Four ways to keep the Advent season in proportion

Off we go, into Advent and Christmas! If you’re a mother, you’re probably in charge of setting the tone for the entire family for the next month or so, and it probably feels like a gargantuan job. Here are a few things I’ve learned, that help me keep things in proportion.

Nobody is doing everything. If you read a lot of lifestyle magazines and websites or if you go on social media, especially if you are a member of a lot of women’s groups, your feed at this time of year will become an overwhelming parade of gorgeous, meaningful, liturgically appropriate practices and traditions. Foods you can make, prayers you can pray, special events you can plan or attend, presents you can craft, decorations you can arrange, songs you can sing, stories you can read, and all manner of fragrant and illuminated and sparkly and reverent and crafty and fulfilling ideas.

You must firmly tell yourself: This is the work of a CROWD. Nobody is doing all of this. Most people are doing a few things, and when you put it all together, it’s a lot. That’s what you’re seeing. If you look at your individual efforts and match it against what you’re seeing, of course it’s going to look paltry, because you’re just one person.

There are a few people who are doing a lot of things, and hooray for them, but they truly do not win any prizes for this. If you are doing anything at all to mark Advent and Christmas as a season that is different from the rest of the year — even if you’re just making sure you get the family to confession sometime before Christmas! — then you are doing it right. Light a candle and call it good. Nobody is doing everything.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly. 

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 319: In which I rest on pie laurels

Hap the Friday! I didn’t do a What’s For Supper last week because of course it was the day after Thanksgiving, and I assumed you already knew what we were having for supper. We aren’t amazing turkey leftover wizards anyway, so the following week wasn’t too spectacular. How about if I just do the highlights of the last two weeks? Who will stop me?

Here’s some of what we had the last few weeks: 

Pulled pork, cole slaw, french fries, Hawaiian rolls

Damien made this yummy pulled pork using the Deadspin recipe. For me, pulled pork is what you make when you have lost all interest in life and yet there is this hunk of meat to deal with, so you conceal it inside some kind of pot as quickly as possible and then pull it out at dinner time when it’s too late for anyone to get away; but Damien took a lot more trouble over it, and it showed. 

The next day, Damien also made a gigantic lasagna or possibly two lasagnas, also from Deadspin

Somewhat less photogenic, but ravishingly delicious. This recipe requires you to make a ragù and a béchamel sauce and let me tell you, any time I have to use the ålternate keybœard twïce in a sêntence, you know it’s going to be tæsty. 

Beef barley soup and store bought croissants 

Yaas, beef barley soup. This one, I made, and it was a cold, drizzly day, just perfect for building up a hearty, heartening soup. Garlic, salt and pepper and olive oil, carrots and onions, beef broth and red wine, beef, barley, and then mushrooms. 

Jump to Recipe

That was the week before Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving went great! I started baking on Tuesday. On Thursday, all my weird little chickens came home to roost, if temporarily

and my son’s gf also came over, and my brother and his bf, and we all had an excellent time, talking and laughing and shouting important opinions about obscure movies. Damien made the turkey injected and basted with white wine and lime juice and stuffed with sausage and oyster stuffing. I didn’t see or get a photo of it roasted, but here is the carving:

and he also made the gravy. He also made the mashed potatoes at the very last minute, because I put all the food on the table and told everyone dinner was served and then wandered around with a confused expression, and then he suddenly realized all I had done was boil a bunch of potatoes. So he mashed them and threw in a bunch of milk and butter, and mashed them, oops! Everything he made was scrumptious.

You can find the recipes for all my Thanksgiving foods here. 

I did fully made candied sweet potatoes using this recipe from My Forking Life, and they turned out great. This recipe includes a little fresh orange juice, which is nice. I think next time I may include actual slices of oranges. 

I had my annual internal query about what the difference is between yams and sweet potatoes. Sometimes I look it up and sometimes I don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because I never remember. So I thought about it for a while while I was cutting them up, and then I double-checked the bag, and it said “Mr. Yammy Sweet Potatoes.” So there you go. 

I also made parker house rolls using my own recipe, and they turned out nice and cute,

hard as a rock, and dry as a bone, and just about tasteless, so I need to find a new recipe.

I made cranberry orange bread which was fine, a little dry

spanakopita triangles to start us off, which were delightful

and we had a cranberry sauce vortex!!!

and three pumpkin pies, and a festive pecan pie that turned out rather pretty

I learned how to make pie crust roses from this website. Good to know! Very easy.

and I was inspired to make an apple pie that turned out quite lovely.

Refrigerating the pie for half an hour before baking helps all the decoration keep its shape). I gave it a little egg wash and sugar sprinkle and it was nice

Although the apples inside were a little chompy, to be honest. Can’t have everything.

I also made a few quarts of vanilla ice cream, and a quart of butternut squash ice cream with curry candied nuts, following a recipe from Blue Apron. (I ran out of pecans and they were like a dollar each this year, so I made it with 3/4 walnuts.) 

I really really liked the squash ice cream. It distinctly had all the flavors in the title — squash, curry, candied nuts — and it just worked. Really good autumnal flavor with just a little fiery edge from the curry. 

And finally, Dewey brought a lovely dense, moist gingerbread made using the Smitten Kitchen recipe,  plus a jar of heavy cream that the kids shook to whip up into whipped cream, so that was fun

Oh and I made a bunch of mulled cider with cinnamon stick and orange slices. 

And that was Thanksgiving, and it was great! 

Moving on!

Turkey ala king

When I was little, we had turkey ala king constantly, and I really loved it. I don’t know if it was the fun of having toast with dinner or what, but it felt like such a treat, and it was just so cozy and comforting, even with the mushy, muddy peas. So I was determined to recreate it, even though I knew in my heart that not many people would want it. I think my mother used to make it just by adding some cream of mushroom soup to leftover turkey, and throwing in some canned peas and heating it up; so I decided to elevate it by making a cream sauce with real cream, and adding fresh mushrooms, and using frozen peas (well, that’s not elevated very high, but it’s better than canned!). 

And it tasted . . . fine.

I think I was the only one who ate it, except for also one kid who came home super late and would have gladly eaten microwaved roadkill. So I guess I got that out of my system. I’ll probably forget and try it again in five years or so, and rediscover that this is just an intrinsically medium-okay dish and I can just move on with my life. 

Anyway, we used up the turkey. 

I also threw the picked-over carcass in the Instant Pot with water and some carrots and celery, onions, salt and pepper, and a little cider vinegar. I would have added herbs and whatnot, but we were fresh out.

I cooked it on high pressure for two hours, and I got about a gallon of good, golden bone broth, which I put in the freezer for future souping. 

Chicken broccoli stir fry and rice 

Boneless skinless chicken thighs were on sale, so I cut it in strips and fried it up with broccoli spears, sliced mushrooms, and two bottles of teriyaki sauce, and served it over rice.

Right after Thanksgiving, I always jump at the opportunity to buy bottles of sauce, because it’s one of the few weeks of the year I know I won’t give myself a hard time about it. It’s normal and fine to buy bottled sauce. It’s there for a reason, and people should never feel guilty about it. Except me. I’m different, and I should feel bad. 

And that’s it! Today I’m running away to go see the great and glorious Leticia Ochoa Adams speak, so I don’t really know what they’re having for supper at home! Spaghetti, I suppose. Maybe they can have nothing ala king. 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

Lessons on love from the Great British Baking Show

My husband and I have been watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix on Sunday evenings. I’m not sure which season we’re on, but it’s definitely not the current one.

That’s part of the beauty of the show, though: It really doesn’t matter. Time kind of stops, and life is self-contained within that steamy, fragrant tent, where 12 amateurs bake their hearts out for as many weeks as they can last, before they are gently eliminated from the competition one by one.

The show is fascinating because it’s so unlike American cooking competition shows, which tend to be so, well, competitive.

I know that British people are just as likely as people anywhere else in the world to be petty, mean, vindictive, and cutthroat; but while they’re on the show, everything is slanted in another direction, and even as the pressure mounts — and the pressure can be surprisingly intense, for a show that centers around cookies and cakes! — they’re all encouraged to put the best of humanity on display.

The show is, in many ways, about human relationships, and that (along with some clever editing, a lovely setting, and some gorgeous camera work) is what keeps us coming back every week.

Here is what the show teaches you, if you’re open to it:

Don’t just look, but listen. One of the bakers had a habit of judging whether or not his baked goods were done by not only looking at and touching them, but listening to them.

He would pull his cake out of the oven and hold it up to his ear to listen to the sounds it made, and only then decide if it was done or not. The various sounds of liquids and gasses moving and escaping the cake at various stages of doneness can tell you more about the insides of the cake than you can guess by looking at or prodding the surface — if you know what to listen for.

And this is true of human relationships, as well. There are the most commonplace, surface cues to be learned about other people, but it’s best to be ready to receive more subtle hints about what’s really going on inside each other. Sometimes just being quiet and listening to the small sounds that escape can be very telling.

It’s rarely misplaced to be gentle and encouraging with each other. Some contestants came across as more sincere than others, but it is evidently at least expected, on this show, that they will try to hearten and motivate each other, and even to help each other out a bit, even as the competition got more fierce week to week.

The older I get, the more I realize how desperately we all need gentleness and encouragement. Even people who ought to know how good they are really need to hear how good they are, and how important it is not to give up. It really is a beautiful and holy thing to pause in your own labors and say something kind to someone else who is struggling.

But there comes a point when you just have to tell it like it is. Not nastily, but clearly and accurately. The judges aren’t cruel or (generally) needlessly abrasive, as they often are on American shows; but they certainly know their stuff, and they don’t mince words.

Sometimes it can be crushing for a baker to hear that what they’ve made simply doesn’t taste good, or that it’s raw or burnt or just made wrong; but sometimes it’s just true, and has to be said. You can see that the judges don’t relish hurting the bakers, but they also don’t shy away from doing their job of naming the truth. There comes a point in every person’s life when they are called upon to simply name the truth.

The contestants get plenty of chances to redeem themselves. The show is set up so that each contestant has three challenges to tackle per episode: a signature bake, a technical challenge, and a show-stopper, and once they’ve completed all three, one contestant is named star baker, and one is sent home.

It’s a little nebulous how the actual judging is done, but it’s clear that the judges take into account all three offerings they come up with, which require them to show all different kinds of skills; so everyone can have a bad start and still pull themselves together and redeem themselves before it’s too late. As long as they’re still there, it means they still have a chance. 

Most worthwhile things in life are like this, or ought to be. There are very few things that we really must get perfectly right in every way the first time, or that we have to get right every single time. But we also ought to be learning all the time from our mistakes and failures, because time does run out eventually.

They are amateurs, and that literally means they do it out of love for baking. They’re in it because it’s something they want to do, and the goal in baking is not to get ahead or get rich (although that might result!).

It’s fascinating to watch these folks willingly subject themselves to such a grueling process where they sweat and cry and agonize over their challenges, and to know that, yes, sometimes this is what it looks like when you love.

But they also sometimes remind themselves, in so many words, that baking is something they enjoy, and that they can return to doing it for the sheer pleasure they find in the process. Even when it doesn’t turn out perfect and maybe never will, there’s still something there that keeps bringing them back. Maybe they edited it out, but I’ve never seen a contestant say it wasn’t worth the pain, or that it went so poorly, they’re going to give it up.

Oh, love. Oh, baking.

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A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on October 25, 2022.

How to have a happy Thanksgiving despite the lizard people

Look out! Like a freight train, bearing down on us with gathering speed and menace, I mean twinkling and jollity and goodwill toward mankind in general, here come The Holidays.

Or maybe that goodwill, try as it might, doesn’t quite extend all the way toward those specific people who are going to turn up at your house at 3 PM for the family get-together you’ve been dreading, I mean looking forward to with glee. 

Many of us were lucky enough to find allies and support among family members, and we all more or less banded together and did what we needed to do to get through the pandemic and an extreme silly season in politics safely and sensibly.

But many . . . didn’t. Many discovered, over the past couple of years, that they’re related to a passel of absolute nut jobs who never met an inflammatory slogan to dumb to reject, a conspiracy theory too ridiculous to believe, or a tentacled creature too sentient to struggle up on the side of the petri dish, wave hello, and squeak out in a miniscule voice that only they can hear, “You really need to lay off the sauce, Janet!” 

If the past year or so has left you feeling somewhat bruised and battered in the psyche, and the thought of playing host to a crowd of people who perpetrated that battering just makes you want to scoot out the back door and not stop until you hit salt water, then don’t despair. There are actually strategies you can follow to make the day work well for you. It doesn’t have to be your favorite day of the year, but there are things you can do to survive when the loony tunes you’re related to come to call.

Be respectful. Maybe you’ve spent the last several months reading, with increasing horror, the blithering insanity that streams forth on your family’s social media feed. Maybe you’ve gone from wondering if you should check in on cousin Ted, to wondering if someone should check in on you, because anyone displaying such high levels of non compos mentisemente has got to be some kind of genetic carrier, and it’s only a matter of time before the wack-a-ding-hoy starts to manifest itself closer to home.

But still, family is family, and it’s important to show respect. Practice in front of the mirror if you have to. Make yourself immune, so you can come out with phrases like, “No, indeed, I haven’t yet met any transhuman babies born with pitch black eyes because of the vaccine; how very interesting! Would you please pass the yams?” or “And you heard this directly from the Chair of the Finance Committee; I see! It’s been very humid lately, it seems to me.” It’s a matter of muscle memory, same as learning to ride a bike or manipulate a yo yo. You can do this. 

Dazzle them with compliments.  Even someone who turns up in your living room spoiling for a fight will not be immune to the wiles of a honeyed tongue. The trick is to be sincere, and make sure it’s something you really mean, so it hits home.

For instance, let’s say you’re hosting your cousin Cameron, who drives around town with a flag so huge, it patriotically drags on the ground at red lights, and whose favorite party trick is licking doorknobs to own the libs. Cameron has rune tattoos, his three daughters and his four dogs are all named Dixie, and last Thanksgiving, he rated all the dishes according to how “soy” they were, even though you’re actually a pretty good cook and bought a nice but rather expensive turkey from your farmer neighbor, whereas Cameron lives largely off gas station chicken nuggets which are, in fact, about 68% soy. Cameron is also most definitely going to bring up how thousands of people mysteriously dropped dead after receiving the covid vaccine (which didn’t happen, but then again, neither did important parts of Cameron’s cerebral development, so what can one do).

So what you can say to Cameron is: “Cameron, I know there are lots of people in the world who agreed to get the vaccine, because they think it’s just a little prick. But you’re helping me see that the world is full of much bigger pricks to worry about.”

This is not especially clever, but it’s okay, because Cameron is an absolute moron and has been drinking heavily since breakfast, and it will not even occur to him that you don’t think he’s rad. 

Overfeed. Don’t spurn the age-old holiday tradition of simply stuffing people until they’re comatose. There’s a reason people eat too much over the holidays, and it’s only partially because they’re having such a wonderful time and you’re such a stupendously generous host. The other reason is because, when someone is carrying an extra 23 pounds of partially-digested fats and carbs, they’re way easier to knock down, if that’s how the party goes.
 

You can test out recipes by cooking up a batch ahead of time, loading several portions into a sack, labelling the sack “Cousin Richie Who Believes in Lizard People,” and kicking it. If it falls over easily, you probably have a winning dish. If it resists, add butter.

Don’t despair. Sometimes rifts happen in families, and it feels like things will never be right again, but that may not be so. Sometimes all it takes is for the merest little shift to happen, and people can really gain a new perspective on each other. For instance, you believe that the pandemic was real, but we can learn to live with its aftermath; whereas your cousin Lennie believes the pandemic was fake, and we should learn zero lessons, make nurses cry, and possibly shoot up a hospital. Then one day, the earth opens up and swallows up Lennie. Then the rift in the earth closes again, and that’s the end of your Lennie problem.
You see? The rift is healed. Happy holidays to us all. 
 
 
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A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in December of 2021. 
 
Image via openclipart license 

My mother didn’t know what to say, but she knew what to do

Some people have mothers they could always go to for advice. My mother was not like that.

If she was speaking about the news, or about some cultural phenomena, or about people we didn’t know well, she was ruthlessly practical, and confident in her ideas to the point of brazenness. She was terribly articulate, somewhat caustic, and gave zero quarter to nonsense or sentimentality.

If you were in trouble, though, and you asked her directly what you should do, she would likely say, “Oh, honey, I don’t know. I never know what to say,” and she would wince and smile painfully and very clearly indeed not know what to say. You would end up wanting to comfort her, and the whole thing was just awkward. I did not go to her for advice very often.

Now that she is gone, though, I find myself imagining not what my mother would say, but what she would do, and I find the pattern very clear and consistent.

My mother would always pray first.

I don’t know if prayer came naturally to her, or if it was a deliberate effort, but prayer marked the beginning and end of every day and the beginning and end of everything important she did. Her house and her person (and later, her nursing home room and eventually her coffin) were crowded with holy cards, medals, icons, and spiritual quotes, not to impress anyone else, but to remind and redirect herself.

She kept and updated a blackboard of who needed prayer, and she frequently asked people to pray for her and for others. When dementia took her ability to speak and communicate, she could sometimes still pray out loud long after her other words were gone, and I can only imagine that interior prayer lingered with her, as well. Prayer seems to have been the thread that held her life together.

My mother would take care of people’s most pressing physical needs in the most direct way possible.

If she heard, or even suspected, that somebody needed something, she would instantly set about figuring out how she, herself, could supply that need.

Sometimes this was fruitless and frustrating to her — as when she eventually discovered that the “Nigerian priest” who was writing her heartrending letters was actually a scammer, or when the disabled neighbor who had “nothing to eat” in her house actually had plenty of food, she just wasn’t in the mood for any of the things she happened to have on her shelves; but it never even occurred to her that it was someone else’s job. If someone needed help, she assumed she should at least try, immediately.

My mother would start with the needs of most vulnerable person present.

She had a very clear notion of hierarchy of needs, and was thoroughly undazzled by things like money, popularity, fame, fashion, or sophistication. She would always instinctively give priority to people who society valued the least, and who could least defend themselves.

She wasn’t especially gracious about it, and she didn’t have any particular social skills — just the opposite, really — but this just made it easier for weirdos and outcasts to identify her as an ally; and people who didn’t belong anywhere else were drawn to her like a magnet.

My mother would try to preserve the dignity of the people she was helping.

She was acutely aware of how painful it could be to need and receive aid, and she consciously worked to avoid acting like she was the boss of people she was helping.

I remember in particular one time that a special needs friend who could barely take care of herself turned up from a meeting with a social worker with a birth control device implanted in her arm.

My mother went ballistic, because she knew this young woman had a health condition that made this form of birth control dangerous. Her first impulse was to “march Debbie down to the doctor and get that thing taken out.” But she reeled herself in, and realized that she didn’t want to be just one more person pushing this hapless young woman around.

I don’t remember how the issue was resolved, but it made an impression that she took Debbie’s personal dignity seriously.

My mother would try to learn from her mistakes.

She had a habit of poring over her past experiences and striving to analyze whether she could have done things differently. This was partially due to social anxiety, anxiety in general, and scrupulosity, but she also had an admirable dedication to humbly examining her actions and radically changing course when necessary; and she was very willing to say to her children, “I did this thing, but it turned out to be the wrong thing, so now I do that, instead,” because she wanted to spare us from making the same mistakes.

My mother said more than once that God would put people in your life, and then he would take them out again when they were too much. And I think she was wrong about that.

My mother wanted to be radically open to other people, but she let them use her in a way that wasn’t respectful to herself as a person.

It’s a fine line when you are seeking holiness and self-sacrifice, but I think her own lack of self-confidence played too great a role in the decisions she made about how much of her time and energy to let other people have. There is a difference between self-sacrifice and self-erasure, and I don’t know if she knew that. I wish more people had given her the radical respect and openness she gave to them.

I’m a little confused about the theology of praying to the dead. I pray for my mother’s soul, of course, and sometimes I pray to her, as well. I imagine that she knows all kinds of things that were hidden to her when she was alive. But really, the things she understood while she was on this earth are giving me plenty to think about. 

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A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on October 11, 2022.

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 318: That’s the way the Brussel sprouts

Friday! We made it! Nobody has to make a lunch for tomorrow! What bliss. 

Speaking of lunch, let me tell you about an excellent lunch I’ve been making for myself pretty often these days, because it’s cold and drizzly and I crave deeply nourishing foods: 

Heat up a pan, spray it with cooking spray, and throw on two or three big handfuls of spinach. Cook it a little bit to slightly wilt it. Then crack two eggs into it and continue cooking lightly until the whites are firm but the yolk is still runny. Grind some fresh pepper and sea salt over all.

Eat with a side of  cherry-on-bottom Greek yogurt, and a large green apple cut up slowly with a paring knife. 

I don’t know why, but this is just a restorative meal, a lunch of great balance. It’s also less than 400 calories for kind of a lot of food. You could grate some parmesan over the egg while it’s cooking, but you don’t need to.

I spent most of the week being sick and complaining about being sick, and dragging myself off one couch only to land heavily on the other, so nothing super inventive happened in the kitchen this week. Still, we had some decent meals, including one final homegrown vegetable (Brussels sprouts). 

SATURDAY
Spaghetti and Marcella Hazan’s three-ingredient red sauce 

Yum.

Damien shopped for and made this. Always unreasonably delicious. Just tomatoes, butter, and onions. 

Jump to Recipe

I always say this, but it really does taste like there’s some kind of meat involved in this sauce. But nope. 

SUNDAY
Italian sandwiches, fries

Damien shopped for this and put it together. Also yum. 

Red pesto, so nice. 

MONDAY
Hamburgers, chips

This is the third picture in a row that was actually taken some previous month or year, because I was too tired to take pictures of my actual food this week. For shame! From now on, only authentic Nov. 2022 food photos.

TUESDAY
Chicken cutlets with leftover red sauce, raw broccoli and dip

I cut the chicken breasts in half lengthwise and soaked them in seasoned milk and egg. Actually I languished on the couch and begged Elijah to do it for me. Then sometime when dinner really began to loom, I heated up the leftover red sauce from the other day, heated up some oil and butter, dredged the chicken in seasoned panko crumbs, and fried those mofos

and we had chicken cutlets with sauce. 

Quite good. I felt like the chicken should have had provolone and basil, or else pasta, or else it should have been on a sandwich, but it was pretty tasty.  Panko is certainly your friend. We had plain broccoli on the side, and talked about fried breaded broccoli and how, yes indeed, people do that. People do whatever they want. I had broccoli tempura at a Japanese restaurant in New York City when I was very little and I never forgot it. I forget why we were in New York City, but I remember that broccoli. We were probably talking about some other meal while we were eating it, too. 

WEDNESDAY
Meatloaf, roast butternut squash and baby Brussels sprouts

We got our first snow, finally, on Wednesday. Just enough to get the kids wound up, and then it turned to rain. That was my cue to go outside and finally harvest the Brussels sprouts

which, and this is crazy, I planted six months ago. I just looked it up: May 20, and harvested Nov. 16. I’m not gonna say I put a ton of work into them, but I did keep them watered, and I did fertilize them, and put up a little fence to keep Mr. Nibbly Rabbit away, and then a mere six months later, there I was, bringing in a grand harvest of an entire pint of Brussels sprouts, some of them somewhat larger than a pea.

Of course the real benefit to this crop was checking on it every time I went out and getting excited at the progress they were making, and laughing at what silly plants they are

and being glad something was still growing when everything else was dead or dying. Brussels sprouts actually get a little sweeter if they’re exposed to a light frost or two. Ain’t that the way. 

So this is how many Brussels sprouts I grew for my family:

Can you even imagine making a garden that would actually feed your whole family all year ’round? CAN YOU? I simply cannot. But the sprouts were sweet, and tiny and tender. I cut some butternut squash in thin little wedges so it would cook quickly, and tossed it together. I drizzled it all with olive oil and sprinkled it with brown sugar and kosher salt and a little hit of wine vinegar, and roasted it at a high heat, and it was nice. 

The meatloaf was fine. A good dollop of Worcestershire sauce in there makes it pretty tasty, and yes, I spread ketchup on the outside before cooking it.

Jump to Recipe

The secret to meatloaf is not making it too often, so people still get excited about it.

THURSDAY
Chicken tortilla soup, toasted tortilla strips

You’ll never believe this, but it was cold and drizzly on Thursday. Soup to the rescue! I like this soup because it has plenty of flavor, but you don’t have to go through a whole song and dance. It’s easy to make when you want a hot soup because you’re feeling poorly, but you’re feeling poorly and you don’t feel like cooking much.

You just jam them everything in the food processor and puree it 

(that’s garlic, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce from a can, and several fresh tomatoes)

and then you heat up some oil in the Instant Pot (or obviously you could do this on the stove top) and thicken up that purée for a little bit. Then add some water and toss in your hunks of raw chicken, and cook it until the chicken is done. Pull the chicken out

shred it up

and put it back in.

At this point you’re supposed to add in tortilla strips, which are supposed to be corn, which thickens up the soup. But I don’t like corn tortillas, so I used to use the flour kind, then I started using nothing, and then I started making crunchy tortilla strips instead. And this is how I always make it now. It doesn’t thicken the soup, but it bulks it up, and it adds texture and flavor, and it’s just fun.

You cut up a bunch of tortillas into strips, spread them in a shallow layer on a pan, toss with oil, sprinkle heavily with chili lime powder, and bake at 350, stirring every 10- 15 minutes, until they are toasted. 

I aways heap too many in there so they don’t all get toasted and some of them stay chewy. Guess what, I like them that way. I like chewy, gummy, floppy things. There is a part of me*, especially when I am tired and blue, that would probably just eat flour paste all day long. Maybe I would put it in the microwave, but maybe not. 

So it’s not a thick soup, but a kicky broth with plenty of chicken. You top it off with a good handful of crunchy chili lime tortilla strips, and some of them get soaked with broth and some of them stay crunchy; plus chopped scallions, sliced avocados, cilantro (or parsley if that’s what you have), shredded cheese, and sour cream.

 

Truly a great soup for when you’re sick. I made it pretty spicy, and it cleans out your head like a son of a gun. 

FRIDAY
French toast casserole, OJ

I planned this meal to make myself deal with how much bread is building up in the house. So far it’s gotten to the stage of me hearing the kids blame each other for not doing anything about it, and that’s pretty good, but it’s not sustainable. 

French toast casserole is just you tear up your old bread and soak it in egg and milk and some sugar, and a little cinnamon and vanilla if you like. Butter a pan, pour it in, maybe dot it with butter, maybe sprinkle some cinnamon sugar on top, and bake at 350 until the custard is cooked. Serve in wedges with syrup or jam. 

Here’s a rather arty photo, from back when stone fruit was in season: 

Today what’s in season is I have is a can full of ashes from the wood stove, that I’m saving to spread under the peach tree for next year. Ah well, it’s almost Advent. 

*my mouth, I should hope

 

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup

Adapted from twosleevers.com. This is a very flavorful chicken soup. It has a little hotsy totsy burst of spice with the first taste, and then the more complex flavors come through slowly. Magic.

It's fairly brothy, and then you heap up all the garnishes you want on top.

This is a little over a gallon of soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 med onions
  • 1 lb (4 medium) tomatoes
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 chiles in adobo sauce plus some of the sauce
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (include seeds for more heat)
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • water
  • salt to taste
  • garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, tortilla strips, chopped scallions

Instructions

  1. Cut the onions and tomatoes into chunks so they will fit in the blender or food processor. Put the onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, chili pepper and sauce, garlic and cilantro into a blender or food processor and blend it until it's a thick sauce. You may need to do it in batches, or just keep poking the big pieces down so everything gets blended in.

  2. Add enough oil to the Instant Pot pot to cover the bottom. Press "sauté" and let the oil heat up for a few minutes.

  3. Pour in the tomato mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until any liquid is mostly absorbed. You may need to press "sauté" again to keep it hot.

  4. Cut the chicken breasts into pieces and put them in the pot. Add six cups of water.

  5. Close the top, seal the valve, and press "pressure cook," then the + button until it goes to 20 minutes. When it's done cooking, let it naturally release for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure manually.

  6. Open the top and fish out the chicken. Shred it and return it to the pot. Add salt to taste.

  7. Serve the soup with garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, tortilla strips, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, and chopped scallions.

 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top
  • 2 onions diced and fried (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

 

 

Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce

We made a quadruple recipe of this for twelve people. 

Keyword Marcella Hazan, pasta, spaghetti, tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes, broken up
  • 1 onion peeled and cut in half
  • salt to taste
  • 5 Tbsp butter

Instructions

  1. Put all ingredients in a heavy pot.

  2. Simmer at least 90 minutes. 

  3. Take out the onions.

  4. I'm freaking serious, that's it!

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup

Adapted from twosleevers.com. This is a very flavorful chicken soup. It has a little hotsy totsy burst of spice with the first taste, and then the more complex flavors come through slowly. Magic.

It's fairly brothy, and then you heap up all the garnishes you want on top.

This is a little over a gallon of soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 med onions
  • 1 lb (4 medium) tomatoes
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 chiles in adobo sauce plus some of the sauce
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (include seeds for more heat)
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • water
  • salt to taste
  • garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, tortilla strips, chopped scallions

Instructions

  1. Cut the onions and tomatoes into chunks so they will fit in the blender or food processor. Put the onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, chili pepper and sauce, garlic and cilantro into a blender or food processor and blend it until it's a thick sauce. You may need to do it in batches, or just keep poking the big pieces down so everything gets blended in.

  2. Add enough oil to the Instant Pot pot to cover the bottom. Press "sauté" and let the oil heat up for a few minutes.

  3. Pour in the tomato mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until any liquid is mostly absorbed. You may need to press "sauté" again to keep it hot.

  4. Cut the chicken breasts into pieces and put them in the pot. Add six cups of water.

  5. Close the top, seal the valve, and press "pressure cook," then the + button until it goes to 20 minutes. When it's done cooking, let it naturally release for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure manually.

  6. Open the top and fish out the chicken. Shred it and return it to the pot. Add salt to taste.

  7. Serve the soup with garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, tortilla strips, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, and chopped scallions.

About that lamb with seven horns

[Several months ago, I was pleased to begin contributing once a month to America Magazine’s daily scripture reflections. You can find my previous reflections here. Today’s reflection is on a reading from Revelations.]

Today’s first reading is one of those “sit up and smell the apocalypse” passages.

I, John, saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who sat on the throne.
It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.
Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

Well, not me! I have sat through a couple of classes where scholars explain what these passages from Revelation mean, with the lions and the scrolls and the seven seals, and even with a dry, scholarly explanation, it’s really hard not to hear these verses in a dire, Johnny Cash voice . . .

Read the rest at America
 
Four Horseman painting By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov Public Domain

Gifts our 10 kids loved: The 2022 MONSTER LIST

For the last eight years, I’ve been sharing a list of gifts my family actually purchased and enjoyed. We have ten kids and we buy a lot of presents, so I have a lot of recommendations.  This year: MONSTER LIST. I’m consolidating all the old lists into one, organized by category, and adding a bunch of new products. I made a feeble attempt to organize the categories by agel, but the formatting always defeats me in the end. 

Note: I am an Amazon Associate again, yay! So I get a commission when you buy things through my links. (Not everything on this list is from Amazon, but most of it is.)

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

This year, I’m listing most products as Amazon ad links, which look like this:

Oh yes, ADVENT CANDLES.  Just in case you forgot.  Advent Begins Sun., Nov. 27.

This is important! If you have an ad blocker on, you may not be able to see the list! If nothing is showing up for you, please turn off your ad blocker.

Also please note: The display ads often show a higher price than the actual price when you click through. I have no idea why, but it’s worth clicking through just to see. 

Here is a sort of table of contents of categories. I am going to attempt to figure out how to insert code so you can jump to the different sections, but I’m pretty dumb, so it may not work. 

Little guys’ toys (besides dolls)
Games and puzzles
Building and tactile toys
Kitchen
Sciencey stuff
Electronics 
Art and journaling supplies
Jewelry, pins, accessories (+makeup, sunglasses)
Music and musical instruments 
Crafts, kits, knitting, sewing
Dolls and stuffies
Outdoor and active toys
Weaponry and knives
Costumes
Hats and hair accessories
Bags and wallets
Miscellaneous

I didn’t do a great job noting what age these products are for, but I have found that the manufacturers have almost always done great research and can be depended on.

One final note: There are no books in this list, except for a few cook books. I’ll do a separate list of books that would make good presents! 

Here we go! Happy shopping! 

LITTLE GUYS’ TOYS (besides dolls)

B. Toys baby car keys Babies are not supposed to suck on your real car keys because of the toxins or something, but car key toys are usually made out of plastic, which is no fun for babies. So these are made out of safe metal (with flat edges, so they can’t cut their gums), they are heavy and they rattle, and the keychain has different buttons that make various car noises — but it’s muffled, so not terribly intrusive. (We like a lot of the toys from the B. company. They hold up well and are designed with actual kids in mind.) 

 

Beloved bedtime elephant that projects stars and plays little tunes. We bought this for a kid several years ago when she was a toddler, and then it finally broke and we replaced it when she was a liiiiiiiiittle too old for it, because she still loves it. It also plays a heartbeat sound and we all think that’s kind of weird. 

Silicone teething cookie duo Corrie got one of these when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.

Baby smartphone B. Toys This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other. 

Classic Baby Beads by Manhattan Toy
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound.  Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. 

 Melissa and Doug animal magnets in a wooden box. Bright and pleasant. Magnets have stayed on the wood, animals have not peeled off, despite occasionally getting wet.

Tomy fountain rocket bath toy A simple but very cool toy. Fill it up by holding it under the water, then hold it aloft, and it empties itself in a shining dome of water. Fascinating for the little guys. We’ve found that TOMY toys hold up very, very well to hard use, and don’t get moldy, either.

Mother mermaid and triplet babies. We’ve had some of these bath toy sets of frogs and ducks and such, but look how cute this is! Three chubby little mermaid sisters and their happy mama. They float separately or together.

Tomy bath dolphins  All my kids played with this bath toy set. So clever. A rainbow of rings that float individually or linked, and each one has a matching dolphin. Tap the dolphin on the head as it floats and it makes a little musical fluting sound! You can also blow into the dolphin’s tail like a whistle. Line them up and it plays a whole octave. Rugged toys, mold resistant. 

Mickey Mouse RC Cars for toddlers. The older I get, the more I appreciate Mickey Mouse. That guy is always smiling, and I appreciate that. Here he is, tooling around in his little red convertible. Okay, his head fell off, but that did not slow him down. Easy for little guys to control.  

Little Tykes shopping cart. Many different styles of toy shopping cart, but we chose this one because it had a seat for a companion, which was important for shopping games. This model did get years and years of service, and the older kids would take it apart and put it back together again constantly.

Also see “outdoor and active toys” 

GAMES and PUZZLES

Build a Robot Spinner Game. Spin the spinner to collect pieces and be the first to build a complete custom robot that fits together like a puzzle. We have several of these eeBoo games and they’re wonderful. The illustrations are funny and appealing to kids, the spinners work well every time, the pieces are durable, and the games are generally short and not tedious. The best games for young children I’ve ever found. Good for pre-literate kids, but not too boring for young kids who can read. 

Fairytale Spinner Game. Suitable for pre-readers. You spin the spinner to collect different elements of a story (a scene, a hero, a magical helper, a rival, a magical object, transportation, and a treasure), and the first one who collects them all gets to tell a story using them all. It’s adorable. The pieces are very stout and durable cardboard, and they are just lovely. Of all the games they want me to play, I’m least unwilling to play this one. 2-4 players 

Lunch Basket Spinner Game. Yes, another eeBoo spinner game! This one is a picnic, and you spread a tablecloth and begin collecting various foods to complete your meal. I can’t explain to you why these games are fun and pleasant and not tedious and all the same. I just like them, and really don’t mind playing them. They tap into something really good, and we all like them.  

Wow, looks like we also have The Cupcake Game. This one actually teaches kids a bit about baking, because you have to collect the various necessary components to make cupcakes, just as in a real recipe. 

Also notable about eeBoo games: The storage boxes are sturdy and don’t collapse after you use them a few times. They’re really designed for actual kids to use. 

Okay, moving on! 

 

It’s just Chutes and Ladders, but with princesses. I was really surprised at how much more my kid (who got it for her tenth birthday) enjoys this than she does regular chutes and ladders. She always marvels at how pretty it is. 

(and Sack of Replacement Marbles for Chinese Checkers)
There are cheaper boards, but this one is very big and sturdy, and the marbles stay in place. Popular with kids of all ages. And for goodness’ sake, buy the replacement marbles now. You will need them.
 

 

Snake Oil is hilarious family improv game, also good for parties. You get a bunch of word cards and become salesmen who must use those words to invent a product and make a sales pitch that the customer will fall for. Great for a mix of ages, lots of laughing.  Blogged about it here.

I Got This! game. Exciting, frustrating, some teamwork required, but lots of competition. Very entertaining to watch. Kids have to decide if they should push themselves a little further to do more and more challenging, silly tasks. 


Good old Bananagrams. I’ve bought this game many, many times and I never mind playing a round or two of this free-form word-building game. Pleasant and portable, easily adaptable to people of various skill levels and to solitaire play. 

 Exploding Kittens card game. Easy to learn, a little weird and crude, lots of laughing. You have to draw cards that say things like “see the future” (so you can look at the top three cards) or “potato cat” (they explained it to me, but I forget) until you choose an exploding kitten card, which has to be defused. Trip up your opponents and prepare yourself for the exploding kitten card. Good party game. 

 
Chess set with large pieces, roll-out vinyl board, storage tote, and instruction book. We were SO pleased with this tournament chess set. It is HUGE, the board is very tough, and the pieces are big and heavy. Great product for the price, and portable.

Isle of Lewis Chess set (From Etsy)

Polystone reproduction of 12th-century walrus ivory chess pieces unearthed on a Scottish Island. The opposing pieces are a deep oxblood color. Wonderfully detailed and lovingly packed. These are just the pieces; there is no board included. 

 

King of Tokyo is a great family game. Super competitive, very lively and frenetic, sometimes over really quickly. Young players (age 6 or so) can be included with some help. 

 
 
 
Munchkin fantasy card game. Howls and screams of laughter, just enough squabbling to keep it interesting — that’s what I hear when Munchkin is out. I haven’t played this game myself, but my kids love it, and it’s works well with kids of different ages playing together. It includes a few borderline inapwo-pwo elements (a little crass or gross, as I recall) but they seem fleeting, not central to the game. For ages 10 and up.
 
 

Werewolf game Good for ages reasonably-alert-10 to adult. The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other. Then everyone has to vote on whom to lynch. Players are eliminated one at a time, and it becomes more and more evident who is killing everyone, who is being framed, and who is lying through their teeth (and, in my case, who forgot the rules and accidentally blabbed too much information).

Pandemic board game. Lots of strategy and cooperative play, or you all die. My teenagers played it with the younger kids (age 7 and up). Suspenseful and lots of pressure. Full disclosure, we haven’t played it since before the, you know, actual pandemic, so I don’t know how it would hit now!

 

Ransom Notes word magnet game. Simple concept: Someone reads a prompt from a card, and everyone (including the reader) has to pick words from their collection of word magnets to express what is on the card. Then everyone reads their entry aloud, and the judge picks the best one. Ranges from amusing to outlandishly hilarious. Can be a little naughty. I reviewed this game here

Mysterium board game. Help a dead murder victim remember details about his grisly demise, using clues from arty and deliberately confusing “vision cards.” Lavish and complex cooperative game. Comes with an app to play spooky music to add to the atmosphere. (Full review here.) 

Betrayal At House on the Hill, a cooperative strategy game, unpredictable and spooky. Kind of like Scooby Doo with better graphics. You gradually build the map of the house as you explore it, but can you really trust everyone? (NO.) Doesn’t drag on too, too long. Good party game.

Skulk game. Full disclosure, I have no idea if this game is any good. We got it because it looks cool. The description says age 10 and up. It says “social bluffing combined with light strategy.” And it looks cool!

Kill Doctor Lucky game. Only a few rules, but the experience changes with every game and is always a lot of fun. Some strategy involved.  

 

We got this 40″air hockey table with great reluctance, thinking it would be flimsy for the price, and that the kids would get tired of it soon. Nope! They use it a lot and have a lot of fun. It’s great for parties, and fun for the little kids to play with their big brothers. Kinda loud, but it’s air hockey. They just stand it up on its end to keep it out of the way. 
 
 
Inflatable puzzle saver. Clever product for people who can’t leave their jigsaw puzzles lying around. It has an inflatable tube on one end of the felt mat. Roll it up and secure it with rubber bands, and your puzzle is safe from cats, toddlers, etc. I was skeptical, but it really works. 
 
 
Pretty bird puzzle, 1000 pieces 
 
 
 
 
 

BUILDING and TACTILE TOYS

Build-a-bouquet flower construction set. Maybe it’s just late November talking, but I had a desperate need to see my little ones sitting in a beam of sunshine on the living room rug and building some flowers. These are sturdy and easy to use, and the older kids enjoyed putting different combinations together, too. 

 

The right kid will find these simple Melissa and Doug wooden pattern blocks endlessly fascinating. There are many versions. This Melissa and Doug set comes with a sturdy wooden box and several patterns to try to reproduce, or you can build your own designs. Smooth and pleasant to touch. 

These wooden castle building blocks were a huge hit with the kindergartener with a mania for building. This is a pretty good-sized kit (75 blocks) for the price, and includes a nice variety of shapes for lots of possibilities. You could easily paint or decorate these if you wanted to. The older kids like them, too. 

I’d seen these Connectagons in catalogs for years and years and years, and finally ordered a set. They are slick and cheerful, easy to use, almost impossible to break, and the set is huge. I can see why they are so popular. They come in many different styles (butterfly, glow-in-the-dark, etc.)

A lot of weird tactile molding materials came and went in the last decade, but kinetic sand is king. This stuff is awesome. You can squeeze it and shape it, or you can let it dribble out of your hands like . . . wet sand lace foam, or something. You can buy kits with molding toys, but cups and butter knives work fine. Comes in many colors and varieties. Does not smell weird or leave stains. 

 

K’NEX are great! This set is motorized and has 529 pieces. My six-year-old went straight to work building things, but they would be fun for a much older kid or even an adult. This set comes with a motor and you can make all kinds of vehicles and machines. Popular for a reason. 

 Snap Circuits! 60+ parts. I can’t believe how long it took us to finally start buying Snap Circuits. They are just as interesting and exciting as everyone promised. Hours of fascination putting together all kinds of elecronic projects that really work, without welding. For ages 8 and up. We’ve also gotten Snap Circuits Illuminations, which has walls as well as a base

 

Adorable li’l mini Lego-compatible sushi cart kit, lots of nice detail. Note, this is a mini kit.

Lego compatible hat. Bring your Legos with you! Put your Legos on your head! What a time to be alive!

KITCHEN

 

Klutz Kids Cooking Book. Klutz books are generally good, but this one was a huge hit. The directions are nice and clear, and the recipes are things people actually want to eat. Comes with a cute rainbow whisk. My just-turned-eight-year-old started using it right away with only a little help, and it’s really helped her get comfortable with basic cooking and baking.  If you’re looking for a first cookbook, I recommend this one. 

Here’s a little baking set we put together:

A set of three silicone heart-shaped cake pans to make a fancy layer cake. These are unusually deep pans. Plus: 

Cat paw oven mitts. We got these just because they were cute, but they’re actually really good oven mitts, much better than the ones I got for myself for everyday use. 

Plus, the best part:

Personalized chef’s hat and apron. This is just adorable, and quite nice quality for the price. (Only the hat is personalized, not the apron.) The hat stands up nicely and is sturdy. 

My girls adored this spiral bound Fairie’s Cookbook. The recipes aren’t too complicated or exotic to try, but they are out of the ordinary. I know you can find millions of ideas on Pinterest, but there’s something about having a book to leaf through. Best for kids with some basic kitchen competence.

 

Just a decent little hand mixer for an aspiring chef. All the attachments fit nicely into the storage case, which provides room for . . . 

 

a ‘Potions Master’ sticker designed to go on a mixer. (This is a Harry Potter-themed one, but there are others.) Lots of kids go from making potions in the kitchen to actual cooking and baking, so here’s a cute sticker to illustrate the transition.

Mini waffle maker. A surprisingly popular gift. Always makin’ mini waffles, and this continues to get use several years later. Some kids really like having their own personal appliances. Comes in several colors and patterns.

An Unexpected Cookbook. For more accomplished cooks and bakers, this is the best collection of Hobbitish recipes I’ve seen, meticulously researched (it’s based on recipes from rural Victorian England), and written in a cozy, engaging, humorous style by someone who clearly loves The Hobbit and loves eating. I could live off the stuffed, braided mushroom, onion, and cheese bread for the rest of my life. It also includes variations for people on special diets, and makes suggestions about how to use leftovers. Nicely done all around. 

Embossing rolling pin A small-sized rolling pin, makes pretty repeating designs in cookie or pie dough, as shown. Click through for other designs.

 

SCIENCEY STUFF 

 

Lighted pocket microscope. Great, great little tool for the money. We’ve bought several of these over the years. Kids can learn to use them easily (my six-year-old took to it right away) and take a close, lit-up peek at anything they like, and they’re not so expensive that it’s a catastrophe if they get left outside or stepped on. That said, they’re pretty rugged.  They come with a few slides, but they mostly get used for looking at stuff on the go. 


 
Motorized robot hand kit Build a robot hand and program its fingers to tap out different patterns. My 11-year-old daughter really enjoyed taking it apart and putting it together repeatedly.
About $18

 

 

Celestron portable telescope A decent starter telescope, designed to be portable, so you can carry it easily on your back to a dark field or a mountaintop. Has an adapter so you can take photos with your smartphone. 

Celestron beginner astronomy binoculars. These binoculars are designed specifically for night viewing. 7X magnification, easy to use. Paired with:

 

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky. User-friendly, packed with information. A small sized book, so it’s portable (but the print is therefore small and a little hard to read if you’re old!).

Field binoculars, compact and good for hunting or hiking. 

ELECTRONICS

 

LITE BRITE IS FUN. WE LIKE IT. YES THEY LOSE ALL THE PEGS RIGHT AWAY. BUT IT IS FUN WHILE IT LASTS.

 

Mini Simon Says game. Two game modes. Works well for parties, or you can play solo. Just like you remember: Very bright and very loud, so caveat emptor. 

 

Motorola Walkie Talkies. we have bought a lot of walkie talkie sets in our day. These have held up the best. They are on the small side, but they are not toys. They’re easy to use, stand up to a lot of abuse, and don’t gobble batteries. We haven’t tested the limits of the range, but the reviews say 16 miles.
 
 

Mini Arcade game. This is not a good toy. It’s a bad toy. But oh, do they love it. It has dozens, maybe hundreds of terrible, pointless little games with squalid little graphics and meandering, senseless tunes. THEY LOVE IT.  And it’s reasonably cheap, so when they leave it at a rest stop on a field trip and are heartbroken, you can buy another one. 

Fujifilm instant camera with case, film, and album. Take little instant photos just for fun. A rugged little device. 

 

Huion drawing tablet. A good basic drawing tablet, a better value (according to local art school students) than the new entry level Wacom tablets. 
 
 
 
Good wired earphones, loud and comfortable. They have held up for a few years and counting. 
 
 

Headphones with light-up stars.  For a kid looking for something a little flashier, these light up and pulse to the rhythm of the music. They plug in and also work with Bluetooth, and they are foldable. Reasonably sturdy. 
 
 

Pink ergonomic gaming chair. Very comfortable for gaming (and art). Comes in other colors. 

 
 
 
 
A little bit dorky, but very useful, especially for people who share a room and don’t go to sleep at the same time. It wraps around the back of your neck and you can adjust the direction and brightness of both lights. 
 
 
 

A megaphone! This one amplifies your voice, plays siren sounds, and also can be used as a speaker for music, etc. A real megaphone, not a toy. Why did we buy this for our child? Because we trusted her not to abuse it. And for some reason, it worked. The worst thing she did with it was take it to Walmart and tell people to put their masks on in the middle of the pandemic, and I was okay with that. 

 
 
Turntable with software for recording, editing and converting your vinyl Audio in MP3 format. Decent turntable for cheap. Doesn’t need constant rekajiggering like some.

 

Decent set of wireless earbuds. They come in several colors. 

Bluetooth cat ear headphones. Decent sound and they light up in different colors and pulse along with the rhythm of the music, which is just cool. We’ve bought several of these for various kids over the years. 

 

BTS Soul Map Light Stick Okay, a light stick is just a flash light. It’s just a really expensive flash light. But I guess you can synchronizes it along with whatever it is that people are experiencing at a BTS concert? I have never been clear about what is so desirable about these items, but BTS has not yet become problematic, so I’m still for it, I guess, and we have bought several varieties of lightstick.

Decent little boombox with CD player and radio that you can as as a bluetooth speaker for your wireless device. Why do kids want to buy CDs again? I have no idea. But this one has held up fine. It does drain batteries fairly quickly. 

Just a lava lamp. I have no idea if there are good lava lamps and bad lava lamps, but this one does what it’s supposed to do! Here’s a replacement bulb

Book-shaped lamp. Closes up and looks like a book; opens up and lights up. Just a pleasant little lamp. Not super sturdy for little kids, but better made than we were expecting. 

PORTABLE SOLAR PANELS and a PORTABLE POWER PACK.

Not toys but incredibly useful. (The power pack is currently 40% off)

Damien works from home, and uses these every day to power his office, which is a refurbished bob house.

He sets up the solar panels to catch a couple of hours of sun, and, depending on how bright it is, that charges the power pack enough for a day or two, and he can run his laptop and phone and a fan.
These two items could be very handy for hunters or campers who who are going off the grid and need a little electricity. Also handy to keep charged up in case of a power outage. 
The solar panels fold up into about the size of a briefcase.
The power pack can also be charged by plugging it into an outlet for a few hours, and it can also be used as a powerful LED flashlight. It is about the size of a small lunchbox. 

ART AND JOURNALING SUPPLIES

 

Garden fairies scratch and sketch activity book Sturdy, spiral-bound (so you can open it up flat to work). Scratch away the black to reveal rainbow swirls and glittery colors underneath. Sweet little poems, pictures to copy if you like, and blank pages for sketching, besides the scratch-off pages. Many themes available, from  outer space to mermaids to Jurassic creatures.

Six nice big bottles of tempera paint! (16 oz each) Smell that kindergarten smell.

Lyra Ferby giant triangular colored pencils. Our beloved kindergarten teacher introduced us to these lovely colored pencils. I balked at the price at first, but they are quite good. Vivid colors, nice and smooth, and easy to grip, even for lefties, and the tips don’t snap off.

LCD doodle tablet For the kid who can’t stop doodling, and the mom who is going insane with reams of scribbled paper all over the place. Write with the stylus on the black screen, press the button to erase. That’s it. Surprisingly durable for the price. We have a couple of these in different colors. It’s great for car rides, waiting rooms, etc. 

Nose Pencil Sharpener
Who nose when you’ll need it, ho ho ho

10 colors of Sculpey clay Sculpey is always a favorite. Every so often, all through the year, I find another little batch of tiny little octopuses, lollipops, and bowls of miniscule fruit and whatnot baking in the oven.

Pair it with:

11 piece sculpting tool set with 21 tools to make all kinds of details and textures in your clay. Real tools, not toys. 

Sealing wax stamp kit! Each kit is for one letter and comes in an attractive little set shaped like a book. Seal letters and envelopes with your initial. Works as expected, quite fancy.  

10-pack Sakura Micron black pens, the most-requested pens from all my various artist kids. Pair with an 8-pack of vibrant colored pens:

 

For the DIY guy: Make: Props and Costume Armor: Create Realistic Science Fiction & Fantasy Weapons, Armor, and Accessories book and maybe pair it with a gift card to Michael’s, which you can also buy on Amazon because it’s a weird world. 

Mythology notecards Commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, set of 20 cards from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, blank inside, colored envelopes, comes in a nice box with a magnetic closure

Dover dragon Stained Glass mini Coloring book (and many other mini Dover coloring books). I adore these. Color with marker or crayon and pull them out of the book, and you have nice little stained glass panels to put on your windows. Many to chose from.

Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady, plus the companion coloring book, A Feast of Saints, by Matthew Alderman. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.

Official Die Hard coloring book. Sighh. She loved it.  

Wedding Traditions from Around the World coloring book There is a Dover coloring book for every conceivable interest, and they’re all done in that same blandly reassuring style, with tons of carefully-researched detail. Dover is awesome.

Shark float pen (Etsy) 

Just a silly thing, but perfect for someone. Etsy is full of these novelty pens, with everything floating in them, from chickens to donuts to flamingos to possums. 

 

Scheaffer calligraphy set So you say you’d love to let your kids have that magical, sensual experience of writing in pen and ink, but you’re not dumb enough to turn them loose with a bottle of ink? Here is a lovely calligraphy set, with 3 pens, 3 nibs, and a bunch of pre-filled ink cartridges in various colors. Also includes an introductory calligraphy booklet.

Here’s a little metal stamp set I put together: 

Heavy duty number and letter metal stamps for metal, wood, or leather. To go with 30 blank steel pendants

 

plus a little anvil  and a little jewelry-making hammer
I myself thought this was a cool present and I still do! Alas, the child who received this little bundle as a gift thought it was LAME-O. But maybe your kid would like it! I think it would be fun to tap out personalized little pendants on my little anvil up in my room, but what do I know. 

And here’s another set that I thought would be sure-fire, but the kid didn’t like it! Maybe your kid will. A resin pouring set:

Resin, hardener, cups, stirrers, and instructions….

18 colors of resin dye . . . 

and 30 pendant resin molds. Someone could have fun preserving flowers, coins, insects, or whatever in resin and making sun catchers, earrings, or necklace pendants!  

Moving on. 

 24,000 multicolored glass seed beads. Just what you wanted! We had a kid who was really into making little beaded lizards for a while, and this kept her busy. Sturdy storage box, but note there is only one lid for all the compartments, so beware!  If you open one, you open all.

 

Buddha Board Art Set You use the brush to paint elegant shapes with water, and it slowly evaporates. Soothing and pleasant, comes with a little easel and water pot. This also comes in a mini version for cheaper.

 

The Peter Pauper journals are varied an exquisite and very reasonably priced. Nice quality paper, gorgeous covers. 

And just because I don’t know where else to put this:

Nixon decal: “I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies”
Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4.28 you ever spent. 

JEWELRY, PINS, ACCESSORIES

  

 
Handmade Celtic brooch or scarf or hair pin 
Large and stunning. My daughter wears this with her woolen Irish cloak, or sometimes in her hair, and it’s just gorgeous. 
 

 

Golden wheat earrings
Damien got these for me and I absolutely love them, and always get compliments on them. They are extremely bright and not heavy, despite their large size. I corresponded with the maker, because I was having an issue with them slipping off, so I do recommend what she suggested if you buy them: Just clip the backs to be shorter with a strong pair of scissors, and maybe use some rubber earring backs.

Silver spinner fidget ring. An excellent ring for a fidgeter. The gold part spins noiselessly around the silver part. Really solid and sturdy.

 

Pearl and carnelian earrings
Also a gift from Damien. These are even nicer in person. They go well with dressy or casual outfits. I adore the combination of carnelian, silver, and freshwater pearl, and I wear these several times a week. 

 

Be excellent to someone and buy this Bill and Ted Wyld Stallyns pin

Heart-shaped rose gold plated locket. Okay, I did a LOT of research on this before I bought it. I wanted a locket that kid with separation anxiety could use to bring Mama and Daddy photos to school with her, and I did NOT want it to break, because augh. There were much more expensive lockets to be had, but someone recommended this one for sturdiness, and they were right. She has used it for years and it’s still in one piece. It’s a little tacky, but a little kid wants tacky sometimes. It’s also pretty big, which makes it easier to find a photo that fits. (We used a Polaroid photo trimmed down.) 

 

More BTS! These are nice little silver studs, shiny but understated.

Weeping Angel earrings. Don’t blink or the price will go up! 

Flower-shaped makeup set. For a kid interested in exploring make-up, this is a fun set. You twist the top layer and the petals glide open and reveal the pallets and brushes and things inside, and there’s a little mirror in the top. Comes in a few different colors. Does not include liquid eyeliner, which is pretty popular, so you may want to buy that separately

“Deal With It” pixilated glasses. Some of you still haven’t dealt with it, and it shows. 

 Heart diffraction glasses. A big hit. Put these magical glasses on and wherever you look, light sources turn into heart shapes, so the world is swimming in multicolored hearts. The more lights, the more hearts, hooray! The glasses themselves are quite sturdy, and are large enough for an adult to wear. They look like sunglasses in the picture, but in real life the glass is clear like reading glasses. (They also make diffraction glasses with other images, stars and whatnot.) 

MUSIC and MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

Boomwhackers! Bright plastic tubes in graduated sizes that you whack to make different booming tones. You can arrange them in different orders and hit them with sticks, hit them with each other, or use them to hit other things. Music and hitting things! Sounds like a happy childhood. Very sturdy. These have been stepped on and mangled without any ill effects. 

Ukulele bundle. The whole ukulele thing was one hipster fad I fully endorsed. It turns out a ukulele really is easy to learn to play, and it’s small enough to bring with you. Very pleasant to hear the gentle music wafting through bedroom walls. According to the seller, this “concert” size is the size “recommended for most adults & children age 9 & up.” Comes with case, strap, picks, tuner, and an instructional video.  

The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for  Better Living book Lots of variety, great for learning. Opens flat (also comes in digital format).

Beginner’s acoustic guitar set. We got two of these, one in black and one in blue. Also comes in red, pink, and other colors. I don’t know anything about guitars, but two of our kids taught themselves how to pick out some songs using this exact set-up, so it definitely comes with everything you need to get started, for a very reasonable price. 

For someone who already plays guitar:

Beatles chord songbook, in regular and spiral bound. If you’re not learning how to play Beatles songs, then what are you even doing with a guitar? Also:

 Bob Dylan: Easy Guitar book Basic arrangements of Dylan’s most popular songs. 

 

Beatles tin of guitar picks
As advertised. Hooray for songs with only four chords! Hooray for things that come in tins!


 
Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown by Anais Mitchell For the obsessive Hadestown fan, this book has excerpts from the studio and other albums versions, and full lyrics from Broadway version, plus commentary. Can’t get enough of that tragical stuff! 

A distortion thingy! If I say anything else about it, it will become abundantly clear I have no idea what any of this is. My daughter likes it. 

OTAMATONE This . . . is a little hard to explain. The stem is a touch-sensitive electronic music-maker, so if you press or slide your finger along it, you can make different tones. Then, with your other hand, you squeeze the flexible sides of the mouth to open or close it, to change the volume, to make the sound staccato or give it vibrato, etc. It. Is. Hilarious. It looks like the little guy is singing. It’s the cheesiest imaginable synthesizer sound. It’s a little bit fragile, so not appropriate for young or careless kids.  There’s a video if you click through. 

 

A kalimba, also known as a “thumb piano,” is a sweet little portable instrument for picking out quiet tunes or accompanying singers. Click through for a little video to hear how it sounds. 

Casio keyboard A very serviceable electric keyboard for people learning to play. Comes with a stand and headset, so you can practice without driving your sister crazy, assuming that’s your goal.

Bluetooth karaoke LED microphone Not gonna lie, this is a terrible product. It works very well, is very loud and bright, and is hard to break. TERRIBLE. It’s a real, heavy microphone, not a toy, with a speaker built into it, and puts on a little light show when the music plays. Links up to your smartphone. It’s just terribly obnoxious. The kids love it. LOVE IT. You can also use it just as a wireless speaker. It has lasted for years, I’m sorry to say. 

 

CRAFTS, KITS, KNITTING, AND SEWING

 

 

Set of two Melissa and Doug wooden hearts and butterflies bead sets Can I just pause a moment and express my delight at the nice little wooden boxes that so many Melissa and Doug sets come in? They really hold up. You can’t depend on anyone, but you can depend on Melissa and Doug wooden boxes. *sniff* Anyway, these are pleasant wooden beads painted carefully with a good gloss for that kid who loves to string beads, and the set of two is great value for the money. 

Klutz Twirled Paper Kit One of the better Klutz products. I’ve always tried to get my kids interested in quilling (winding flat strips of paper into spirals and then shaping them into various designs), but they just gave me the side-eye. The nicely-illustrated instruction book that comes with the quilling paper made it simple and inviting, and my nine-year-old turned out some nice projects. Told you quilling is fun! I told you! 

Klutz Clay Charms kit Such a hit! You can follow the directions (which were clearly tested by actual people, whew) to make the various charms pictured, or you can make up your own stuff. My daughter loves making and baking little figurines, earrings, and pendants for herself and for gifts. 

Creativity for Kids Flower Crown Kit I thought this was just another crummy stick-fake-flowers-together-and-watch-them-fall-apart,-then-wander-around-sadly-with-bits-of-glue-in-your-hair kits, but it’s not! My kids used this kit on a day when we were unexpectedly stuck at home and had a little guest, and they all had fun, did fine without much help, and turned out some really lovely crowns that still haven’t fallen apart. 

The Creativity for Kids line is another new find for us recently, and we’re pretty impressed. Even the paracord wristband kit turned out to be fun for my sons, who usually consider themselves above craft kits.

Enough perler beads (17,000) to subsume your entire household. These melty beads continue to be popular in the 1/2 and 3/4 classrooms at our school. (What you do is carefully arrange plastic beads on a pegboard, put some wax paper over it, and run it over with an iron, and they melt together and form a little flat plastic toy.) Honestly, it’s not so bad. The kids take their Perler beading really, really seriously, and the beads have miraculously not escaped from the jar. The appeal escapes me, but I never got understood why all my friends were doing Shrinky Dinks when I was that age, either. 

We also got this pattern book and this set of pegboards that you can join together to make bigger projects.

Glitter body art kit. Fun little set. My 13-year-old got a lot of use out of it. A generous supply of glitter stuff. The tattoos last for a few days, but are easy to clean off when you’re ready.  

Alex Headband Craft Kit I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations. 

Cat and dog beginner felting kit. Not the exact kit we had, but similar. Felting is a good project for a kid who is both domestic and a little stabby. It takes some patience but not a lot of skill, and you can put this project down and pick it up again days later without any harm. Make a bunch of cute little puffy cats and dogs, and get the hang of the technique so you can make more complex projects. 

Melissa and Doug fleece tie blanket kit. Generous size (3.5×5 feet). My then-six-year-old made this almost entirely on her own with no trouble, and found it very satisfying. No sewing or tools required. 

Honey bee beaded embroidery kit (Etsy)
Isn’t this gorgeous? It includes the canvas, patterns, beads, and needle; you must supply the thread, but it doesn’t have to be specialty thread. It is Ukranian but the instructions are in English. Make a dreamlike little work of art. 

Yarn storage and organizer tote. Lots of handy pockets and compartments with a little hole on top to feed the yarn through as you knit, so it doesn’t get tangled. 

Rosewood yarn bowl. A lovely handmade item, decorative and useful. Keep your yarn from getting tangled while you knit. You can feed more than one strand out at a time. 

Other handy knitting notions:

tapestry needles for finishing
and 

stork embroidery scissors. 

SINGER | MX60 Sewing Machine with 57 stitches 

 

Good little workhorse for basic projects. Easy to use, gets the job done. 

 

Brother XM2701 lightweight sewing machine with 27 stitches. Another good choice for a beginner sewing machine. I am not competent to tell you which is better. We have both and they both sew, and I can use both of them and I am an idiot, so that’s all I know. 

If you want to spend somewhat more, we also have this sewing machine, a Brother CS6000i with 60 stitches:

which also does a great job and is easy to use.  

For hand sewing:

A cute little owl-print sewing basket with a bunch of supplies. Has a little removable tray to store the needles, measuring tape, lots of thread and threaded bobbins. We also bought separately a package of multicolored felt, a tomato pin cushion, and a package of 100 sweet flowered buttons, and the kid managed to stuff them all inside the sewing box and latch it. Cute, cute, cute. 

and finally:

 

The Tudor Tailor book by by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies For skilled seamstresses. Full of detailed, authentic patterns for all kinds of garments from Tudor society. 

 

DOLLS AND STUFFIES

 

Barbie Dreamhouse
BAR! BIE! DREAM! HOUSE! We have eight daughters and finally bit the bullet and bought this pink plastic monstrosity, and the two youngest girls have played with it more days than they haven’t. It has a moving, wheelchair-accessible elevator, a disco room with lights and sounds, a toilet with flushing noises, and bunch of other little details the kids love. It took two adults about an hour to put together, not counting sticking all the little stickers on. If you’re a Montessori person, you won’t like this; if you’re a “oh my gosh, there are teeny little plastic cupcakes inside the teeny plastic oven” person, you will love it. 

 

Princess Leia doll with Endor adventure accessories. Solid Barbie-sized doll with a pleasant face and lots of accessories. The Ewok lost its hood and turned up in a basket with my fresh ginger and scared the hell out of me, but I can’t fault the doll for that. 

 

Luna Lovegood doll. Barbie-sized. There are a bunch of other Harry Potter dolls as well, Nicely detailed, and they didn’t fall into the uncanny valley trying to make the faces resemble to actors too much. 

I may have been more excited about this than the kids: Comfy Clothes Barbies (Anna and Elsa). Familiar princess characters wearing normal clothes, no spike heels or strapless cocktail dresses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dressing up dolls in impractical clothes! But it’s fun to think of the characters living their everyday lives.) We got a bunch of these for a kid who already has a million Barbies but always wants more.  

Uncle Iroh! He is 5″ tall (not Barbie-sized)

Calico Critters Maple Twin Cats Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. 

Stuffed anteater. Do you have a child who really got into anteaters? We did. So we know our plush anteaters. This one is a fine specimen. Very plushy and huggable. (Our is named “Schlopp-Schleep,” thank you very much.) 

Nice little stuffed pink axolotl. 21 inches long. Has a friendly little face, as an axolotl should. 

 

Shoulder Grogu. This is pretty cute. Sits on your shoulder with the aid of a little magnet on a fabric disk that fits inside your shirt.  

 

These BTS dolls keep turning up on wish lists (and all over the house), and they apparently fulfill some sort of need, whatever that may be, so now you know as much as I do. 

Is it the right time to get your child a gigantic stuffed tiger to lounge around on? MAYBE!  

BIG PLUSH MIKU. A real gift of the magi gift. You know I really suffer a lot when I order stuff like this, but I love my kids, and they’re very good kids, so.  

Groovy Girls are  soft, colorful dolls with cute hair and nice little outfits (the clothes don’t come off). Neither trashy nor simpering.

 

Small wooden doll family  from Melissa and Doug. Oh my gosh, these dolls don’t fall apart. Their arms and legs and heads don’t fall off, their hair doesn’t fall out, their clothes don’t unravel, and they don’t have creepy faces that make you want to hurl them across the room. Great size for doll houses, and they come in a nice little wooden box. They also have Black families, royal families, etc.

Wow, more Melissa and Doug! I guess I’m a fan. We had a kid who loved the idea of paper dolls, but found the little tabs endlessly frustrating. These magnetic wooden dress-up dolls made a nice compromise: you can mix and match the outfits, and they just stick on with magnets. 

Pleasant faces on these soft, poseable ballerina dolls, who are proportioned like little girls, and not like, you know, strippers. We got three of these last Christmas, and no limbs have fallen off, and the dresses have held up for a solid year without ripping, unravelling, or even going limp. 

A sturdy, washable, kissable favorite little 12″ baby doll.  

Funko Pop Eleven from Stranger Things. Aw, wookit the widdle blood coming out of her nose. I guess I don’t really understand Funko Pops.
 

OUTDOOR and ACTIVE TOYS

Little Tikes toddler slide Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.

We got our toddler roller coaster super cheap when a store was going out of business, and used it steadily for the next fifteen years. It’s still in decent shape, and we still pull it out when little nieces and nephews come over. It has survived many winters of being forgotten in the yard under several feet of snow, and never stops being fun fun fun for little guys. Just the right amount of thrill without being really dangerous.

Good old Rody the bouncy horse. Pricey but very, very durable, and cute as heck. Easier to get on and off of than hopper balls. Some of the older kids even watch TV while sitting on them, which may or may not be an endorsement. Anyway, the one we have (in lime green) has stayed inflated for years, no kidding. 

Radio Flyer Cyclone Ride-On 
A SPECTACULAR toy. I had a similar contraption when I was little and it was pure heaven, skimming over the grass, wheeling myself to and fro, spinning and whizzing and rumbling along. We got this Radio Flyer model for our youngest and she loves it, and uses it indoors, too. It’s a large toy but super maneuverable, so it’s not out of the question for small spaces. 

Roller Derby four-square skates. Durable and comfortable. 

 

Adjustable inline skates. Sturdy, smooth, comfortable. 

Gots to have a helmet! This one has plenty of space for stickers, which is important. Comes in a few different colors. 

MOON SHOES!

YAAAASSSSS! YES YES YES! These are just as awesome as I remember from my childhood. Little trampolines for your feet, and very reasonably priced. Everyone loves moon shoes. 


Wall-mounted speed bag set. Pretty good set. I don’t know how this would stand up to someone serious about boxing, but for a kid who just needs to hit stuff from time to time, it’s been doing the job.

 

STILTS. Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. (We put patterned duct tape on them so they can tell them apart.) First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior! 

 

YOU SHOULD HAVE A TRAMPOLINE. NOTHING IS BETTER THAN A TRAMPOLINE. We actually have a slightly different brand, but this one looks similar. Wonderful, wonderful purchase. Every single last person likes being on it. It lifts your mood. It wears you out. It’s funny and makes your hair stand on end. And you can lie down on it and look at the stars without bugs getting in your hair. You can put a sprinkler under it. You can entertain the baby. You can keep party guests occupied. In all the years we’ve had it, no one has broken a bone or a tooth or gotten mangled at all. Get the biggest one you can afford. 

WEAPONRY and KNIVES

 

Cosmic shock phaser light spinner! It has pulsing, multicolored lights and makes space laser noises. Everybody loves this gun, not just the three-year-old. Sometimes we sit around at night and talk about why it’s not more annoying than it is. It’s a space laser mystery!

Schylling toys in general are well-made and seem to tap into that sweet spot of awesome-but-not-infuriating, not sure now. 

Airzooka Air Blaster More low-tech fun. Aim, pull, and release. Shoots a harmless blast of air, enough to make your hair blow back, and makes a satisfying “choonk” noise, too.

Two Bros Bow and Arrows

These are simple, lightweight, and durable, and the arrows come in all kinds of bright, exciting colors and patterns. They have padded ends, not points, so you’d have to try really hard to hurt yourself with this set; but the bows work really well and you can get some good distance. Check out the sales, as they run a little high. 

Exceedingly cool light saber. I mean yes it’s a toy, but it changes colors, has different sound settings, you can change the volume and whether it strobes or flashes or glows, and it makes that lightsaber noise when you swing it around. I am not 100% sure because I don’t have it in front of me, but I think it interacts with being whacked. If you click through, you can see a video to watch it in action. 

 

Medieval(ish) sword and scabbard. Surprisingly sturdy little sword for the price. It would be best for display, costumes, and waving around, and not so much for really heavy chopping or stabbing action; but it’s real (not sharp) steel and real leather, and looks very cool.

Samurai sword with a stand, just the coolest thing in the world. Again, not designed for heavy combat, but you can definitely whack stuff with this sword, and it looks awesome on its stand.

A good little swiss army knife. Cool translucent cover, comes in several colors besides blue. 

 

Decent, heavy pocket knife for the price, with attractive wooden handle

Smith and Wesson 8-inch folding knife. For when they’ve outgrown the little red Swiss Army Knife and are maybe a young woman going to college and you never know who might need stabulatin’. (I jest. These are handy for opening packages and cutting fruit and whatnot, though, and are satisfyingly heavy knives that fold up with a good snap.)

22″ Machete, good for clearing brush, gathering kindling, or just choppa-choppa-choppa. Hey, they have ten fingers, plenty to spare.

October Mountain right hand recurve bow
 A light, slim, powerful bow; shoots well. Damien has this for hunting and target practice. 

COSTUMES

 

 

Greek goddess costume. Flowy and dramatic, ombre cream to purple. Comes with a stretchy gold leaf headband. Reasonably washable.

Ballet shoes with ribbons. Silky and pretty. They have little leather pads on the sole, and you can wind the ribbons around your ankles and tie bows, just like a real ballerina. See also Tinkerbell ballet DVD. 

Wonder Woman costume. Runs a little small. I like the star pants. Makes a kid feel super without sliding into “sexy tot” territory.

 

Flap flap flap! Butterfly wings are always in style. The material is strong, but thin enough that you don’t have to take it off to strap a kid into a car seat, which, whew. 

These are by far the most luxurious rubber Godzilla hands we’ve ever owned.

Not really a costume, but a mermaid tail blanket. Crocheted mermaid tail for lounging about, being a mermaid in. Cozy and super soft. Comes in several colors, and it has a little mermaid charm on a chain as a bonus gift. For that one kid, it’s perfect.

And a general recommendation for costumes:

The Little Dress Up Shop

These are by far the nicest costumes we have ever bought. They are so well-made and comfortable, they can be worn as clothing. Everything we’ve bought has been machine washable, and it doesn’t come out all strangled and mangled. The ones with sparkly parts stay sparkly, and do not shed glitter everywhere, and the ones with tulle don’t tear. Remarkable. They are fancy and extravagant enough to please kids, but the style remains sweet and child-like. Here’s one of my favorites: the Mulan dress. Last I checked, they had free shipping on all U.S. orders, and  excellent, humane customer service. 

CLOTHING

Rainbow Dash Hoodie with ears and mane. Just plain cute, reasonably thick material, and the zipper held up well.  We also have the Pinkie Pie hoodie.

We have several of these. You really cannot imagine how many different kinds of patterns there are on CowCow dresses. My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetlesconstellations,  or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material, almost like a swim suit. 

 

You can’t really see from the little picture, but this is a reversible dress. One variety has white feathers on a black background on one side, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the other. Very clever. Runs a bit small. A few different choices. 

Just an elegant little dress with realistic birds of various kinds. Thick, soft stretchy knit material, falls gracefully, plenty of fabric in the skirt so it flares prettily when you spin. We bought an adult size small for our nine-year-old and it fit her nicely. 

“Trapped in time, surrounded by evil, low on gas” Army of Darkness t-shirt
Groovy. 

We looked at a lot of mermaid-print leggings, but realized that our kids are more the dragon type. Snarrrrl. These come in a few different colors. 

Hot Pink Doc Martens! For the prom! For everyday wear! For making yourself awesome from the ground up. A million colors, all shiny and rugged and BACK IN STYLE. Aw yiss. 

Irish Donegal Tweed Wool Cloak 
My land, this is a nice piece of work. It’s very soft and drapes wonderfully. I don’t know how warm it is, but it’s awfully pretty, and looks well with dressy or casual clothes. Hood is a good size. Handmade. Ships very quickly from Ireland. Many more beautiful goods at the site on Etsy. 

 

 

LIVE, LAUGH, LURK t-shirt. It’s what Mothman does. 

Dinosaur chompster hoodie. As you can see, this is one of those hoodies where you bend your elbows in front of you and, if you move them right, they become the chomping, slavering jaws of a hungry dinosaur! Amazing! Chomp chomp chomp! Thick nylon material, runs rather large. 

Surfing Bigfoot Hawaiian shirt, for that special weirdo.

I’ll let this magnificent Krakitten garment speak for itself. Comes in a few different colors.

Tree of Gondor shirt! Also comes in other colors, in long-sleeved, etc.  

 

You know what these knee-high goth boots are? They’re CHEAPER THAN DEMONIAS. And my kid has worn them several times without breaking an ankle, so you tell me. 

 

And these are my boots, which I’ve had for a few years, and they’ve held up quite well. INC International Concept knee high leather boots with a little heel, a wide calf plus a little elastic gusset to make them even more comfy on your calves, and a zipper that comes halfway up so they’re easy to put on. They look stylish with dressy clothes and jeans, and they’re exceedingly comfortable. I put a cushy innersole in to make them even comfier, but the boot itself is nicely made. I have pretty wide feet and corns on one foot, and I wear these all day. The soles are a little slick (they’re not designed for trekking through the snow) but you can add grips if you’re going to be on a lot of slippery ground. 

 
 
 

Yaktrax run traction cleats. Kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from the boots above: These help you grip the ice so you can continue running through the winter like a lunatic. 

 

Little Donkey Andy Men’s Thermal Running Jacket. This is the thermal jacket Damien wears for running through the winter. He says it’s lightweight, warm, easy to layer, and doesn’t get too smelly.

 

These hunting boots are waterproof like whoa. These boots all but get up and walk around by themselves. Damien says they are comfortable, too. 

Oops, another Hawaiian shirt! Tropical tiger shirt (with toucans!). Come on, it’s just a magnificent shirt. There are many other patterns available, but why would you look further than this? It’s a rather silky material.

Fluffy fox slippers. Not super thick, but cozy and fluffy. The bottoms have little rubber grippy dots.  

 Lace-up knee high Chun Li/Dance boots. They come in a few different colors, but if they’re white, they’re CHUN LI BOOTS!

 

Speaking of lounging, THE COMFY is the loungiest. Much-desired, in service all winter long. I may ask for one of these myself. 

Lightweight sleeping bag. Not clothing, but I had to put it somewhere. Honestly, we have so many sleeping bags. They all seem fine. This one is fine. It’s fluffy and good. We don’t actually camp, so I have no idea if it’s good for rugged people. It says it’s good for down to 32F. Lots of colors.

HATS AND HAIR ACCESSORIES

 

 

Just a pretty rose crown/headband for your little flower. Large, luxurious blossoms. Comes in many different colors. 

Princess Leia bun knit hat. Warm and snug. And who might you be?  

The Jimin K-Pop ring hat. Another “I don’t know; I just live here and buy what I’m told” present

Handmade video game Hats By Charlotte on Etsy. Great communication and nice craftsmanship. 

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil horn headband. It’s either very comfortable, or just so fabulous you don’t care if it’s uncomfortable, not sure which. Not to be worn at Stations of the Cross, but good for every other last possible waking moment, including *sigh* school picture day. 

 Leaf hair pins. Surprisingly elegant and detailed for the price. Flexible and bright. 

 
 

Set of six polished wooden hair sticks in different shapes. Smooth and elegant, good for buns, chignons, etc.

These are *sigh* spikes with screw backs so your kid can have spikes on their clothes. It’s just clothes.  

BAGS and wallets

 

 

These sequin-covered goods aren’t everywhere in the stores anymore, but some kids still can’t get enough of that sequin flipping action. This backpack has RAINBOW sequins, with silver on the flip side. A somewhat small backpack, and not super duper sturdy, but about what you’d expect for the price. If you’re looking for a larger, sturdier backpack, here are single-color flip sequin backpacks, which we also have.

Scooby Doo tote bag. Kid says it’s “very durable and holds a lot and gets lots of compliments from middle aged ladies at the library.”

ZELDA HYLIAN SHIELD CHAIN WALLET! Just the thing for the kid who likes Zelda, likes feeling just slightly dangerous with chains and stuff, and also tends to lose wallets.

It’s still not clear to me why the kid wanted this pineapple purse so desperately, but she sure loves it. A smallish purse on a long chain, with an inside section you can remove from the outer, cut-out layer. 

 

Sturdy brown canvas and leather satchel at a great price. Roomy and attractive, and the strap is comfortable. It’s even bigger than it looks in the picture.

Black canvas messenger bag. Comfortable and decent quality, a great blank canvas for pins and patches. 

 

VERY MISCELLANEOUS

 

Set of three nature photo flip books. Flip through the pages with your thumb and watch a hummingbird hover, a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, and a tadpole turn into a frog. Little kids (and bit kids, and adults) are fascinated by these low tech amusements. 

Lovely little blue and green Polish pottery bubble vase with blueberries. I have this vase.  I got it with one of the Amazon gift cards my dad used to send me for my birthday every year. This is a sweet little vase, beautifully proportioned, just the right size for roses or lilacs, or a big bouquet of dandelions and violets. You can’t go wrong with Polish pottery. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t like it.

Not the thickest fleece blanket in the world, but definitely the most Dungeons and Dragons die-shaped fleece blanket you will find, very popular with our resident DM. Great for snuggling up in while you’re on a campaign. 

 

“May Godzilla Destroy This Home Last” printed cloth. A little something to hang on your wall and make it your own space. 

Panda surprise mug. Helloooo! (There are also cats, monkeys, ducks, Santas, etc.)

A slightly odd present, but I knew my five-year-old would love it. These are just transparent colored paddles to play with, mix together, and look through. Despite they way they are arranged in the photo, they are not attached together. I strung six of them on a chain and put the rest away so I could replace them as needed. Kids love peering through them and seeing Purpleworld or Everythingisgreenville. It’s just cool! Good for car trips. There are also slightly raised different patterns on each. 

“Sorry, we’re dead” shop sign.For that one kid to hang on her bedroom door. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a kid who has a bearded dragon, this dragon wings harness might make a nice little gift. If you’re thinking of getting a pet, you could do worse than a bearded dragon, by the way. They require a large tank and heating elements and fresh food like crickets, but once you buy the supplies, these guys are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. They are surprisingly charming, and have a lot of personality. Our bearded dragon is much smarter than our cat.  

Silly squishy stretchy rubber dino head puppets. These are silly puppets in a very satisfying kind of rubber to have on your hand. It’s kind of flabby, but in a good way. All the kids got one of these, or else a squishy stretchy flabby unicorn head puppet, in their stockings last year. 

 

Foot massage roller. This is almost too grim to put on a Christmas list, and it’s honestly just something I bought for myself, but I still love it very much. It’s a foot massage roller and it feels so good, it brings actual tears to my eyes. If anyone on your list has sore feet, this really would make a thoughtful stocking stuffer or small gift.

I included this not because I hope your child will ask for a Thor Ragnarok lifesize stand-up cutout for Christmas, but because maybe you’ll see this on the list and get inspired to get a cutout of literally anything else. There are many other choices.  

Note “Wonderful Homelife” book in the background of this liquid sand art thingy, so you know it’s good! Just a pretty thing to play with. Tilt the frame to change the landscape. It’s soothing and pleasant. Choice of several colors.

 

This three-part house-shaped bird feeder looks somewhat different from the bird feeder we ended up getting, but this one looks nice, and you can fill it with three different kinds of food to attract various birds. We really got into bird watching over the pandemic and it’s been a joy. Lovely to have familiar visitors right outside a child’s bedroom window. 

With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This Lenox one is by far the sturdiest, but with the quilted silver outside, it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Für Elise.”

 

Metal Archangel Michael keepsake or rosary box. Good and heavy, nicely detailed, really handsome. 

This bubble motion toy was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t not mind waiting.) 

BABIES movie. How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it. 

Tinkerbell learn ballet DVD. By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre. 

Magic sequin pillowcase. I have seen these in therapist’s offices, and I can understand why. It’s very soothing to just smoooooooth the sequins up, and then smooooooth them down again. Of course you can also draw little pictures or spell things, but mostly we just smoooooth the sequins up and down.  Comes in several colors. NOTE: This is JUST THE PILLOWCASE. You will need to buy the pillow insert separately

Little kid rocking chair. Very sweet. This isn’t the exact same model we had, but it looks similar and gets decent reviews. Nothing sweeter than a little kid with his own special chair.  

TIN TEA SETS. Why did we not think of this several daughters ago? You do need to dry them off so they don’t rust, but it’s so much better than endlessly gluing broken shards together. Here’s a Schylling one with Forest Friends, cups, saucers, plates, a teapot, and a little tray

Here’s another tin tea set we had, also with woodland animals, kind of a folk art style, and this one comes in a neat little lunch box:

 

Plastic is another great option for tea sets. This pink flower-shaped Melissa and Doug set with butterflies painted on the side hits that sweet spot of bright and appealing without shading into Lisa Frank fever dream. These are full-size tea cups and they are not flimsy. 

And finally: 

I . . . don’t remember buying this Wooly Willy. But it’s in my order history, and I certainly remember playing with these in my life! They are fun! Your Christmas will be better if you have a Wooly Willy, probably. 

AND THAT’S IT! That’s the whole list. That’s how it ends: not with a bang, but with a Wooly Willy. Happy shopping! 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 317: Little Bear food

This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Happy Friday! Another week of nippy weather, and I’m really settling into cozy fall cooking. I’m doing some planning for Thanksgiving, by which I mean I bought a second potato masher at the thrift store. I have always been a wiggly line potato masher kind of gal, but now I’m branching out into the grid-on-a-circle style, and I have high hopes. Because I just don’t make very good mashed potatoes, and it’s probably the masher’s fault.

However, I am happy to announce that I used up the last of the apples! Very satisfactory. Read on. 

SATURDAY

I’m skeptical Saturday even happened. I have no idea what we ate. 

SUNDAY
Pizza

You may recall how, last time I made pizza, I committed the high crime of not making any just-cheese pizza. Well, this time I did! And the kids made exactly as big a fuss about it as if I hadn’t (“Well SHEESH, Mama, the only reason we’re ASKING is because LAST time . . . “). But I did make a cheese pizza. I really did.  I also made one pepperoni and one olive, fresh garlic, and anchovy. 

Man, I need to do something about that grout. Good pizza, though. 

MONDAY
Pork ribs, applesauce, mashed acorn squash, risotto

APPLE ARMAGEDDON. There were dozens and dozens of soft, spotty, dinged-up apples hanging around the dining room in bags and boxes and government-owned mail cartons driving me mad, so on Monday I gathered them up, hacked them  into quarters, threw them in my biggest pot, added a little water (too much, like I do every year), and let them simmer loosely covered for a few hours. 

I left everything intact, peels, cores, everything, and when they were soft enough to collapse under the weight of a wooden spoon, I ran them through my wonderful food mill, very similar to this one (affiliate link):

 

The food mill is one of the few once-a-year kitchen gadgets I allow to take up space in my tiny kitchen, because nothing else does exactly what a food mill does (i.e. not only smooshes the food, but separates out the undesirable parts). I was a little dismayed to dismayed to discover that someone had put it away last year after using it to make applesauce but not necessarily super duper washing it out, bleh. It has a pot with handle and bowl clips, a crank and blade, and a screw with a sweeping arm for underneath, and [deep shuddery breath] you really do need to take it apart to clean it properly. 

But a little scrubbing did the trick, and I was soon cranking out sweet, beauteous applesauce.

I didn’t take a picture of the refuse because it’s just not pretty, but I’m always impressed at how efficient the food mill is. If you keep cranking, it really gets every last possible scrap of edible material, and just leaves the barest minimum of waste behind. Then you crank it backwards a few turns and it scrapes the leavings up into a little heap for you to whack out into the trash. Very satisfying activity altogether.

After several batches, I was left with a heavy, steaming bowl of fragrant, rosy applesauce, and it smelled so nice, I was tempted to just leave it at that. But I did pitch in a bunch of cinnamon, a generous drizzle of honey, and a lump of butter, and mix it up.

I covered it and left it alone, and it was so dense, it stayed warm until dinnertime. I felt like a fairy tale mother. Everyone was very pleased. 

I served it with pork ribs, just roasted quickly on a rack in a very hot oven with salt and pepper, and some rich, cheesy Instant Pot risotto, and some mashed acorn squash

What an excellent meal. Here is the recipe for Instant Pot risotto, which isn’t quite quite as creamy and luxurious as stovetop risotto, but it’s pretty darn close, and it’s easy enough to throw together on a weeknight, with onions, sage, white wine, and chicken broth.

Jump to Recipe

You can add in any number of things, including squash if you’re not already serving squash. 

But I was, and I was trying a new method. Normally I roast it in the oven and then mash it. This time, I cooked it in the Instant Pot, and I learned a tip to sprinkle it with kosher salt and baking soda first, allegedly to help caramelize it, before mashing it with your add-ins. Here’s the full recipe:

Jump to Recipe

and whoa, it was excellent.

I have no idea if the process really made that much of a difference or if i just got hold of some really tasty squash, but it was amazingly flavorful. Yay! Damien really liked it, so I’ll definitely do it this way from now on. 

TUESDAY
Ima’s Everything Soup and overnight bread

On Monday night, I started some bread dough using an exceedingly vague recipe someone, I’m sorry I can’t remember who, put on Facebook. To wit:

Ingredients
3 cups All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
 
In a large bowl combine flour, active dry yeast and salt. Mix together. Add water, and stir until blended; dough will be sticky. Give it ten good folds. Cover bowl with a tea towel. Let dough rest overnight for 10 to 12 hours at room temp.
 
In the morning, your dough will have grown x2- then give it a few folds (I basically scraped the dough off the sides of the bowl towards the middle), empty it out onto a piece of parchment paper and let it rest for 30 minutes. If dough is sticky and hard to work with, add a bit of flour so it doesn’t stick to your hands. Score your bread with a knife. (I made an “x” on the top.)
 
While dough is resting, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Put a covered 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (Dutch oven, enamel, ceramic) in oven as it heats for about 30 minutes.
 
Carefully remove pot from oven. IT’S VERY HOT. Pick up parchment paper with dough and slide directly into pot (ie dough sitting on the parchment).  Cover with lid and bake 35-40 minutes at 425 Degrees F. LID WILL BE HOT – remove lid and bake another 10-15 minutes, until loaf is golden brown.
 
You can eat it warm with butter or wait until it cools.

Okay, that seemed simple enough!  I tripled the recipe and left it in a big bowl to rise overnight. I ended up using more flour than it called for because it was not just “sticky,” it was like batter, and really couldn’t be called dough. 

The next day, it had risen nicely and was more dough-like, but I did add yet more flour to be able to handle it. I poured it out in two batches onto parchment paper and let it rest 30 minutes as directed. 

I don’t seem to have any dutch ovens (the contents of my kitchen are always vaguely mysterious to me), so I heated up a glass casserole dish and a large iron frying pan, and baked it in two batches in that. You’re supposed to bake it with the lid on, then uncover it and finish baking. Since my containers didn’t have lids, I used tin foil, which stuck to the dough, so when I pulled it off, it peeled some of the bread crust off with it. I could have avoided this by spraying it with cooking spray, or covering it with a bowl or something else with more clearance. 

But overall, it came out of the oven looking like bread!

Quite dense and rather chewy, but real bread, a really good return for the miniscule amount of labor and very basic ingredients I put into it. 

So that was nice. It was pretty good with a little soft butter and a sprinkle of salt, and it hit the spot along with the hearty soup I made.

This seems to be a version of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread that everybody got all worked up about a while ago. He gives more precise directions and his technique requires more time, but does seem to produce a nicer loaf. So now you know everything I do. 

The soup is an adaptation of my mother’s minestrone soup, which she used to call “everything soup.” Minstrone soup usually has vegetables, greens, beans, tomato, and some kind of pasta or rice. My mother’s version doesn’t have tomato and it does have meat. She used ground beef; I used mild sausage. She used celery; I swapped in zucchini instead. She specified frozen spinach, and I used fresh. I skipped the wine and used fresh parmesan. But otherwise, this is basically her recipe, which is basically minestrone. Or not! It has onions, garlic, carrots, zucchini, chick peas, sausage, spinach, beef broth (and wine) and is topped with a little parmesan.

I cooked it a little too long and it got a little blurry, but it was tremendously nourishing and cozy. This is Little Bear food. 

Together with the world’s most basic bread, it was a very fine little meal for a chilly day. 

And here is where I have to express my admiration for people who cook but don’t enjoy the process. I salute you! I like to eat; goodness knows, I like to eat. But I like to cook almost as much, if not more. The sight and sounds and sensations, the smells and textures and patterns of food being processed are a constant delight to me, even when I’m in a hurry. Peeling and cutting and chopping and grating, rinsing and stirring, steaming and simmering and tossing. Every onion is different inside! Every head of lettuce has its own music when it’s torn. The colors, the colors. It is all absolutely my jam.

What a treat to peer down through the top of a shiny box grater and watch the little torrents of parmesan billowing through the holes as I shred, and then sensing that the grater is stuffed full and needs to be knocked empty against the scarred wooden board, until it spills out its little bounty of delicate curls into the sun.

And then I also like to eat! Lucky me. 

WEDNESDAY
Shawarma

Honest to goodness, I thought it was Thursday, and I was so annoyed at myself for putting off this meal all week, so I was painted into a Thursday corner and had to make a slightly laborious dinner twice in a row, first the soup and bread, then the shawarma. I had been up all night with a cold and fever, struggling with the delusion that I had hidden a terrible, purple secret on top of a mountain and so needed to get my socks off. Then I got up and I was like, OH NO, AND NOW I HAVE TO MAKE SHAWARMA, I HAVE NO CHOICE BECAUSE IT’S THURSDAY. In retrospect, I may still have been a little sick. Luckily, shawarma is actually easy enough that you can make it when you’re a little loopy. 

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs were on sale, and that is the best kind of chicken to use for shawarma, so I didn’t have to do much processing, just trim the fat off a bit. The marinade is easy, and the rest is just really chopping and opening  jars and cans. And crushing plenty of garlic. 

Jump to Recipe

So I set several pounds of chicken to marinate in the morning, and made up a big bowl of yogurt sauce

Jump to Recipe

Corrie was home too, so she juiced lemons for me, and also cut up the cucumbers. So we had pita, cucumbers, tomatoes, black and kalamata olives, feta cheese, yogurt sauce, and hummus. I marinated just the chicken and then spread red onions over the top of the chicken before I cooked it. And that was it! Great meal. Everyone loves it. A little bit of work on the front end, but it’s all easy, with no exotic ingredients, and it’s just so tasty. 

Sometimes I make homemade pita or stuffed grape leaves or fried eggplant with this meal, but this is the basic form and it’s great as is. 

THURSDAY
Taco Thursday

Thursday turned out to be Thursday, for whatever reason, and so we had tacos. I don’t make the rules. (Well, I do, but I don’t have to explain myself.) 

FRIDAY
Spaghetti pangrattato

Something new for us. Pasta with lemon, parsley, seasoned breadcrumbs, capers, and bits of fried egg!! from Smitten Kitchen. I think this is one of those delicious, delicious poverty dishes the Italians are so good at. I’m guessing most of the kids will just want plain pasta, but you never know.

Or maybe we’ll just have spaghetti! The kids have the day off for Veteran’s Day and maybe I’ll do the weekend shopping on Friday and have the actual weekend off for once, to do something fun. Although so far all I have managed to do is sleep for twelve hours, which I haven’t done in years, and I think that means I am still sick. 

Oh, I just remembered what we had on Saturday. Corn dogs! Corn dogs and hot pretzels. With a side of mustard. 

Instant Pot Mashed Acorn Squash

Ingredients

  • 1 acorn quashes
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Cut the acorn squashes in half. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt on the cut surfaces.

  2. Put 1/2 a cup of water in the Instant Pot, fit the rack in it, and stack the squash on top. Close the lid, close the valve, and cook on high pressure for 24 minutes. Do quick release.

  3. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop it out into a bowl, mash it, and add the rest of the ingredients.

Ima's Everything Soup

heavily adapted from a sort-of-minestrone soup my mother used to make

Ingredients

  • 1+ lbs loose mild sausage (my mother used ground beef)
  • olive oil if necessary
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 1 zucchini, diced with the skin on
  • 6-12 cups beef broth
  • 4 cups fresh spinach (frozen is also fine)
  • 1/4 cup red wine (optional)
  • 1 cup small pasta like pastina, raw
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. In a pot, cook the sausage, crumbling, until it's cooked through. Add olive oil if necessary to keep from burning. (If using an Instant Pot, use the sauté function for the first two steps.)

  2. Add in garlic, onion, oregano, and pepper. Cook another several minutes until the onion is soft.

  3. Add in the carrots and zucchini, and pour in the broth (and wine if using), and stir. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for twenty minutes. (If using an Instant Pot, add all the ingredients except the cheese, close the lid, close the valve, and press "soup.")

  4. Add in the spinach and chickpeas and continue simmering another ten minutes. Add in the pasta ten minutes before serving and cook until soft. If the soup is too thick and too much broth has been absorbed, add another 4-5 cups of broth. Top with parmesan.

 

Instant Pot Risotto

Almost as good as stovetop risotto, and ten billion times easier. Makes about eight cups. 

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground sage
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cups rice, raw
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • pepper
  • 1.5 cups grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Turn IP on sautee, add oil, and sautee the onion, garlic, salt, and sage until onions are soft.

  2. Add rice and butter and cook for five minutes or more, stirring constantly, until rice is mostly opaque and butter is melted.

  3. Press "cancel," add the broth and wine, and stir.

  4. Close the top, close valve, set to high pressure for 9 minutes.

  5. Release the pressure and carefully stir in the parmesan cheese and pepper. Add salt if necessary. 

Chicken shawarma

Ingredients

  • 8 lbs boned, skinned chicken thighs
  • 4-5 red onions
  • 1.5 cups lemon juice
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp pepper
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 entire head garlic, crushed

Instructions

  1. Mix marinade ingredients together, then add chicken. Put in ziplock bag and let marinate several hours or overnight.

  2. Preheat the oven to 425.

  3. Grease a shallow pan. Take the chicken out of the marinade and spread it in a single layer on the pan, and top with the onions (sliced or quartered). Cook for 45 minutes or more. 

  4. Chop up the chicken a bit, if you like, and finish cooking it so it crisps up a bit more.

  5. Serve chicken and onions with pita bread triangles, cucumbers, tomatoes, assorted olives, feta cheese, fresh parsley, pomegranates or grapes, fried eggplant, and yogurt sauce.

 

Yogurt sauce

Ingredients

  • 32 oz full fat Greek yogurt
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • fresh parsley or dill, chopped (optional)

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together. Use for spreading on grilled meats, dipping pita or vegetables, etc. 

 

 

In some ways, the world is getting kinder

As I was writing this essay, I got a call from a blind man named Henry. He needed help finding the front door of his apartment, and then help making his way through the somewhat maze-like halls of his building, around several corners, through several sets of doors, down a ramp, and into the lobby where the stairs were.

He walked holding his phone, and I guided him based on what I could see on the live video. At one point, it was too dark for me to see where he was going, so with his permission, I tapped my screen to remotely turn on his phone’s flashlight, lighting his way. When he got to the lobby, he thanked me, we wished each other a good day, and we hung up. Simple as that.

The call came through an app called ‘Be My Eyes’, and it works wonderfully well. It connects blind and visually impaired people with randomly-chosen volunteers who can help them out in various ways. At last count, there are 431,970 blind people using the service, and nearly six million volunteers. Someone always answers.

If you want evidence that the world is getting meaner, you don’t have to look far. I won’t even supply examples, because I’m sure several sprang to mind. Entire careers and industries are dedicated to keeping supplies of human cruelty fresh and constant, and to making sure we all think about it all the time.

But there is also evidence that the world is getting kinder. The ‘Be My Eyes’ app is just one. Despite how it may feel some days, we’re not all engaged in some inexorable downward slide into Gehenna. There are countless happy warriors everywhere, waging tiny battles to retain their humanity day by day, and to find ways to be kind to each other.

Here are some I’ve noticed recently, when I decided to look:

Many libraries no longer charge late fees. I’m sure they were partially forced into this decision, because people were simply not returning books, and then never going to the library again; but the general impulse — “all is forgiven, just return to me” — is a wonderful one, very much in keeping with the Gospel. Good stuff.

Several video games now have what could be called “little buddy mode” — a setting or character designed for a younger, less competent companion player who tags along with a more skilled gamer. They can feel like they’re part of the action, but they aren’t at risk (or else they can regenerate endlessly), so it’s harmless fun for them to join in. (Super Mario’s Nabbit, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yarn Yoshi, and Mario 3D World are some examples of some variety of this feature.)

To be sure, this isn’t altruism. It’s a product made because the company thought it could sell something. But it’s a beguiling idea, and caters to a wholesome and friendly consumer need, rather than a cruel and low one, which is something you don’t see very often.

More and more parking lots have reserved parking spots not only for disabled customers, but for pregnant women and for parents with babies. One of the greatest baby gifts someone ever gave me was a reserved parking spot in the last month of my sciatica-ridden pregnancy, saving me a short but very painful walk to and from the school door five days a week. Again, partially consumer-driven, but kind and merciful all the same for the grateful woman who really needs that spot.

The proliferation of GoFundMe’s, meal trains, money pools, Amazon wish lists for strangers, and other easily-sharable means of supporting people in need. Yes, sometimes they are foolish, and sometimes they are scams, but very often they literally save lives, and people in crisis are rescued with their dignity intact. This is something that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago, and it’s very good that we have it. It just about redeems the internet, and it’s good that people with only a little money to donate are given the chance to join in on a good deed.

‘Buy nothing’ groups have also proliferated on the internet. This is a resurrection of a practice from another age, when people would “wear it ’til you wear it out; make it do or do without.” Now, pushing back against the tsunami of discarded consumer goods, there are myriad groups where people can list what they no longer want, and I have rarely seen anything go unclaimed.

The other day someone said she had several spaghetti sauce jars without lids, and I rolled my eyes, thinking no one would want her excess recycling. Within minutes, another woman happily claimed them, saying she was selling cut flowers at the farmer’s market and needed more jars for vases.

I have also seen people request furniture, clothing, and all manner of things for their families, and someone always something to share. People want to share; it was just the mechanism for doing it easily that was lacking.

Any time we need to fix something around the house, or make a car repair, or even make a costume or a party prop, we head to YouTube, and there is almost always a useful instructive video.

Sometimes they are slick, monetized videos that someone produced as a business, but very often, they are just little movies that people have made because they know how to do something, and they would like to help other people out. There is no money or fame involved; they’re simply being helpful. This is purely lovely.

Little free libraries, and little free food pantries, and other little free structures have been erected all over the landscape, just so people can share what they have with each other. These little free-standing miniature sheds started popping up a few years ago and people have not gotten tired of them yet. It’s easy to see why.

There’s no paperwork, no income requirements, no humiliating process where you have to display your poverty before some beneficent committee. If there’s something you want, you simply take it. If you have something to give, you simply leave it. Simple and kind.

The concerns of children are taken more seriously than they were even a generation ago. Some of this is legislated, with child labor laws and efforts to abolish statute of limitation laws regarding abuse; but some of it has just made its way into the social order.

You don’t have to “but abortion” me. I know that there is immense cruelty and hardheartedness toward unborn children at the same time. That doesn’t negate the good that is happening, and it’s truly good that adults today are much more likely to listen to a child who says they are being bullied, or who says they are feeling anxious or afraid or overwhelmed, or who says something bad is happening to them.

In general, we treat children more like full humans, and this is a very good thing.

There’s a real trend away from remarking on people’s appearances. I was skeptical at first, and thought that this trend was merely lip service that people would be trained to do so as to appear correct; but my younger kids seem truly acclimated to the idea that it simply isn’t normal or acceptable to judge someone based on how they look.

It will be fascinating to see how far this trend goes, and how it affects people’s actual behavior toward each other, but even if it only reaches so far, it’s been pleasant to see that it’s no longer socially acceptable, for example, for a man to dismiss a female colleague simply because she isn’t attractive to him. Guys still behave like this, of course, but at least in many quarters, there is now always pushback. When I was growing up, no one would have batted an eye. There really is change afoot.

It’s become more and more common for businesses and schools to offer free menstrual products in their bathrooms, along with other hygienic necessities like toilet paper and soap. Since about half the population menstruates, and these products can be prohibitively expensive, it’s wonderful to see more corporations acknowledging a responsibility to provide these goods so women and girls can show up and function at full capacity.

There is more and more integration of adaptive equipment in public places for people with disabilities. More playgrounds have adaptive swings and other play structures; more churches offer sensory-friendly services and more gyms and entertainment centers offer sensory-friendly evenings; more crosswalks have auditory aids; more museums have adaptive displays for the impaired; more supermarkets have adaptive carts.

These accommodations are not only great so people with disabilities and their families can live their lives, it’s good for the rest of the world to constantly recognize that people with disabilities are fully part of the community, and that their needs are different but just as legitimate as the needs of abled people.

And there is more. I’m sure you can think of examples, if you look. These things have a way of building on each other. If you see that the world is kind and kindness seems normal, then it’s easier to start contributing yourself.

What can you add to this list?

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A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly on October 5, 2022.

Photo by Greg Dunlap via Flickr (Creative Commons)