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Archive for January, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a few books at my local thrift store, including Peak, by Roland Smith.  I am an avid reader, so yard sales and thrift stores help me feed my book habit without breaking the bank.  I actually really need to gather up the piles of books I have read but don’t want to keep and send them back into the secondhand world.  They are adding to the immense amount of clutter in my bedroom…

Anyway, back to Peak.  I didn’t realize this was a young adult book, until I actually picked it up to read it, and I also thought it was non-fiction.  Shows how much attention I was paying!  But the synopsis on the back cover, which described the story of a teen who tries to climb Mt. Everest with his father had me intrigued.  I enjoy reading young adult lit every once in a while, too.  There are some really good YA books, and a quick, easy read can be a nice change.

Peak was quick and easy, for sure, but it was also really enjoyable.  The plot captured my interest, and the details Smith gives about mountain climbing are fascinating.  The eponymous narrator/main character is a 14 year-old, and I am not sure how well Smith captures the mentality of a boy that age.  Peak just seems a bit too rational and well-adjusted, but I’ve never been a 14 year-old boy, so what do I know?  That said, he’s an interesting character who goes through some good character development in the book.  I think Smith did a great job overall with the characters.  They seem real and dimensional, not the caricatures often found in YA lit.  There’s a good dose of action in the book, too, as you’d expect with the Everest setting.  So whether you enjoy books that focus on character psychology or on exciting plot, there’s something here for you.

I will say that I didn’t love the climax of the book.  Without spoiling it, about the most I can say is that it was dramatic and unexpected, but didn’t quite ring true.  Still, it was a fun, engaging book.  I’d recommend it for an adult who wants a light novel (well, light in the sense of time and concentration, not mood) or for a younger reader, especially those interested in the outdoors or extreme sports.  I’d also recommend it to those of you who, like me, are getting sick of winter already.  Reading about teams of climbers sleeping in tents and climbing ice walls in brutal weather conditions puts things in perspective a bit, at least temporarily.

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I had intended to try my hand at making granola this holiday season.  I love giving homemade gifts, and wanted to try something different from candy and cookies, something that would keep well and that I could make in big batches.  Granola seemed to fit the bill, so I consulted recipes, came up with a plan for three flavors, and purchased ingredients (largely from the bulk section at Whole Foods.)  Unfortunately, procrastination, the busy holiday season, and a truly nasty cold got in my way.  So, here I am a month later, and I was finally able to make my granola.

I based my granola loosely on Alton Brown’s recipe, but I definitely customized it.  I made three different kinds of granola: pecan pumpkin spice, fig and walnut, and cranberry orange.  I tackled the pecan pumpkin spice first.

oats, pumpkin seeds, pecans, and puffed kamut

In addition to customizing the flavors, I tried to add a little more texture than the standard oats and nuts combination.  All three granola variations started with 3 cups of oats and 1 1/2 cups of puffed kamut.  Kamut is an ancient type of wheat, and I found a puffed kamut cereal that, in the granola, added a light, airy crunch.  In the pecan pumpkin spice variation, I also added pumpkin seeds and chopped pecans to round out the dry ingredients.

Then I stirred together oil (my canola oil smelled a little off, so I had to use olive oil, but it worked just fine), maple syrup, and a few tablespoons of pumpkin butter.   I got my pumpkin butter at Trader Joe’s, but you can also find the Stonewall Kitchen’s variety at some grocery stores, and Williams-Sonoma makes a version, as well.  If you like pumpkin, but you’ve never had it, you really should give it a try.  It’s warmly spiced, sweet, and delicious.  You can put it on toast or biscuits, stir it into yogurt, or dip pretzel sticks in it.  Yum!  Anyway, here I used it to add a little bit of actual pumpkin flavor to the granola, along with its sweetness and spices.  The pumpkin butter didn’t add enough spice on its own, so I added cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and salt.  I whisked it all together and poured it over the dry ingredients.

sweet, spicy, and subtly pumpkin flavored

After mixing thoroughly, I spread it all on a sheet pan lined with parchment and put it in the 300 degree oven.  I baked it for about an hour, stirring it every 15 minutes or so, until it was golden brown and crispy.

Voila! Pecan pumpkin spice granola!

Granola experiment #2 was fig and walnut.  This time, in addition to the oats and puffed kamut, the dry ingredients included sweetened coconut and chopped walnuts.

oats, kamut, coconut, and walnuts

Then I stirred together the wet mixture: oil and maple syrup, like before, plus some brown sugar, cardamom, allspice, and a little salt.

combining wet and dry ingredients for fig and walnut granola

That mixture got combined with the dry ingredients, spread on another sheet pan, and baked just like the pecan pumpkin spice granola.  After it came out of the oven and cooled a bit, I mixed in the chopped figs.

granola and figs ready to be mixed together

The final variation was cranberry orange.  I wanted to make at least one granola without nuts, for those who are allergic or dislike nuts, and this was it.  Still I wanted a good crunch, and some roasted, salted soybeans (also known as soynuts) caught my eye in the bulk section at Whole Foods.  These have the added bonus of giving the granola some added protein, too.  So the dry ingredient base for the cranberry orange granola was oats, kamut, and soynuts.  The wet ingredients were oil, maple syrup, orange juice, orange zest, molasses, and a bit of brown sugar.

dry and wet ingredients for cranberry orange granola

By now you know the drill: mix, spread in a pan, and bake until golden.  I stirred in the dried cranberries once the cooked granola had cooled a bit.

I am very pleased with how all three granolas turned out.  I’ve never been a huge fan of store-bought granola .  It tends to be pricey, sugary, and high in fat.  I think these have converted me, though.  They will be great as snacks or mixed with fruit or jam and yogurt for breakfast.  And each has a distinct character.  The pecan pumpkin spice granola is warm and comforting, and I am looking forward to enjoying it with yogurt and some of the extra pumpkin butter and a cup of tea.  The fig and walnut is the subtlest flavor and probably the most versatile.  I bet its light sweetness and hint of spice will be great with applesauce.  The cranberry orange granola was the most surprising to me and is probably the most unusual.  The orange flavor really comes through and pairs really well with the slightly tart cranberries.  With plain yogurt and a bit of orange marmalade, it’s going to be a burst of bright flavor on cold winter mornings.

For once, I actually measured and took notes as I cooked, so I can give you recipes for all three granolas.  These aren’t precision recipes, though.  You can definitely adapt them to suit yourself.  Each recipe makes 6-7 cups of granola, but it should keep for quite a while in an airtight container, or you can freeze it.  Much of what I made will be given away, so those of you who know me in real life should start thinking about what kind you’d like.

Granola success! Clockwise from top left: fig and walnut granola, pecan pumpkin spice granola, and cranberry orange granola

Pecan Pumpkin Spice Granola

3 cups rolled oats                                     3 tbsp. pumpkin butter

1 1/2 cups puffed kamut cereal             1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)             1/2 tsp. ginger

1 cup chopped pecans                             1/4 tsp. cloves

1/4 cup oil                                                 1/4 tsp. cloves

1/4 cup maple syrup                               3/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Mix oats, cereal, pecans, and pumpkin seeds in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, stir together remaining ingredients.  Pour over dry ingredients and stir well.  Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment (if you don’t have parchment, you can spray the baking sheet with non-stick spray.)  Bake for 50-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until golden brown and dry.

Fig and Walnut Granola

3 cups rolled oats                                      1/4 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 cups puffed kamut cereal              1 tsp. cardamom

3/4 cup sweetened, dried coconut        1/4 tsp. allspice

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts                   3/4 tsp. salt

1/4 cup oil                                                  1 1/2 cups chopped dried figs

1/4 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Mix oats, cereal, coconut, and walnuts in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, stir together oil, syrup, sugar, spices, and salt.  Pour over dry ingredients and stir well.  Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment (if you don’t have parchment, you can spray the baking sheet with non-stick spray.)  Bake for 50-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until golden brown and dry.  Once cool, stir in figs.

Cranberry Orange Granola

3 cups rolled oats                                 zest of one orange

1 1/2 cups puffed kamut cereal         juice of one orange

1 cup roasted salted soynuts             2 tbsp. molasses

1/4 cup oil                                             1 tbsp. brown sugar

1/4 cup maple syrup                           1 1/2 cups dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Mix oats, cereal, and soynuts in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, stir together oil, syrup, zest, juice, molasses, and sugar (if you omit the soynuts or use unsalted ones, add a little salt to the wet ingredients).  Pour over dry ingredients and stir well.  Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment (if you don’t have parchment, you can spray the baking sheet with non-stick spray.)  Bake for 50-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until golden brown and dry.  Once cool, stir in cranberries.

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Surviving Snow Days

photo by flickr user bensonkua

We’ve already had three substantial snowstorms this winter in Boston, and my brother in Chattanooga, TN has gotten measurable snow twice.  I think it is already safe to say it’s an unusually precipitous winter.  (Yes, I know that’s not the proper use of the word precipitous, but sometimes I like to be silly with words.)  During last year’s ridiculous mid-Atlantic dumping of snow, I talked with a friend in the DC area who was at her wit’s end cooped up with two little boys under 3.  I made some suggestions that she liked, and I thought I could share some here, too. Most of these tips are geared toward toddlers and preschoolers, partly because that’s where a lot of my experience lies, but also because those age groups tend to have the most challenging cabin fever.

Get active! Gross motor activities are a big part of most kids’ school or daycare days, and without that activity, they may be restless, whiny, and have trouble napping.  Getting the kids out in the snow, sledding, fort-building, or snowball-fighting, is a good way to burn off energy, but sometimes that’s not an option.  When I was a preschool teacher, we’d survive days without outdoor play by designing movement games, like hopping about like frogs on paper lily pads taped to the floor.  Play Twister or a high energy version of Simon Says with jumping jacks, log rolls, sit-ups, etc.  Make an obstacle course.  (My DC friend tried this and she said that the parents spent more time setting up the course than the kids did completing it, but you can extend the play by asking kids to help create new portions or by timing them and encouraging them to try to beat their best time.)  As a nanny, I enjoyed creating scavenger or treasure hunts for the kids, trying to ensure that they’d have to scurry around a lot to complete them and would be tired (and quiet!) after.  Play paper plate frisbee or just put on some music and let the kiddos dance.

Bend, but don’t break, routines. A snow day can be a great excuse to do special things with your kids, like watching movies, drinking cocoa, baking cookies, and staying in PJs all day.  Relaxing or ignoring all the usual rules, though, can be confusing or even scary for kids, especially toddlers and preschoolers, which might lead to behavior issues.  You may want to stick close to your child’s normal weekday schedule or enforce the same cleanup, mealtime, and/or naptime rules as school.

Make it a theme day. With plenty of toys, games, and art supplies, it can be shocking when kids whine to you that they’re bored.  They might have too many options or need a little play inspiration, and a theme is a fun way to channel ideas.  Declare that you are going to have an indoor beach day and play balloon volleyball, draw colorful swimsuit designs, and have a picnic lunch on the floor.  You could have a theater theme and color tragedy and comedy masks, play charades, and see what kinds of costumes you can come up with using things around the house.  Your kids may come up with some great ideas once you start brainstorming.

Be prepared with novelty. I think it can be a lifesaver to have a stash of new toys, crafts, or games.  You can pull out one or two to keep your child happily occupied on a snow day, a plane flight, or other situation where you’re trying to avoid boredom or meltdowns.  Toys and activities don’t even have to be brand new to do the trick; digging something out of the back of the closet or bottom of the toy box that hasn’t been played with in months can have the same effect.  My very favorite novelty items, though, are big boxes.  Appliance boxes are ideal, but smaller ones will do.  They can be turned into a boat, rocket, castle, race car, playhouse, or whatever your little one’s imaginations come up with.   Have the kids decorate the box inside and out and help them come up with pretend play scenarios to get the action started, “Where is the rocket going to land?  Will there be aliens there?”

photo by flickr user supernerdz

Turn chores into games. You may want to get some things done around the house, since you’re stuck there, and with a little creativity, the kids can be helpful, instead of getting in the way.  Need to sort through papers or junk mail?  Let the kids do the shredding or cut or rip up catalogs for collages (or just for the fun of snipping – what is the preschool fascination with scissors?)  Turn figuring out which food storage containers are missing lids into a matching game.  One of my preschool classes had a ton of fun one day scrubbing the classroom’s chairs.  The grown-ups did the majority of the real cleaning, but the kids were happily involved the whole time, and the job got done.  That’s not a great option for when you are stuck indoors (and don’t have 18 grubby plastic chairs), but your child might want to use the Dustbuster while you vacuum, or try to fold towels while you do laundry.

photo by flickr user Pinot & Dita

Engage their senses. Sensory play often captures kids’ attention and imagination better than other activities, allowing them to have fun, and you to read the paper, answer some emails, or do the dishes.  Playdoh and clay are tried and true options, but by no means the only ones.  A big plastic tub with some dry rice or beans along with some basic kitchen items (measuring cups, spoons, funnels) or figurines to bury and dig up is like having an indoor sandbox.  If you squirt some shaving cream on a counter or table, the kids can sculpt it, smush it, and draw in it (and it might get out some old marker or juice stains!)  A simple mixture of cornstarch and water is a messy but really cool preschool teacher fave, sometimes known as goop or oobleck.  It’s weird stuff that feels solid when you squeeze it in your fist and resists when you stir it, but will dribble right through your fingers.  Or bring some snow into the bathtub and let the kids shape, scoop, and build mini snowmen.

Any other tips or ideas? I’d love to hear about other great strategies and activities for dealing with snow days in the comments.  What helps you keep your patience and sanity when a long day inside stretches ahead of you?  Do you have any fond memories of snow days from your own childhood?

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The prodigal blogger returns!  Obviously,  I have been absent for quite a while.  I’ve been thinking about the blog and have decided to regroup a bit.  Honestly, I didn’t have any clear intentions when I started this blog, which I think has stymied my posting.  I either have too many ideas about things to post or too few.  So, from here on out, I may still post some random ramblings, but I am also going to try to put up more regular posts relating to different interest of mine.  Cooking will definitely be one category, and I may have a post very soon about homemade granola.  I am also thinking of a series on childcare/parenting tips, largely focused on activities, since my work is in the field of child development.  I am probably most apprehensive about those posts, since I am not a parent, but hopefully working with hundreds of kids over the years means my suggestions may be helpful.

Today I am introducing another series of posts, called Green Goddess Dressing.  Nope, it’s not about retro salad dressings.  Instead, I’ll be writing about getting great wardrobe items from thrift stores and garage sales.  Dressing in secondhand items is green in the economic sense, by reusing clothes that might otherwise become waste and potentially reducing the amount of new goods we consume, and green in the financial sense by saving money.  Hence, Green Goddess Dressing.  🙂

I have been getting substantial portions of my wardrobe from thrift stores and garage sales for pretty much my entire life, sometimes as a financial necessity and sometimes just for the love of bargains.  While I am not a fashionista, favoring styles that are flattering over those that are trendy, I think I have pretty good fashion sense.  And I love it when I get complimented on an outfit or article of clothing and can say that I got it at Goodwill or a sale in someone’s front yard.  I plan for the Green Goddess Dressing posts to show secondhand clothing items I have recently purchased and how I turn them into outfits that don’t look cheap or out of date.  There may also be posts from time to time featuring the more ridiculous or bizarre items I come across in my bargain hunting.

First, though, I thought I’d share some general tips for weeding through the piles or racks to find hidden gems.  These are geared mostly toward thrift store shopping, but many of them apply to checking out garage sales, as well.

1.  Choose your store. This may take a bit of research.  There are loads of secondhand stores around, from the old standbys like Goodwill and Salvation Army, to more local enterprises, plus consignment stores.  If you live in a metropolitan area, like me, you may have many options (I am within walking distance of two thrift stores), and you may not know where to begin.   Check out your local stores a couple of times and you’ll soon figure out which ones are for you.  I don’t know why, but some stores seem to have a bigger inventory of new or recent merchandise, some are more likely to have items from high-end labels, and others have great vintage sections.  Prices also vary, so your dollar may go farther at one shop than another.

Then there’s the organization of the store.  If the aisles are cramped and the racks jumbled, it’s going to be harder, and take more patience to find that fabulous item.  Well organized stores tend to choose one of two methods of displaying clothes, either by color or by size.  Racks arranged by color are eye-catching and can help you find items in the colors you like or that suit you, but, especially in a large store, having items already sorted by size saves you time and frustration when you pull a gorgeous dress off the rack only to discover it’s not your size.

If you don’t like thrift stores, like to wear high-end brands, or just have limited time or patience, but you still want to look for bargains, consignment stores may be the best fit for you.  Consignment stores tend to have higher prices and more limited selection, but they will only sell items in good condition and often from higher fashion labels.

Then, if you want to add another layer of complexity to your choice, you can look into who benefits from the proceeds of the secondhand store.  Most thrift stores and many consignment shops are affiliated with charities, so the money you pay for your bargains can do double duty by helping out a non-profit.

2. Gauge your mood and time. This relates to choosing the store, sometimes – if you are short on time or patience, a huge warehouse of a store will be overwhelming.  I have a tendency to think the next great bargain is just a rack away, so I have a hard time tearing myself away if I don’t start with a plan for my shopping, even if I am tired and cranky and not enjoying the process.  If I can tell I am not up for an all out bargain hunt in a big store, I will focus on one or two things.  For example, I may need pants and skirts, so I will just look at those sections.  Or I’ll tamp down the impulse to look at every item and just skim the racks, seeing what jumps out at me.

3. Inspect carefully. Many people seem to have the idea that most thrift store merchandise is old, ratty, or defective, but that isn’t the case in my experience.  I regularly come across items with their original store tags still on.  That said, things do get donated due to stains, tears, or broken zippers, so you need to be on the lookout.  That cashmere sweater isn’t such a bargain, if you get it home and find a hole, and many secondhand stores have a no return policy.

4. Don’t be seduced by low prices. It took me a long time to learn this lesson.  I used to buy things I wasn’t sure I loved, because they were so cheap.  If I didn’t wear it, I was only out a few dollars, right?  But those few dollars can add up, and over the years, I probably could have bought  a brand new designer coat or two with the money I have spent on dud duds.  My rule for thrift store clothes is the same now as for other stores: buy what you love.  Also just like with regular store shopping, it can help to think of cost per wear.  Even if that silk blouse is priced at a minute fraction of what it’s worth, it would be a waste of my money, because I basically don’t do dry-cleaning, and my work wardrobe is pretty casual, due to the combo of kids and arts and crafts.  A higher-priced pair of consignment pants, though, would get a lot more use in my wardrobe, so they’d be a better value.

5. Try it on. Sizes vary to begin with, and I think that is magnified sometimes in a secondhand setting.  Maybe somebody ordered their usual size online, but it ran too big, so they donated it rather than returning it.  Or something was worn a couple of times, but shrank in the wash.  I will often eyeball items that aren’t my size, and try them on if it looks like they might fit.  Plus, I am a firm believer that it is really hard to tell if something will look good on you without putting it on.  Keep in mind that some fit issues can be tailored, which may make sense if you are getting a great deal on an item that will get a lot of use.  Personally, I never seem to get around to taking things to a tailor, but if you have better follow-through, go for it.

So what about you guys?  Are you a thrift shopper?  Or does the idea of buying other people’s castoffs make you cringe?

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