy bridge for her to cross.

I remember reading a story about Fanny's first day at school. She reported to her mom that they served "sorbet, but they called it sherbet!"

Funny that Chez Panisse Desserts (written by Lindsey Shere, not Alice Waters) calls all the sorbets, like the raspberry one we made, sherbet.

Below is a video of an interview with Fanny and her mom. I love how Alice Waters always put a real cloth napkin in Fanny's lunchbox. I'm thinking I'd lose a lot of napkins this way.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Soup, Salad, Sorbet

We started what I hope will be a new tradition this week. Soup, salad and sorbet night. Each child gets to choose one of the three and we rotate who chooses what. We got off to an uneven start. Poor Clem has been out of commission for a week. Fever, pain, no appetite, and the insult added to the injury: long bouts of hiccups.

So Ev chose all three this week. I tried to give Greta choice of sorbet, but she enthusiastically agreed to the raspberry sorbet Ev had chosen.

I love how kids surprise you when you let them choose. On the menu: Onion panade (similar to French Onion Soup) and smoked trout and avocado salad. They've surprised me before by choosing quail eggs and alligator.

What food choices have your kids surprised you with?

Onion Panade and Avocado and Smoked Trout Salad from Chez Panisse Vegetables (my favorite cookbook). Look up the vegetable you have in alphabetical order and find a myriad of ways to cook it, some simple and elegant, some complex.

Raspberry Sherbet from Chez Panisse Desserts

Friday, March 13, 2009


The other morning I set out an oatmeal bar. I had new chewy quick cooking steel cut oats and I thought I'd entice the kids across the bridge to this somewhat new food.

There was a little pitcher of cream, a jar of cinnamon, and bowls of nuts and brown sugar. And bananas and strawberries.

Greta was thrilled. I love how she holds the pitcher by the bottom and pours out the side.

Greta put brown sugar and cream and cinnamon on her oatmeal. She said "steel chopped oats" were her favorite. She watched as my mom and I put nuts and bananas and strawberries on our oatmeal. After a while she decided to try the strawberries.

This morning she wanted the same thing. In a rush, I put out the cream in the carton instead of a pitcher. But it would not do. And I accidentally peeled my banana from the bottom. I laughed at myself but Greta couldn't understand what was funny. I realized how ingrained even simple acts are. Why should there be just one way to peel a banana?

Today she forgot all about the brown sugar and had bananas, strawberries, cream and cinnamon.

This is what homeschooling feels like when things are going well. You lay out the smorgasbord for kids and they choose what appeals to them. Sometimes they go for what they know they like. Sometimes they try something new. Sometimes they grab it at an angle you never would have expected and unpeal it in a new way that shows you you've been stuck in your thinking. And they love it because it is their own discovery and invention.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Treasure Hunt

The stars aligned and told us it was time to collect mushrooms and make spore prints. On our backyard hunt we found more treasures than we anticipated. Two banana slugs, deer vertebrae, and Ev's find: a sodden $20 bill.

Later a slender salamander turned up beneath a rock in the side yard. He was playing dead but when I gently turned him into my other hand to look at his belly he quick turned over. He did it so fast that we couldn't see him turn. I'd flip him from hand to hand but he was always right side up and unmoving as a stick. We laughed and laughed and Evelyn called him a double sided salamander.

Greta cut the stems off the mushrooms and set them on a piece of paper. We left them over the weekend. Only two made good prints. A third made a cream print on white paper, visible only in the right light. I'm glad I took pictures as Greta, in an attempt to make notecards, chopped them all into tiny bits with her scissors. We meant to bury the bits in the yard to plant more mushrooms, but the bits have vanished. Greta said she dreamed that mushrooms were growing on the walls of our house.

I hope that particular dream does not come true.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Driving Miss Greta

Lately Greta has been trying to sort out her options for the future. Can she grow up to be a fairy? A queen?

It reminded me of a favorite family story.

My brother, when he was about Greta's age, announced to my sister and me (we were Ev and Clem's ages), that when he grew up he was going to be a fire truck.

In the photo at right you can see us. My brother on our grandma's lap. I'm peeking out from behind my sister's leg.

Of course, as big sisters our job (as we saw it) was to know more than he did, and let him know it often.

"You can't be a fire truck," we started to explain. We had outgrown fantasy and were rock sure that people could not grow up to be vehicles.

He cut us off, playing his trump card, "I can, too! Mom says I can be anything I want to be."

So Greta and I were driving and talking about her options. She and I spend a lot of time in the car. Driving her to classes. Driving to pick up Ev and Clem.

This time she is asking about princesses and fairies and angels. Are they real? What are her chances of being one? She was really disappointed to hear that the U.S. doesn't have a queen.

I said, "But you could be president!"

"But I want to be a mother!"

"You could be a mother and president," I say. "Just like I'm a mother and a writer."

"And a taxi!" she says.

I cracked up. How did she figure that out? Or did she overhear me complaining about all the driving?

My brother did not grow up to be a fire truck. But my sister and I were wrong. Because hey, I grew up to be a taxi.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Child of the Forest

A lot of rain has yielded a lot of mushrooms in the woods.

We found this Amanita on a recent hike.

This morning Greta warned us that she was a poisonous mushroom and not to touch her.

She reminded me of a couple favorite books.