Old Resolutions, New Compromises

In January of 2015 I made a resolution to track our food-based trash (see a post about this here). Yeah, that didn’t last. I do think I would have kept it up if we hadn’t spent spring of 2015 in East Africa. But we did, and then I did not pick the resolution back up again when we got back.

But never one to kick myself, I offer no apologies and I move forward with a belated 2016 resolution! Fittingly, this resolution is about compromise.

When we got back from Ethiopia last summer we launched into domestic craziness. Travis started his Research Experience for Undergraduates program and went back to Ethiopia with 10 students a few weeks later. He was gone for a month, and I put James into a part-time preschool/daycare program, went back to work at the co-op in town, then started a new job and found a new nanny when the co-op closed down (heartbreak!) and our nanny situation with James’ beloved babysitter fell through (heartbreak again!), all while diving back into managing the online maple syrup business for our family’s farm (Stannard Farm) and getting Lytle back into physical and occupational therapy.

I dropped the ball a bit. I valiantly struggled with school lunches (read here about that) before succumbing to the daily sandwich, apple/orange/banana, and packaged snack. My spirits faltered and I stopped coming up with creative food options for Lytle, numbly handing her Cheerio after Cheerio (okay, multi-grain Heritage O’s, but whatever). But then, a few days after January 1st, 2016, I went to Tanzania and an amazing thing happened. I got my second wind. I rallied. And I saw that I had to learn to make realistic compromises without losing track of my big priorities.

Parenting is hard enough without setting ourselves up to fail. Short of becoming a full-time homesteader (which may not be as great as it once sounded to me, I recently read the stark and poignant This Life is in Your Hands) I simply cannot maintain my own sourdough starter, make keifer and yogurt, can jar after jar of jam, pick and freeze my own blueberries, make and age summer eggnog for Christmas, experiment with three different kinds of fruitcake, and keep up parenting and online farm businessing. Honestly, this whole second kid thing has kicked my a*#, and the whole Down syndrome thing adds an extra layer of effort.

So my New Year’s Resolution for 2016: I will compromise with grace, and I will find a way to do it my way.

It starts at the grocery store.

  • I spend more time in the freezer aisles then I ever thought I would, but when James recently asked if we could get the frozen brussels sprouts I breathed a prayer of gratitude. And of course, we bought them.
  • We always have at least two kinds of frozen berries for smoothies and snacks.
  • I used to buy only local fruits and vegetables, but now I do the full-on kid fruit and veggies thing and we always have apples, oranges, bananas, avocados, cucumbers, carrots, and red bell peppers in the house regardless of the time of year.
  • I buy chicken and beef stock. I still make my own when it’s convenient, but I like to always have it on hand and I don’t want making it to be a stressful necessity.
  • I buy the fruit mixes in the little squeeze packs. I’ll stick one in James’ lunch if I’m desperate, Lytle will always suck one down even when she shuns all other food, and whatever is leftover in the pouch goes into tomorrow’s smoothie.
  • I buy crackers and school lunch snacks; I make sure I always have at least three options on hand, and then I hide them from James and Travis.

Which grocery store?

  •  Since the co-op in town closed I’ve felt more than a little cold about who I support. I mostly shop at one of the large chain stores in town, they have a decent organic section, they sell the Organic Valley milk that I like and they have a good olive bar (James and Travis can eat their weight in olives).
  • I was at Wal-Mart picking up something Wal-Mart-y and remembered I was out of squeezies. And I learned something amazing. Wal-Mart has a better selection of kiddo squeezies that contain grain than the two chain grocery stores in town or the natural foods store. And the nut bars? Best prices and selection, hands down. And although I would not weep to see Wal-Mart burn to the ground (hell, I’d bring sticks and organic, homemade marshmallows)*, if there is one nearby I will shop there once a month for the selective food items that benefit my family.
  • I will also start shopping at Costco when I find one reasonably close by.
  • Farmers’ markets will always be my go-to when I have access to them! The kids love them, and I appreciate that whatever town we are in, it’s something we seek out.

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In the kitchen at home.

  • I still like to experiment. And I still have trouble throwing away leftovers. But there are a few things I can do to keep myself in check. (1) I try to cook everything separately so creating leftovers and lunches is easy and versatile. Example? Instead of making up all the stir-fry in the pan, I keep the rice separate from the veggies from the sauce (James doesn’t like sauce on things right now anyways). The next day the rice makes it into a salad for lunch, the veggies make it into an omelet for dinner, and the sauce ends up somewhere else. (2) I embrace compost. I stop agonizing and I visualize beautiful soil. And then I throw the leftovers away. (3) If I even suspect there is too much stuff in the fridge I make “refrigerator soup” (this is where I simply combine the rice and veggies from above with a container of pre-made chicken stock) and freeze it.
  • James has become picky. See above re: sauce. I keep everything separate. I pander a little bit to the breakfast thing because I’m more concerned with him heading off to school with enough calories then heading off to bed with enough calories. And I load up his pbj sandwiches with sunflower seed butter (“sunbutter” — a necessity as there is a kid with a tree-nut allergy in his room). I throw frozen berries, nuts and seeds on his granola. In the afternoon I just set out cut veggies; if I don’t push it, odds are he’ll walk by and grab at least one. And then I close my eyes and sip my wine when he won’t eat anything I want him to at the dinner table.
  • Lytle has expanded her eating repertoire, but she’s hardly an adventurous or consistent eater. The earlier me would be horrified, but we start the day with multi-grain Heritage O’s in milk. She loves these, and the dual-texture combination stimulates her oral senses while she hones fine-motor skills chasing them around with her spoon (low muscle tone from Down syndrome + hippie food sensibilities = compromises! Another one? Eating in the bathtub to practice cup and spoon skills.). Smoothies are where I get in the nutrients. We do frozen fruit, milk, nut butters or nut meal (I throw almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds in a blender), flax meal, sometimes avocado and some banana. She drinks it down, thankfully, so the rest of the day I don’t have to worry if lunch is raisins and Annie’s cheddar bunnies eaten off the floor or dinner is (frozen) sweet potato fries and yogurt.

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Where won’t I compromise?

  • I minimize buying single-serving anything. Applesauce, yogurt, milk – I buy the large containers and spoon/pour them out into jars for lunches. I buy the large boxes of crackers and bulk dried fruit and put small quantities into re-usable bags.
  • The frozen stuff is ingredients-based, not meal-based. Lots of frozen vegetables and fruit for the most part, and some frozen seafood and frozen pasta such as cheese-filled tortellini.
  • I load up on meat and bread at the farmers’ market and then freeze it (a tip: slice the bread before you freeze it, and then you can toast individual slices at a time! Maybe that’s a no-brainer, but I felt really smart when I figured out I could be doing that).
  • The snacks I do buy are as plain as possible, no sandwich crackers with some kind of faux cheese spread. And I never buy cookies or candy or popsicles. Except for ice-cream, I regularly make all of our treats.
  • I buy organic when I can, especially for meat, dairy, and certain produce. I buy good oils and nut butters.
  • If it’s granola for breakfast, then I’ll do it my way. I buy the most basic granola I can, and then I add sunflower seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, chopped almonds and walnuts, chopped dark chocolate, and coconut.

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And what will I keep trying?

  • I will master some kind of homemade granola bar. Marge Granola’s Megan Gordon has posted a great looking recipe for seedy sesame almond squares on her blog, A Sweet Spoonful (full disclosure: she uses Stannard Farm maple syrup!).
  • I will figure out homemade fig newtons or some kind of dried-fruit cookie/bar.
  • I recently made “chicken nuggets” and they were a huge hit with the kids. Less so the fish nuggets:) I can learn to serve the traditional kid-friendly foods, I just intend to do it my way: buy whole fish or chicken, cut it into chunks, egg wash then bread crumbs/cornmeal/coconut, fried in coconut oil and finished in the oven.

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  • I will let go sometimes. This takes perpetual practice for me! A recent success? Ly just had her second birthday and one part of me wanted to whoop it up and have a party with Martha-style food and decorations (check out the party for her grand-daughter’s first birthday and then remind yourself that she probably has a personal staff of 10 and she doesn’t get up three times in the middle of the night because of said grand-daughter). But I reined myself in, took the kids and a friend of James’s to the Sensory Gym, and then got pizza for about seven of us. And when a friend offered to bring cupcakes I said thank you and I let her.

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I’ll probably kick myself later for saying this, but I think I’m over the hump. I have highs and lows, but I think I hit my food rock bottom last fall. Now I’m ready to move forward with goals that suit our values but are still realistic. Bring it on, 2016. I’m working on my mac and cheese recipe, with a side of frozen brussels sprouts.

*Lest you think I’m just being a tree-hugging, big-box-store-hating, over-educated stay-at-home mom, please read this article about what the Walton family donates to charity. And then grab a marshmallow stick.

 

 

 

 

 

Have Children Will Travel, Part III: Would I Do it Again?

Deciding to do it….

It’s 4:30 am as I start typing this post (note: I started this post three weeks ago). No, I have not been on a self-righteous New Year’s inspired binge of early morning rising…. I just have major jet lag. And two children with major jet lag.

It’s been not quite a year since we spent spring 2015 in Ethiopia, a trip that was wonderful and challenging. We have plans to go again this summer, but in the meantime it seemed right that we should just, you know, throw in another trip to East Africa complete with long flights and time changes. So this January we went to Tanzania.

Tanzania and the Serengeti have long loomed large in my imagination. In college I read No Hurry to Get Home, a collection of essays by Emily Hahn, a woman traveler from an era when women did not travel alone much and especially not to places like Lake Victoria and Dar es Salaam. She wrote of expats and gin and tonics in grand hotels, of heat and overland travel and the Indian Ocean. And then I watched Out of Africa with Meryl Streep (set in Kenya, but whatever, it’s only one country over). And then I heard the song Africa by Toto. And more recently Taylor Swift’s video of her song Wildest Dreams. Sufficient to say I’ve been awash in various pop culture versions of East Africa safari land for some time. So when Sanne, a work friend of Travis’, invited us to come and stay with his family at their home on the coffee plantation he manages near Moshi, Tanzania, I jumped at the chance.

Doing it….

And I am glad that I did. I have some precious memories and experiences. I think my jaw dropped slightly when I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro through jet-lagged and bleary eyes. Watching James and our friends’ little girls Sena and Luanna jump naked on a trampoline with palm trees all around, or play in a large cooler (yup, a “cool-box” as they call them makes a surprisingly good outdoor tub) under the African sky made me smile like a child. Nicolette’s food was an inspiration, and while we grated a huge box of coconut together I was re-inspired to get back to the heart of food. Homemade granola. Lamb stock. Fresh fruit juices every morning. Inspiring!

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When we made our way off the plantation, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between Tanzania and Ethiopia. I fell in love with the eco-lodge / farm we stayed at and vowed to make something similar one day at Stannard Farm (lacking, of course, the climbable avocado trees). I gazed in wonder at the stars of the southern hemisphere when I got out of our tent in the middle of the night to pee. My first sighting of a zebra in the wild took my breath away. And I might have shrieked (in a dignified way of course) when I saw my first giraffe. Baby baboons sliding down a tree at Arusha National Park made me giggle. James making his way through the park in Spiderman pajamas just made me shake my head. And the flock of flamingos flying low over a lake are seared in my memory.

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Yeah, we did it, but….

I love looking through these photos. But there are things that they don’t show. The hiking carrier that didn’t make it on safari because it got stuck at the Istanbul airport for an extra day. James pretty much refusing to eat anything but meat and yogurt. Lytle requiring nursing ALL the time. Subsequent spousal fight at 3:00am in a tent when she’s crying and I’m resisting (I worked so hard to wean her from nighttime nursings!). The look on my face when I learned I would be flying alone back to the states with the two kiddos (planning debacle outside of anyone’s control). The two hours spent waiting for our flight to Istanbul at 1:00am at the Kilimanjaro airport, exhorting James to lower his voice and chasing Lytle around to keep her from throwing her cheerios and then eating them off the floor. Me losing my voice on the flights back. Me spanking James in an airport bathroom (yes, he was warned three times, and no, I will not engage in a discussion about spanking in this particular post).

Some of these memories are tinged with the absurd and have become humorous. Midnight picnics of black licorice and cheerios while reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle out loud. James almost falling out of the safari jeep several times. James learning the dangers of army ants the hard way (okay, not humorous, but memorable and now army ants have become a villain of choice in his imaginary battles).

And yet. But. On the other hand. This trip was hard. Some hardness is unavoidable with travel, and is therefore worth it because the option of not traveling is not an option for us. But some of the hardness was certainly avoidable. And while I have what one friend termed an “adventurous spirit”, paired with an amazing capacity for travel amnesia, I reached my travel limits on this trip and baby, I took notes.

For future reference….

  • If you are in any kind of weaning process with a child, consider avoiding big trips. If you are thinking of starting weaning, delay until after a trip — newly weaned children are not really travel ready.
  • A trip to East Africa (read: any long trip) and its subsequent jet lag may not be worth it if you stay less than 3 weeks.
  • Avoid trips that result in 11 hour time differences until your children are old enough to be tired without catastrophically melting down. There are cool experiences closer to home.
  • And if the trip is just too good to pass up (and this one was!), discuss a plan of attack with your partner so there aren’t middle of the night spousal fights about dealing with said jet-lagged children.
  • Make sure your travel plans are clear and amenable to all before you depart.
  • Choose your infant mobility device wisely. James, and then Lytle, lived in our Ergo carrier on the Ethiopia trips. But this time I wanted our hiking carrier for two reasons: 1) it can contain Lytle even when I’m not wearing it/her so I could set her down at the airport without worrying that she’d wander onto a plane going to Amsterdam and 2) there was a chance we’d be hiking on safari. But, we had to gate-check the carrier because it was too big to carry-on, and then it made it to Tanzania a day and a half after we did. In retrospect I should have just brought the Ergo again. And strollers are not developing country friendly, even if super-useful at the airport. Some airports will actually have them for use!
  • And speaking of airports, some are simply better than others. I love the view of Istanbul flying in but oh I hate the airport itself, even if they do have huge quantities of Turkish Delight on hand. The Dubai airport is my favorite for kid-friendliness, there is an amazing kid hangout center with a movie on at all times, things to climb and jump on. They have strollers. Route through Dubai if you can.
  • And just as all airports are not created equal, all airlines are not created equal. My favorite for international travel with children? So far, it’s Emirates. Conveniently, they route through Dubai airport:)
  • If you have a lap infant, request a bassinet aisle on the airplane (there are now bassinets that, after take-off and before landing, can be bolted to the wall of certain aisles). We’ve had the luck or good planning on someone’s part to end up in bassinet aisles on many of our airplane rides. But it didn’t occur to me that you could actually request that when making your seat selections and special requests at ticket purchase time. If you want a bassinet aisle ask for one! I assumed I would have one on the 13.5 hours flight from Istanbul to San Francisco. You know what they say about assuming things. This is a memory that may not make it to the humorous stage.

Would I do it again?

Given the chance, would I do it again? Probably. I did say I have travel amnesia, right? I find it hard to pass up travel of any kind. And I remain devoted to the belief that it will serve my children well in the long-run, even when Ly cries her eyes out in a tent because I won’t nurse her, or James gets spanked in an airport bathroom. Lytle is starting to talk, and I am certain that the Dutch, Amharic, and Kiswahili that she has heard in her short life are somehow imprinted on her brain. And when James builds Mt. Kilimanjaro with his blocks, or tells me the army ants are coming and I have to jump up on the couch, my heart fills with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve had. So yes, I’ll take that next travel opportunity that comes my way. But I’ll look over my notes first.

 

A Dickens of a Christmas

This was a different kind of Christmas for us this year. Travis left for Ethiopia on December 26th so we decided to spend Christmas at home, far from family in Vermont or Seattle. Lucky for us some friends were also doing a Christmas at home. We had four kids running/crawling around Christmas dinner and a most inappropriate Cards Against Humanity game, all within a 5-minute drive from our house.

Now, our friend Thom is a cook after my own heart who glories in experimenting and is never daunted by any kitchen task. And apparently he has spent the last couple of holidays perfecting his Christmas goose. We had fun with our Christmas rabbit and chicken a couple of years ago, so of course we were game to go goosey.

In the days leading up to Christmas dinner it occurred to me that a goose is exactly what Bob Crachit’s family had for dinner in A Christmas Carol. Always on the lookout for a good theme, I decided to dive in with Thom and add to our Dickens dinner with a Christmas pudding. I’ve never seen one before, let alone made one, so I went into research mode.

Let’s start by discussing the term “pudding.” Google it, and you’ll pull up all kinds of interesting tidbits. For example: “Food historians generally agree the first puddings made by ancient cooks produced foods similar to sausages. 17th century English puddings were either savory or sweet and were typically boiled in special pudding bags. By the latter half of the 18th century traditional English puddings no longer included meat. 19th century puddings were still boiled but the finished product was more like cake. These puddings are still served at Christmas time. Modern steamed puddings descend from this tradition.” (http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpuddings.html)

One day I’d love to play with some sort of meat pudding, or a mincemeat pie, but that’s a project for the future, after I’ve mastered the art of steaming a pudding. And after my children are a) less picky or b) able to fend for themselves if they don’t want to eat what I’ve made.

So beef out, fruit in. I started with my trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook, always an excellent jumping-off point. She (not actually Fannie by now, this is the Marion Cunningham edition) briefly describes the process of steaming a pudding before including some recipes. Here are the salient points:

  • I could use suet, aka beef fat. This could be a nice compromise to not actually throwing some meat into the dessert. But where, in central Maine, do I find suet? I love me some Amazon (go Seattle!) but even I refuse to order beef fat off an internet mega-store.
  • Use a well-buttered mold or container, which must be tightly covered. Marion mentions a pudding mold lid or a double layer of foil tied with string. I could even use a coffee can with a plastic lid. Is it just me or is that the least appealing image ever, a lump of coffee-can-shaped pudding?
  • Boil gently. So, like, don’t get distracted by 5 year old boys that like to swear and 20 month old girls that like to play with toilet paper, wood ash, and empty beer bottles.
  • Use a sauce on top. Saucy!

I absorbed these basic points and moved on to the recipes themselves. Marion included a steamed chocolate pudding, an Ohio pudding, a fig pudding, a persimmon pudding, a sterling pudding, a Thanksgiving pudding, an English plum pudding and a cranberry pudding. Like the good student I am, I read them all. Hey, just cause I don’t follow recipes well doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy reading them. And they were fascinating. Who knew Christmas “pudding” is basically cake! Some had bread crumbs instead of flour and leavening. Some had white bread and scalded milk instead of flour and leavening. It’s apparent from reading these recipes that, once upon a time, these pudding-cakes were a means of using stale leftovers. Brilliant! A little of this, a pinch of that. Merry Christmas.

In the spirit of Christmas I went with Marion’s fig pudding recipe. I have to say, I LOVED making something that had a song to go with it: “Now bring us a figgy pudding, now bring us a figgy pudding….We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some….”.

I started water boiling in my lobster/beer pot. Travis used my soup pot to melt down beeswax for candles, pretty much ruining the interior. The lobster pot did seem like an overkill but I didn’t have a lot of options and I was already mid-way through Christmas morning.

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Fortunately, the recipe was basic and easy. Finely chopped apples and dried figs, flour, sugar, a bit of salt, baking soda, and allspice. Some eggs. Some milk. It ended up being incredibly stiff, just barely past a baking-powder bread dough or cookie dough. Definitely not pourable.

And while I stared at the dough and pondered adding a bit more milk, I realized that there were three points here telling me all was well. First, this was being boiled. How on earth would such a moisture-laden form of cooking actually cook something that was already filled with liquid? Second, a sauce is served on top. Why would you pour sauce over something really moist? Third, puddings can be wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth and aged, and aging something moist mostly leads to grossness and mold rather than complex flavor. So I figured all was well, and in an act of supreme self-restraint I did not tamper with the recipe.

Instead, I spooned the dough into the well-greased bundt pan (who actually owns a pudding mold or pudding bag?), then wrapped a piece of foil over the top and tucked it around the rim, then wrapped another piece of foil and secure it with yarn. I placed it on top of mason jar lids in the lobster pot, nearly burning the undersides of my upper arms. Then I tried for a gentle boil and walked away for 2.5 hours.

I almost burned myself again taking the “pudding mold” out of the pot. I held my breath as I unwrapped the foil….. perfection! I think. I’ve never seen a steamed figgy pudding before. But it smelled great. It had a nice bounce to it and was cooked perfectly through.

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I brought sauce supplies to our friends’ house and made up a basic custard sauce, again from Fannie Farmer.

We all agreed it was lovely, and when Figgy Pudding came up on an answer card when playing Cards Against Humanity it just seemed like fate agreed. It was a lovely Dickens of a Christmas.

 

 

 

Easy Like Sunday Morning

For two nights running, Lytle has woken up at least three times in the night. Bleary-eyed and cranky does not begin to describe how I started this Sunday morning. The only thing I could think to do was take a deep breath and settle into the kitchen.

I started the day with My Favorite Breakfast. Have you ever seen The Runaway Bride? No judgement either way, it’s enjoyable but not great. I did, however, love reporter Richard Gere’s assessment of Julia Roberts, aka the runaway bride. He observes that her egg preference is always the same as the guy that she is with. It’s a metaphor, see? Get it? Not especially deep, I know, but there’s something to be said for knowing your own egg preference. To know your favorite breakfast is to know yourself. And I knew that this morning, I needed homefries, pan-fried greens, toast with jam, and fried eggs. And tea. Lots and lots of caffeinated black tea.

Nothing brilliant here, but if these are some of your favorite breakfast items too, let me quickly run you through my process and we can compare notes.

  • Homefries. I like to parboil my potatoes until they are pierce-able with a knife then dice them up small to medium sized and fry them in olive oil. The trick is to give them time and to not overstir them. You also need a killer seasoned cast-iron skillet, or loads of olive oil, to prevent sticking while you refrain from stirring. Too much stirring and you don’t get a nice browned crust.

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  • Pan-fried greens. Collard greens are Travis’ favorite so we frequently have them on hand, but kale, chard, and beet greens all work as well. Cut out any tough stems, slice up the greens and fry them in a hot pan. I like to sizzle them in oil first, then throw in a bit of water so they steam up. Again, the seasoned cast-iron skillet is the tool of choice.

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  • Toast with jam. Good toast is key. Don’t skimp with some variation of Wonder Bread. It’s best if you can get a wood-fired style loaf that you slice yourself. This morning I got to have some of the cranberry date walnut bread I picked up at the farmers’ market this week. Yum. And don’t get me started on industry vs. small-batch jam. It’s Sunday, people, use the good stuff.

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  • Fried eggs. I use butter. I guess you could use something else. But why? You need, yep, a good skillet, and then enough butter that the eggs can slide just a bit to prevent any sticking. The flip is critical, but don’t overthink it or go to slow. And I like my yolk runny so I will usually turn off the pan after the flip and the cast-iron retains enough heat to cook the rest of the egg without overcooking.

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Throw in some tea, and I was well on my way to recovery. But it’s a grey Sunday. It’s Thanksgiving next week. My Christmas cookie gift plates are on my mind. So I went for it.

I started with almond blondies. I got these from Megan Gordon’s blog A Sweet Spoonful. She is one of our maple syrup customers in Seattle, maker of the delicious Marge Granola and she was blogging about tasty preggers treats. I figured anything good for preggo gals will be good for kids and I’d been looking for new school lunch treats.

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I tweaked her recipe due in part to preference (how can I not add maple syrup to something like this?) and in part to necessity (I somehow missed that I only had a little bit of almond butter left, so I supplemented with peanut butter). The taste is excellent, but I think I need to chop the roasted almonds much more finely – the chunks of almond make it hard for the bar to hold itself together. I suspect they will not hold up well in the school lunch but I think they taste so good that James will happily eat the crumbs.

Next I moved on to chocolate chunk cookies from the gorgeous Bouchon Bakery tome my sis got me for my birthday. I replaced the chunks with dark chocolate M&Ms. So not my usual thing but I’m freezing these for my Christmas cookie plate and I want James to be excited about helping. The M&Ms seemed to draw him in more than my suggestions for candied citrus peel or shortbread have so far. I know, you’re surprised too. Lytle enjoyed participating in dark chocolate quality control, so this was overall a good kid choice.

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Not exactly what I envision for a beautiful dessert option, but this is a super yummy cookie. I was a big fan of the dark brown sugar and small amount of molasses to darken things up a bit. Could become a staple cookie, but it may end up on a picnic blanket rather than a holiday plate.

Last, I worked on a recipe for biscuits that I’ve been meaning to try for ages, but it calls for lard and buttermilk and I rarely have both of those ingredients on hand. I actually dragged my sufficiently-caffeinated self to the grocery store for buttermilk. And M&Ms. And more eggnog, cause parenthood is all about passing on parts of one’s self, and I would be remiss if I did not pass along my eggnog addiction to James and Ly.

So buttermilk in hand, I dove into one of the biscuit recipes from The Gift of Southern Cooking. I did not have the soft Southern White Lily flour (made with an especially low-protein type of wheat) but I figured I could make do with a blend of cake flour and all-purpose flour.

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I was thrilled with these! Perfectly light, not too dense and crumbly, pulled apart just right. These will definitely appear on the Thanksgiving table.

So in the end I managed to pull off a decent Sunday. All thanks to a good start with a favorite breakfast. I suggest you do the same next time you’re a little bleary and cranky.

Falling Into Fall

This is my favorite time of year. I love the break in the heat and the humidity, the weight of the first wool blanket on the bed, the first fire in the wood-stove. And when I became a homeowner, the season found new meanings and responsibilities. The cleaning of the chimney. The clearing up of the garden and planting of bulbs. The sealing of the wood floors as everything dries out after summer. The stacking of the firewood. I always buy the Martha Stewart Living magazines this time of year, and I love reading Martha’s calendar. This year, this October, Martha is planting garlic on the 1st, packing away summer clothes in canvas storage bags on the 9th, cleaning terra-cotta planters and storing them indoors on the 15th, having the firewood stacked on the 23rd and then storing the outdoor furniture on the 27th and wrapping shrubs in burlap to protect them from winter wind on the 28th.

Even though I am not Martha and do not have the gorgeous houses and the bevy of grounds-keepers and staff, I still appreciate the gits of the seasons and changes.

This year has been a little different. I worked at a bakery for a few weeks in the late summer, getting elbow-deep into pies and scones, cakes and brownies. And a funny thing happened. I fell in love with pastry. It’s definitely a Romeo and Juliet love, very forbidden and based entirely on the seduction of the ingredients, the white flour and white sugar that I almost never use at home. At home, baking has usually been a) something fun to do with James and b) something utilitarian to do with those overripe bananas or limp carrots. It’s been fun but I’ve never taken it seriously. Until now. As pastry chef Sebastian Rouxel observes of his own love-fall: “Pastry intertwined science, craftsmanship, and precision in ways that made savory cooking seem almost primitive by comparison.” Yes! Combined with the desire to fire up the oven in the cool fall weather, and to dive into the apples and pumpkins of the season, I’m seriously smitten and excited.

Being at the bakery offered me a chance to improve my skills, which I would define as talented yet careless. I rarely followed recipes and hated to be precise in my measurements or practices, yet what I produced was always edible and tasty. But the repetition of crimping pie crust after quiche crust after pie crust after quiche crust made me appreciate the calm of focusing on small details and feeling the crust against my fingertips. The chance to screw up again and again (I won’t bore you with the details of Riva and the Berry Coffeecake, sufficient to say there is something ridiculously undignified in having a coffeecake for a nemesis) made me appreciate the value of following a recipe, or at least paying attention to it. And the opportunity to work alongside a skilled baker made me appreciate the need for good technique.

So here are some of my do’s and don’t’s for a successful fall of baking:

  • Don’t skimp on the finish. Brush butter on the scones. Sprinkle just a bit of coarse sugar on the muffins. Rub butter over your pie crust and then do an egg wash so the crust browns perfectly.

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  • Do utilize your freezer. Baking is not just about the oven. Most anything from the world of pastry can be frozen, and actually you want most things chilled anyways before baking. So if you make a huge batch of something you can put cookies all ready-to-bake in the freezer, or pie shells, or whatever. You can also make up a bunch of pumpkin pie filling and freeze it, or even fill up the crust and freeze the whole pie ready for the oven. That way you a) don’t waste anything and b) always have something ready to bake or thaw in the freezer in case of emergency. And if you can’t conceive of a cookie or pie emergency then something is probably wrong with you.

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  • Don’t just skim the recipe. Even if you’re not planning on following it, understand the process or what your process will be. I like to get everything organized and ready in various bowls and then read the recipe or my plan one last time to confirm that I have the order and technique down. This is especially useful when making something that is time-sensitive, like muffins that need to go into the oven shortly after the baking powder hits the liquid so you can get maximum loft (see, here’s the bit about technique!). If you spend time measuring everything out but then get distracted by a 5-year old, you can come back and quickly assemble and go.

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  • Read the recipe but don’t trust the recipe. Pay attention. Notice your fingertips. Get into the dough and see what it feels like. Stop thinking about your next email, about the laundry that needs to be folded, about watching the next episode of Outlander. Learn what dough feels like when it is too crumbly and dry, when it is too wet and and sticky, when it is actually perfect. Go slowly (except when you have to go fast) and notice the tiny details that end up having a large impact.

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  • Do remember that baking is as much about the oven as the ingredients. Especially because every oven temperature is slightly different, and because weather factors such as humidity make a difference, it’s important to not simply set the timer and call it good. One day at the bakery I undercooked two chocolate cakes, which ruined them as the leavening reaction can only happen the once. Learn to feel for when baked goods still have a jiggle, when the filling looks liquidy but will certainly set up. Practice using a bit of foil to cover the top and prevent browning while the inside cooks through.
  • Don’t be afraid to get fancy. I’ve always been intimidated by decorating cakes, by letting the appearance of something matter a lot. My friend Melissa gave me some tips and I’m slowly getting over my fear. It’s remarkable how a little leaf cookie-cutter can dress up a pie crust, or how a syrup glaze and dusting of confectioner’s sugar can improve a plain bundt cake. Let appearances matter and put a bit of yourself into your pastry.

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  • Do bake for everyone. In a consumer-driven world I think baking takes us back to the essence of seasonality and hospitality. Embrace it. Instead of giving someone a thing for a birthday gift, spend time making a small batch of ridiculously elaborate cookies. Rather than handing out Starbucks gift cards to friends or co-workers at the holidays, make several batches of excellent cookies and take a small paper plate to everyone chock full of labor and love. Bring a loaf of fresh bread to a new neighbor. There’s a reason “breaking bread” is a gesture of love and respect. In our house, we love to plan out our baking gifts. James and I are already preparing for our holiday treats!

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Whether you bake a pie, clean your gutters, or rake some leaves don’t forget to fall in love. Fall only comes once a year.

My Introduction to School Lunches (aka, what the f*&k is a fluffernutter?!)

James started an early childcare program this summer that we are, for convenience’s sake, calling preschool. My little boy is in school! Every time he drops a detail of his day, I get a bigger picture of who he is in the world, not just who he is in this home. It’s precious, it makes me smile, and I can’t get enough of his artwork and new songs.

But I’ll be honest, James started school in part because I needed him to. I’ve been running around like a crazy person getting us settled back into life in Maine. Travis has been swamped starting a new (and amazing!) summer program bringing college students to Ethiopia. And James and I were butting heads badly by the end of our Ethiopia Spring (“How badly?,” you ask. At one point I dumped a glass of water over his head, and then he picked up a broom and charged me). So despite being obsessed with my kitchen and with feeding my family, I had a rather laissez-faire approach to his food at preschool. In fact, I dropped him off without any on his first day. They gave him a snack, and then lunch, and then kindly explained to me that I needed to provide at least a snack for him and they would provide lunch if I did not. Cool. I shoved crackers into a snack bag, threw in a banana, and called it done.

But on the fourth day of his first week, I received a shock. Lunch that day included a sandwich with some kind of nut butter (sunflower seed butter, actually) and something white, sticky, and reminiscent of a s’more. Huh? Travis took one look at it and said, “No way. It’s a fluffernutter!” Well, you know what I said.

But before I go any farther, let me make something clear. I wholeheartedly support the school lunch program. Consider these points:

  • 10.22 million free school breakfasts are served each year
  • 19.2 million free school lunches are served each year
  • In the face of criticism for poor nutrition, the school lunch program has gotten a bit of a face lift — the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act changed the standards for breakfasts and lunches
  • And from a geeky, data perspective, school lunches are a quick and dirty proxy for poverty in schools. Want to know how many poor students go to a school? Figure out how many of them qualify for the free breakfasts and lunches.

Of course, supporting a program in theory is very different from supporting it in practice. And in practice, I don’t let my kids eat Marshmallow Fluff. Marshmallows belong on a stick over a fire during summer. But a) I don’t want to devote too much time to crafting the perfect kiddo snack and b) I don’t want my kid to be that kid with the carob-chip cookies. If you were one of those kids, sorry, but we all thought your food was weird. It has to be said. Because peers matter, and they (yes, the nefarious and all-knowing THEY) say that earlier on than we realize, peers matter more in decision-making than parents. So I want my kid to eat something resembling what the other kids eat, even if I’ve snuck ground flax seeds in somewhere.

Now, there are fantastic recipes out there already, so I knew I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Pick up any parenting magazine and you’ll find nothing but great, healthy, kid-friendly school lunch ideas. What I needed was to build those cool recipes into my day somehow. Here’s what we’ve been experimenting with so far:

  • Mini-pizzas. Huge success, and this will become a lunch staple.

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  • Muffins. My version of the carob chip cookie. Invariably this is one of my key methods for getting vegetables into James. I hate to say it, but Jessica Seinfeld stumbled onto something huge when she slipped butternut squash puree into her kids’ mac n’cheese.

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  • Chia-seed pudding. Varying success on this front so far, but it’s so dang easy and so power-packed that I’m determined to find a way to make it work.
  • Yogurt parfaits. Aside from my fear that he’ll get beaten up on the playground for eating a parfait (they need a new name! It’s the whole “crepe” vs. “skinny pancake” thing….ooh, I should make skinny pancakes for lunches, those would be a huge hit! I need a crepe iron. I mean a skinny pancake iron.), he gets a kick out of making these in the morning. All I need to do is make sure I have good fixings and clean jars.

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  • Chocolate milk. I was never a milk drinker growing up, but I started to drink more of it when I was pregnant with James, and now I actually enjoy milk from time to time. I had a chocolate milk revelation a couple of years ago at the Common Ground Fair here in Maine. Walking past the Misty Brook Farm booth, the chocolate milk just sounded so good on that hot day. I bought a pint, and sucked it down, reluctantly sharing with Travis and James. And oh, it was good. So good that I tried to buy more on my way out of the fair, but they had sold out. Horrors! Since then I’ve both driven half an hour to their farmstand to pick up chocolate milk (and, you know, eggs and vegetables) and I’ve experimented with making my own at home. Here’s what I’ve determined: unless you are stirring Hershey’s syrup or Quik into your milk, you will need to heat up the milk in a double-boiler, whisk in shaved bits of dark chocolate, sweeten to taste with maple syrup, and then put it in the fridge. Trust me, it’s worth it. It is the best tasting chocolate milk I’ve had, and when I send James off to school I know that a) he’s getting good fats, b) he’s not getting excess sugar, and c) he’s getting anti-oxidants from the good dark chocolate I used. And dude, it’s chocolate milk. He’s the cool kid when brings it.

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  • Juice. I love using the real deal cranberry juice, watered down with a bit of maple syrup to sweeten. I’ve also done this with blueberry juice and tart cherry juice. These are robust fruits, not to be trifled with. The Just Tart Cherry Juice by R.W. Knudsen has 8% of your daily recommended iron, 11% of your daily recommended potassium, and 2% of your daily recommended calcium in 8 oz. Not too shabby.

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  • Yogurt smoothie. Mostly I just mix this awesome blueberry yogurt we love from nearby farm The Milkhouse with their milk and some maple syrup. Live cultures, good fats, and not too sweet. Excellent.
  • PB&J. It’s a classic. But mine is made on wood-fired sourdough bread with cashew butter and organic strawberry jam. I don’t know if that makes me hippy, or crunch-granola, or yuppie. Regardless, James is a fan, and this is my go-to on fluffernutter day so he doesn’t wish he had what the other kids are eating.

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  • Bars. So far, I love these more than James. I’ve tried various Lara Bar – style bars chock full of pureed dates or figs, with chopped nuts and seeds. I’ve tried granola bars, even going to the grocery store to buy ingredients for Smitten Kitchen’s newest granola bar recipe for her son’s summer camp lunches (which turned out to be a bit crumbly, although very tasty). So far, to no avail. But I liked them, so hey, I’ll keep trying out recipes until I stumble onto something he likes.

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Now, we’ve had varying successes, and I’m looking forward to getting better and better at this. And it’s actually pretty fun, especially when he eats one of the preschool lunches and describes the mayo and “whole wheat” bread as yucky. I feel like my time in the kitchen is well-spent when my kid rejects the corn syruped mayo and the fake real bread. I don’t have aspirations for moving much beyond the above list, but I do hope to keep the ingredients good and fun. So going forward, here are The School Lunch Rules:

  • Involve James. When I make a lunch item a project, it does all kinds of great things. It makes James feel special – something in the kitchen is just for him! You wouldn’t believe how excited he gets when we buy something at the grocery store for his lunches. He also is more likely to eat something if he helps to make it. And last, doing it together is a way to spend quality time together while helping me cross something off my list.
  • Minimal ingredients, or minimal specificity. I don’t need fancy, and neither does James. Preferably, whatever I am making will help me use up some leftovers, or if there aren’t any leftovers it will only require a minimal amount of staples. And this goes back to one of my kitchen rules: start with great ingredients. Any school lunch will be decent if the basic ingredients are solid.
  • Cute food. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, investing in a school lunch bag that James likes, and using cute jars to hold things, and the fun re-usable sandwich bags in bright colors, makes lunch more fun and apparently more edible. Put another way, kids ALWAYS judge books by their covers. And it makes the whole minimal thing less obvious. Blueberries are delicious. A reusable decorated bag is cute. Blueberries in said cute bag are just begging to be eaten.

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  • Drink good calories. James loves his cute water bottle and it’s a great way to get additional good calories in. Chocolate milk, cranberry juice, blueberry yogurt smoothies. I worry a lot less that he didn’t eat his carrot sticks when I see that his water bottle is empty.
  • Trust my instincts. If you and your kid are picking out a chia seed pudding recipe for lunches and he tells you that the one with the tahini in it sounds delicious but you can’t put your finger on why it doesn’t seem like a good idea, go with your gut. You know your kid, and although our kids surprise us sometimes with what they eat, by and large they are predictable. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying new things out on them, just try them out at home a few times first before sending them off to school with it.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to not take this whole thing too seriously. Some days James asks if he can have one of their lunches and I sigh inside. Because I know that he wants the single-serving canned peaches, or the fig newtons, or the fluorescent orange crackers with the fake cheese spread. He doesn’t ask more than once a week, and I usually say Yes, except on Thursdays. That’s fluffernutter day.

Bringing Habasha Home

“Habasha” is what Ethiopians call themselves. I used the word a lot when I was there. Asking the price of something you can, with an eyebrow lift, ask if that is the Ferengi (foreigner) price or the Habasha price. Eating out you can ask for European food or Habasha food. Obviously the whole Habasha food thing is of great interest and importance to me. We’ve been home a month and I find myself missing the food tremendously. We ate out regularly, and with a 4 year old in tow we had our share of chips (french fries) and fish or chicken cutlet (fried fish or fried chicken). But Adina, our home help, cooked a Habasha lunch every day, and I almost always ordered Habasha food when we went out. But what is Habasha food? Here are some key points:

  • Injeera is the staple of Habasha food. It is basically a thin pancake made from a soured or fermented teff-flour batter. Teff is a tiny, hardy grain that grows well in the rocky soils of Ethiopia. Like millet, quinoa, or amaranth it is a tiny grain that requires a lot of labor to harvest. It has a slightly sweet or nutty flavor. It is not especially responsive to fertilizers or chemicals and it is fairly drought-resistant. It is, in short, a perfect grain for a developing country. Think of it as Monsanto’s nemesis. I also like to think of it as the honey badger of grain.
  • If Injeera is the carbohydrate base of Habasha food, accompanying all vegetable and meat dishes and being both a food and the silverware, Shiro is the protein base. Chickpeas are roasted, dried, and ground then mixed with the berberry spice blend into a powder. The powder is combined with tomatoes, onions, and oil into a thick, savory, spicy and satisfying sauce. Although some people in rural areas still make their own shiro powder, it is usually purchased and then sifted at home before using. Adequate shiro is easy to make. Good shiro is trickier and is oh-so-tasty.

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  • Tibs is the generic word for stew-sized pieces of meat, usually lamb or beef, and sometimes goat. The tibs can be cooked with onions and peppers and served “wet” in oil and cooking liquid, poured directly onto the injeera. It can fried and served over a charcoal brazier, “dry” with onions and peppers. Dry tibs are also called chekla tibs (spelling anyone?!) and are, hands-down, Travis’ favorite Habasha food.
  • Beyanetu (again, spelling?) is my favorite Habasha food. It means a mixture of things, and it is always a mixture of vegetable and legume things. This is fasting food, served on the two days a week that Orthodox Ethiopians do not eat meat. When Adina cooked at home she usually made me a beyanetu of beets, greens, and sometimes a cabbage and potato mix. Yum. Travis, in a sweet gesture, arranged a lunch for us all when we were sightseeing in Lalibela, and ordered beyanetu in advance. (This was a sweet gesture because it was May, the month following the Ethiopian Orthodox version of Lent when, post-fasting, a month of gluttony is allowed and no one anywhere fasts and/or eats vegetables. I couldn’t find beyanetu foods anywhere we went out to eat for the last month of our trip. Grrr.)

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The best part of living in Ethiopia was not just eating the food but learning to have it at home, to learn the Amharic words for the foods, to shop for it, and to cook it. On one of our last evenings in town I wanted to have doro wott. This is the national dish of Ethiopia – whatever that means, because Ethiopia of course has many regional cultures and peoples and food dishes. It’s like saying fried chicken, a predominantly Southern food, is the national dish of the U.S. Regardless, it’s delicious and I wanted it. This is not a dish to be taken lightly. Doro is chicken, and there is no such thing as going to the store to buy a pound of chicken breast. Asamen, our guard, went to the market and came home with two chickens (which I think he actually biked home carrying, but I didn’t see him come home so I’m not certain of this). While Adina hid around the corner of the house with her eyes covered Asamen cut their heads off. James and I watched, while my Mom sat there sewing up a hole in Jamie’s pants. I told her later I was quite impressed with her stoicism. Watching chickens get killed in the front yard is not high on most mother’s list of vacation items! Now, the killing is the man’s work. I mean this quite seriously; when I asked Adina what it would take to make this dish at home she laid it out for me and told me Asamen would kill them as it is men’s work. In an effort to be sensitive to their culture I (gratefully!) relinquished the role of chicken-killer. Once dead, the chickens became Adina’s domain. She skinned them, which was brilliant. Like a fool, I’d been wondering how she would pluck them without the aid of those cool chicken-spinners that basically de-feather a chicken for you. My mom, the kiddos and I ran out to pick up something else for dinner and when we came back Adina had started a fire in the front yard for cooking, using my huge doro wott pot. She cooked the onions, garlic, oil and berberry spice down for a long time, then cooked the chicken in that sauce. The chicken meat is taken out and served separately, and hard-boiled eggs are peeled and added to the sauce. All served with injeera, of course. Coolest dinner ever cooked in my home, hands down. DSCN5817_2DSCN5829_2DSCN5838DSCN5857_2

In an effort to bring some habasha home I tried to spend time in the kitchen with Adina. This didn’t go as well as planned, with two kids hanging on me. Even with grandparents around there didn’t seem to be a good way to do this. DSCN4747

But I did absorb some lessons, and I did think a lot about what habasha meant to me. Here’s what I decided to bring home:

  • Dial back the pantry items. Habasha food (and many cuisines of developing countries) revolve around a staple item or two that people eat every day. The staggering diversity of food here in the U.S. is overwhelming, and the clutter of beans and whatnot on my pantry shelves actively stresses me out. Michael Pollan named his book well when it called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some days it was lovely to just eat the injeera and shiro – to enjoy good food without over-thinking it. Focusing on a few key items to build our pantry around at home will be a fun and worthwhile experiment*.
  • Shop more, eat fresh! Adina or I went shopping for food items almost every day. Here at home I sort of do this already, so I’m just making it a priority to keep it up.
  • Drink your dessert. Ethiopians pretty much drink a bit of tea with their sugar, and while I have never gone that far, I have started putting some sugar in my tea. It brings out more of the flavor in the tea and it makes the tea feel a bit more like a treat. I find I am satisfied with a bit of sweet tea after a meal and I’m less inclined to reach for dessert. Less inclined. Not uninclined.
  • Oil is a food group. Ethiopians use ridiculous quantities of oil in their cooking, and this makes a lot of sense in a culture where calories were regularly scarce**.  I brought 32 oz of coconut oil with me to Ethiopia and Adina killed it in about two weeks. Yikes. (And delicious). My plan is to continue using oil as a food group, but to genuinely treat it as a food group. I just have salad fixings for dinner? Make up a lovely and calorie-dense vinaigrette to go on it. There’s a rice salad on the table full of oil? Just have a small portion of it, and scale back everything else on your plate. Celebrate oil!
  • Leave some things to the experts. Almost every day we bought fresh injeera. Adina could certainly have gone to the trouble of making it at home, but the fermenting takes time and space, you need to build a fire and have the right kind of pan to really do it properly. The fresh injeera we bought tasted so good, and supported a local family business. At home, I take on project after project in the kitchen. But I have two kids, a home, a farm business, a rental business, another part-time job… and sometimes, my bread doesn’t rise and my jam doesn’t set. It’s okay to let the experts do these things sometimes.
  • Food should be a ceremony. Coffee ceremonies are a quintessential Ethiopian treatment of coffee. Starbucks has nothing on them. Especially in rural areas, if someone drops by you stop what you are doing. You get the charcoal going. You roast green coffee beans. You grind them yourself. You boil water. You pour it over the coffee and let it steep almost like tea while you burn incense, and then you pour it around. In cities, most restaurants feature a coffee ceremony corner and they offer coffee after lunch or dinner. Most hotels offer a coffee service of some kind. Traditionally, everyone gets three cups, all brewed from the same grounds so it gets progressively weaker (a relief really – despite being from Seattle I have a low caffeine tolerance). I love this ritual. I need to cultivate more of this in my life.

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At it’s core, I take eating habasha to be all about community. You eat with your hands (right hand, specifically). You share a platter with your fellow meal-takers. When someone comes by, you drop what you are doing and take a moment to have a ritual and share a cup of something. These are things I can get behind. Let the summer of habasha at home begin!

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*Here are my bulk pantry items that I will be focusing on:

  • Raisins
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa or millet, rotate-able
  • Lentils or peas, rotate-able
  • Beans – two kinds only, rotate-able
  • Dates – mostly for baking/cocoa-nut-snacks

I do not need tri-colored quinoa, attractive though it is. I do not need four kinds of beans and two kinds of rice. I do not need three different kinds of dried fruit. I do not need amaranth AND millet AND quinoa. If anyone wants to comment on this list, add to it or suggest I remove/replace/whatever, feel free!

**Ethiopia had a famine as recently as 2008. The famine before it, in the years 1983-1984, was the worst seen in a century with over 400,000 deaths. Let’s not discuss in detail here the causes of the famines, sufficient to say that government policies had as much to do with it as drought. Indeed, food insecurity is a better term than “scarcity”. Whether it is called scarcity or insecurity, both the reliance on a grain like teff and the use of oil as a food group make a lot of sense.