Thursday, October 3, 2013

Corn and potato chowdah

I love soups, especially in the fall when it starts getting cold and dark in the evenings.  I love all kinds of soups, but I think I have a special place in my heart for a nice chowder.  In general, I like to keep my soups vegan, unless the directions specifically call for meat or dairy, with the exception of sour cream.  I love sour cream, and I think a dollop on top of a warm, comforting bowl of soup makes a good thing just that much more fantastic!

I recently saw some pictures of corn chowder and corn bisque and I wanted to try to make one, but I didn't like any of the recipes I found for one reason or another.  So I made up my own, and I thought it turned out really nice.  It is a nice chunky chowder rather than a smooth creamy bisque, but maybe I'll work on the bisque next time.

Corn and Potato Chowder

8 ears fresh corn on the cob (frozen corn would be fine, but I don't know exactly how much)
2 pounds red potatoes
1 large white onion
Olive oil or butter
Vegetable boullion cubes

1. Put corn in large pot, cover with salted water, and boil 5-6 minutes.  Drain, reserving cooking water.  Cut kernels from the cobs using a sharp knife.

2. Chop onion.  Chop potatoes into about 1/2-inch pieces.  In a large pot, saute onion in the olive oil or butter over low heat until starting to caramelize.  Add about 8 cups of the corn cooking water and enough vegetable boullion cubes for 4 cups of broth (so essentially you'll have the equivalent of 4 cups broth and 4 cups water).  Add about 2/3 of the chopped potatoes, bring to a boil, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

3. After 15 minutes, add 2/3 of the corn kernels, and continue to simmer for the remaining 5 minutes.  Using an immersion blender or food processor, puree the soup.

4. Add the rest of the potatoes and simmer until tender, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the rest of the corn.  Adjust the salt, and serve with sour cream (optional).

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cooking with kids - Butternut Squash Gnocchi alla Romana

I had half of a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin left in my fridge, and I needed a recipe.  Flipping through one of my Italian cookbooks, I came across a recipe for Gnocchi alla Romana, a recipe I love but is a bit low on nutrition, and thought - hey!  I bet I can find a recipe for Gnocchi alla Romana made with winter squash.  And find it I did.  So I decided to make it for dinner tonight.

Here is the basic recipe that I used, and I didn't make any major changes.  My best idea was to involve the kids, which probably would have been even more successful if Tadpole weren't sick.  Poor little baby.  She keeps getting fevers, and it's starting to worry me.

I cut my pumpkin into thin slices, scooped out the seeds, brushed it with olive oil and popped it into the oven on a baking sheet.  Then I went to do our naptime routine, which took longer than I thought, so my pumpkin slices got a little burned and I had to salvage what I could, which turned out to be just enough.  In the future, if I were short on time, I would consider either using canned pumpkin or frozen butternut squash chunks which I would then roast.  I know my food co-op sometimes has roasted squash in the hot food bar, too, which would be a nice short-cut.

At that point, Turtle woke up, so he helped me.  He is a big helper in the kitchen.  We put the squash in the blender with some of the milk from the recipe (this type of pumpkin seems to be stringy, so I hesitated to put it in the gnocchi without blending it first), and I let him push the buttons to blend it.  Then, following the recipe, we heated the milk, water, salt, and pumpkin in a pot on the stove, gradually added the semolina flour, and whisked until it thickened, which happened almost immediately.

During this process, Turtle put his hand on the stove, and started screaming.  I don't think he actually burned himself (if you look at his hand now, you can't tell that he touched anything hot), but I'm guessing it was still hot enough to be painful.  He actually said "the stove is hot!" as he was putting his hand down, much too quickly for me to stop him.  I hope it's a lesson learned - usually he's really good around the stove and listens to me when I warn him that something is hot.

I found the gnocchi mixture cooked much faster than the recipe claimed, so after only about 5-10 minutes, I pressed it out onto parchment-paper-covered baking sheets and they went into the fridge for about an hour. We pulled them out and then got busy with ... cookie cutters!

Typically, you cut this "dough" into rounds, but I decided to get creative.  It really is much like working with playdough for the kids, and I figured it would be fun for them to eat, as well.

Turtle was really into it, so it was really hard to take pictures because I had to keep putting the camera down to help him.  He wasn't willing to pause for the photographer.  He also started eating the scraps leftover from around the shapes he was cutting out, so I knew he was going to like the finished product.

Two quiche plates full of cars, trains, and animals, ready for butter and parmesan.

Here's the finished dish, with the melted parmesan on top.  I didn't take a picture of the adult version I made, but it included a drizzle of brown butter with sauteed sage from our garden, added before they went into the oven.  It was delicious.  I highly recommend this recipe, especially if served with a side dish of veggies (we had a salad) for a more well-rounded meal!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Photos - our daily lives

Here are some photos of our fun week!

Having lunch on the patio at the co-op.

Say cheese!  Visiting PetCo, one of our favorite shops in town.

Tadpole talks to the fishies at High Hand Nursery in Loomis.

Hanging out on this cool bench at the Davis train station.

Climbing on rocks at the train station.

Playing with their lovies in our backyard.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Summer Garden!

 After hours and hours of work and driving all over town to find the seedlings I wanted, I have my summer garden almost completely in.  I had to dig up all the beds, work some compost into our chunky clay soil, reset the watering system, and plant the seedlings.  Since I have four large beds and one small one, it took a good long while.  But it's almost done and it looks great!

Here's the diagram, and then I'll list the varieties with the photos below:
Top left, we have spinach (I forget the variety), peas (Progress No. 9), carrots (rainbow blend), two types of green beans (yard-long pole beans and blue lake bush beans), Beit Alpha Persian cucumber and spicy basil.  The spinach will be done soon, and then I plan to put a Juliet tomato there.

Top right is the tomato bed - last year it was top left, but I'm trying to rotate it among the two top beds, which get more sun that the two bottom ones due to neighboring trees.  Here are the heirloom varieties I'm trying this year: Evan's Purple Pear, Indigo Apple, Brad's Black Heart, Costoluto Genovese, Golden Jubilee, Porkchop, Heirloom Pineapple, Lush Queen, Sun Gold (not an heirloom), and Yellow Pear.  I've got three cherry varieties this year because they were such a big hit with the kids last year.  I couldn't find romas (!!!) for canning, so I've got 15 Healthkick and 9 Phoenix.

Bottom right, we still have a row of leeks from last summer, but they'll be coming out soon!  Then we have 18 red Better Belle II pepper plants.  In the center of this bed, a grey zucchini, one of my favorite varieties that you generally can't find at the grocery store or farmer's market.  I'll buy green and yellow ones from the market rather than growing them.  I planted two eggplants this year - should be just enough for eggplant parmesan, one of the few dishes I make with eggplant.  I picked the typical black beauty variety, plus one called Traviata.  If I find a rosa bianca variety, I may add another one, but I'm running out of space ...  Up in the corner, we have sweet basil, perfect for pesto.

In the middle, I have a small round bed with four poles that form a teepee.  I've planted the same yard-long pole beans at the base of each, with the plan to train the vines on strings that I'll tie horizontally to make "walls", leaving one side open for a door, so the kids can go hide in there.  At the moment, though, I've got lettuce growing in the middle and French breakfast radishes and two types of carrots growing around the edges.

And last, the lower left bed.  This one is a bit of a pain.  It has poor drainage, is in the lowest part of the garden, and gets the least afternoon sun, so it tends to stay damp, especially in the lower left corner of that bed.  The current tentative plan is to try growing some strawberries there (I know it's not an ideal location, but the kids picked them out, so I'm willing to give it a shot) and maybe some other less sun-friendly plants (heat-resistant lettuce?).  And on one side, I'd like to put in a sandbox for the kids.  Which will either be a lot of work, a lot of money, or both.  But it would have been SO helpful while I was busy doing all that digging and planting and watering.  I think it would still be useful as I keep caring for the garden with weeding, watering, and eventually harvesting, so I still hope to do it, and sooner rather than later (it's still more than 2 months until their birthday, so I don't know if it would be a birthday gift).  I may start trying to dig it out today!

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Twin bilingualism

We are a multilingual family.  My husband is a native of Italy, and I am a native of California, and both of us speak English, Italian, and a good deal of French.  There are also two dialects in my husband's hometown, one of which he understands well (the Occitan language), and the other he understands perfectly and can also speak (the Piedmontese language).  I can understand bits of Piemontese, too, since it sounds like a mix of French and Italian, and can pick up a word or to of Occitan, but very little.

We speak English to each other, primarily because when we met I was not fluent in Italian and we've always lived in the US.  When the kids were getting close to speaking age, we were in Italy and I had become pretty fluent, so I got accustomed to speaking to them in Italian.  After seeing so many of our other bilingual friends' children refuse to speak their second language as they grew older, we decided we would try to only speak Italian with our kids.  And so far it's been a great success.  So great that they barely speak English at all, which is a totally unintended consequence of our actions.

I assumed that the moment they started preschool, they would be immersed in English and soon thereafter would start speaking English as their primary language outside the home.  I didn't take into account that, in addition to our many Italian-speaking friends, they also have each other to speak to constantly, even at school.  So they've been going to preschool 2-4 days per week since last July (not to mention weekly gymnastics class and playgroups) and are only now starting to speak some English.  Now, as in, last week.

It's pretty cool, hearing English phrases spontaneously pop out of their mouths.  And it's tempting, to me, to switch to speaking English with them.  I am fluent in Italian, but I do not speak like a native and my grammar is not anywhere near perfect.  I can't formulate really complex sentences, and my vocabulary is not bad, but it's very limited.  I know that my time speaking Italian with them is limited, and I am torn between wanting to be able to express myself better and teach them my own native language, and trying to preserve their Italian as long as possible, in the hopes it won't be lost.  I think we're lucky that with them being twins, they'll definitely maintain their Italian better than the other kids I've seen, since for the moment they still speak it with each other.  It's been an interesting experiment, and I hope we've done right by them.  I'm looking forward to seeing how they grow and learn even more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

(not so) still life

Since I have been lacking in posting, I want to try to catch up with some photos of life in general lately.  These give a pretty good snapshot of our family life.

This is the park near our house, which was recently damaged in a big windstorm, unfortunately.  It lost a huge shade tree, which I assume is what fell on the playground and damaged it.  The kids have loved climbing through this tunnel since they were really little.

Here they are on the slide, along with a good friend we hang out with a lot.  My two are wearing fleece hats that I made for them!

This is a different day, walking to the same park.  Tadpole has her favorite stuffed money snuggled under a blanket in her push-cart.

This photo is the train tracks behind our local food co-op, where we do the majority of our food shopping. The kids were totally fascinated by this machinery that was (and still is, I think) sitting on the tracks.

Sitting at the counter eating store-baked cookies at the co-op.  Yum.

The co-op has an awesome kids area with books and refillable washable markers for coloring, along with educational worksheets to color.  My kids have always loved this area, and it's a great place for them to hang out while I'm waiting in line or paying.

Another picture taken at the co-op, this time outside on the patio.  They now carry local Straus creamery soft-serve ice cream!  Unfortunately, the only flavor available that day was chocolate, and since brown is not either yellow or pink (the color requirements for my kids for ice cream), we went inside to pick some single servings from the freezer.  We often eat lunch here, and usually sit outside on the patio.  I grab this table whenever I can, since the kids are fascinated by the vegetable mosaic.  On this particular day, we rode our bikes, and Tadpole is so attached to her new bike helmet that she doesn't like to take it off once she's put it on for the day.

This is another picture that represents a great memory for me of my children's childhood.  On weekend mornings, we often leave the house early, before Papi gets up, and go downtown to have a bagel at our local bagel place, Posh bagels.  We bring some toys, and the kids are usually happy to munch and play for a long time.  They love bagels - I usually get whole wheat with plain cream cheese.  I really enjoy these quiet early mornings with my two favorite munchkins.  In the summer, we sometimes take our bagels out to one of the nearby fountains or plazas to enjoy the morning sunshine.

And there are three places that really define our daily lives here, places that make me happy and feel very much a part of our community.  Other places include the library, our Farmer's Market, our local baby shop (which my kids are quickly growing out of), our hardware and garden stores, and in the summer, our public pools.  Not to mention several other nearby playgrounds.  Our town is a really great place to raise kids, and I love living here.  I try to appreciate what we have here every day, and I feel blessed.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nut Tree!!!!

I find myself not posting because I have too much to say.  And when I try, my posts get too long.  So I'm just going to jump in as if I never left, and start with a post about the really fun day we had on Tuesday at the Nut Tree in Vacaville with my mom.  Because it was really, really fun.  We started with a lunch of pasta, which was honestly not that great, but then the kids noticed the big play area, and boy, did the fun start then!

As always, Tadpole's favorite thing ever was the carousel.  We have many carousels in our area that have multiple animals, but both kids always want to ride the horses.  How do they know that's the traditional carousel animal?  I have no idea.  Since there were not two horses near each other, and I was the only adult to ride with them, I talked Tadpole into riding a frog instead, which was easy since she LOVES frogs.  Why?  I have no idea.

Next was the train.  It was what caught the attention of the kids first, but it runs every fifteen minutes, so we had a bit of a wait until the next trip, which is why we did the carousel first.  While Tadpole could ride the carousel all day, Turtle would rather spend the whole day on the train.  Preferably in a red car, since red is his favorite color.  Which is a bit of a pain in life in general, since boy stuff is always blue, but we do our best.  Here is Turtle, SUPER excited about the train ride.

After all the fun, we had to end with a trip to Fenton's for ice cream.  They really have THE best ice cream and toppings in our area, so delicious.  And huge.  Turtle is eating a child's sundae in the photo below.  He LOVES ice cream.  He loves sweets in general.  Tadpole was cranky and insisted she didn't want ice cream, then changed her mind when she saw Turtle's sundae, and he very sweetly offered her some of his, which surprised me.  He's normally pretty possessive of his desserts.  He always gets "yellow" ice cream, and Tadpole always gets "pink".  They care more about the color than the flavor.

And that was our fun trip to the Nut Tree.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


We've been back in Davis for a just under a week, and it's so nice to be back.  The trip home was uneventful, in the sense that the kids behaved, the flights were smooth and on time, and there were no national strikes or natural disasters.  I did not fare well, however, which is fairly typical for me, since I generally can't sleep on planes and 22 hours is a long time to stay awake while eating crappy food, not drinking enough water, and having to constantly monitor two munchkins.  Halfway through our longer flight from Munich to San Francisco, I developed searing headache that didn't go away until several hours after we got home.  That was followed by about 5 days and nights of jetlag that our kids just couldn't seem to adjust to.  It was rough.  I was in a complete daze, and didn't manage to unpack until yesterday.

Now things are nice.  The kids are happy to be home and have their old toys back.  I am happy to be home and have my garden and my house back.  I spent today out with the kids running errands, and worked in the garden while they slept, then went for a run and had a nice shower.  We cooked a yummy dinner.  Now I should probably be cleaning litterboxes and picking up toys and folding laundry and sorting mail, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Yesterday we went to the library, after two months of not having access to one.

Everyone was thrilled.  Turtle begged for Thomas the Train books, since he remembered that we used to get them there, and we had to have a librarian go dig some up for us, since another mom had taken all the ones available on the shelf.  We also got a few Richard Scarry and Berenstein Bears books, our other new favorites.

Today I worked in the garden, and it was sunny and glorious and awesome.  Even if it's too early to plant much, I'm taking advantage of my enthusiasm and trying to get as much done as possible before I run out of steam.  I planted some lettuce under our beanpole teepee, which will get some super-long climbing green beans later in the spring.

This is where the tomatoes were, which I pulled out today.  I should have waited to take the pictures until AFTER I leveled this plot and planted a few spinach plants in the corner, but oh well.

And here are some of the leeks I planted last spring.  They didn't do much last summer, but they look great now!

I also have some bush shelling peas germinating on the counter, and I prepped some 6-packs to start more lettuce in, but then the kids woke up from their nap, so that will wait until tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning we will go visit our Montessori preschool for a while.  I'm super nervous about leaving the kids there since they've become MUCH more attached to me.  While they've never been the type to run away from me without looking back, they have become much more nervous about letting me out of their sight.  Possibly two transatlantic flights plus two months in a foreign country away from their home and schedule will do that to a two-year-old.  Sigh.  Poor babies.

Tomorrow is another day, though - more housework, more gardening, definitely not more running just yet!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Winter turns to spring

It's technically not that close to the end of winter, we still have over a month to go (I guess that means that we're only a little over halfway through), but I really love the tail end of winter.  Here in the mountains in Italy, we have longer days with more sunshine, which for a Californian like me is really important.  Late winter and early spring skiing are really nice, with days that are often warm enough for cross-country in just a long-sleeve shirt.

Yesterday we drove to Pra-Loup in France for a full day of downhill skiing, something we don't get to do much of since our little ones arrived.  It was a beautiful day, cold enough for the snow to stay nice and solid, but not so cold that you suffer from it.  Lunch on a sunny deck halfway up the mountain was a special treat, as were the excellently groomed runs.  Driving home involved a climb up a windy road to the Colle della Maddalena, with a 360 view of the snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the late afternoon sun, and as I admired the landscape, I thought with a bit of sadness about our impending return to California.  Even with all the fun and activities that await us, one of the big things I will miss here is the view, the mountains, the fresh air and wilderness just outside our door.

We have been here for two months, and I am ready to go home.  I'm ready to start planting some seeds for my garden, growing some lettuce for fresh salads, shopping at the local Farmer's Market, having lunch at the co-op, baking bread, running and hiking and maybe even some skiing up in the Sierras.  We'll see what the future holds, but mostly I'm looking forward to spring.  To the first Easter that my kids will really understand the idea of hunting Easter eggs.  To really getting out in nature with them, checking out flowers, planting seeds, watering the garden, digging in the dirt, and running in the grass.  To longer days, sunshine, and eventually short sleeves and sandals.  To the Whole Earth Festival!  To throwing open the windows, and cleaning and organizing my house (thanks pinterest!).  It's going to be a good spring, I can feel it.

And I know that before I get there, I've got to say good-bye to everyone here, pack up our bags, and transport our whole family including two toddlers from Italy to California - two flights, two car trips, one layover, two trips through security, immigration, and customs ... I'm a bit tired just thinking about it.

Perhaps it's best to think instead of the very short term - a lovely family lunch tomorrow at Gli Allemands, where my in-laws have a vacation home on a wooded mountainside a couple miles outside of town.  It looks like it's going to be a beautiful day, and for that I am thankful.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Life and death in a small town in the Italian Alps

This morning was beautiful.  Now that we are halfway through February, the sun climbs above the mountains by 9:30 in the morning, and the sky was clear and blue.  After playing inside for a while, Tadpole, Turtle, and I bundled up and walked across the plaza and into the heart of the village to the panetteria to get our typical mid-morning snack of focaccia from the local baker.  Tadpole is completely addicted to this focaccia - I have to remember to go buy a few slices the morning we leave so she can eat them on the plane.

My father-in-law joined us on our walk, and we rounded the corner and headed up to the ancient stone church to fulfill Turtle's regular request to see the bell tower.  We walked hand-in-hand up the cobblestone streets, pausing in one lane to greet a 3-year-old friend on her way to preschool with her grandmother.  Near the top of the hill, a thin coating of ice and snow still covered the street, leftover from the storm we had on Monday.

We turned left and made the final ascent to the church, which is tucked inside the stone wall of the town, very near the highest point in town.  We admired the bell tower, checked out the thick ice sculptures created by the rushing water of the fountain, and exclaimed over the length of the icicles hanging from the walls of the fort (they were impressively long).  Since we were there at 10:30, we thought there was no chance to hear the bells ring for at least a half hour, but it turned out we were wrong.  An ancient woman was making her way to the church, and told my father-in-law, in the local dialect, that she was on her way to have the bells ring to signify the birth of a new child in town.

The bells of the church here have three different chimes that signify the passing of time, in cycles both small and large.  The small cycle is the hourly one - the bells chime out the hours around the clock, and also toll for a while at 7am (I'm not sure if this is a call to services ...).  Then there is a certain type of ring for births, and another for deaths, tolling the cycles of time on the scale of a human life.  This town has a retirement home, which has residents from all over the valley, particularly from the upper valley which has towns much less populated and no resources for the very ancient.  And many of the young people have left this place to look for work and opportunities for their families, so the average age here, I suspect, is quite high.

Since we've arrived, two months ago, there have been at least 5 or 6 funerals, and probably more that I wasn't aware of.  One of the funerals was for the mother of the baker whose bakery we visited this morning, as we do most mornings.  I often don't know the people who pass away while we are here, or I know of them only because I know some distant relative who is a friend or relative of my husband.  I didn't go to the funeral, but I happened to come upon the funeral procession as I was coming home from one of my regular walks in the mountains above the town.

Funerals here are very different from anything I've experienced in the US, although I know that part of it is because this is a small town and everyone knows everyone else.  Since this woman was one of the people who run the town bakery, she was very well known, and people came from all over for her funeral.  I'm not sure I've ever seen such a big gathering of people in this town before.  After the funeral, which is held at the town church we walked to this morning, the people form a procession and accompany the hearse down to the cemetery, which is located at one of the lowest points in town, not far from the river that snakes along the bottom of this valley.  There was a policewoman who stopped traffic on the main state road between Italy and France, and the bells of the church tolled.

At the time (this was a couple weeks ago), I thought about how perhaps in some ways this ceremony could make death less scary and easier to accept.  To know that at the end of your life, everyone you knew would show up for your funeral and accompany you through your hometown to your final resting place, within the walls of the place you thought of as home for most of your life, and to know you would remain there, most likely with all the people you knew in life - somehow it made death feel less lonely to me.

And then today, I realized that the same woman probably had those very same church bells ring when she was born some 70 years ago.  That those bells rang for my husband when he was born, and I think also for my children (thanks to my mother-in-law) when they were born two and a half years ago.  I thought about how I have nothing like that - no ties to any place on earth.  My mom is from Pennsylvania, my dad from Kentucky, and I don't even know if their parents were from the same towns they were from.  I grew up in one town in California, then we moved to another, and then I went to two different universities and have never felt connected to anyplace.  What an amazing thing to have an entire community so tied together, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, but still human in scale.

I am not completely ignorant, though.  I know that there are down sides to living in a town like this, and I've experienced them this winter.  It can be lonely here, and the winters are cold and dark.  There is little work to be found here, and people are leaving, the population is gradually dwindling.  The shops and cafes and restaurants are closing, there are very few left, and as a result, there is not much to do here.

But hearing the church bells ring, today for a birth, several times over the last few months for deaths, helped me realize that there is something here worth having, as well.  Seeing my children surrounded by a huge extended family that dotes on them, hearing the entire town greet them by name when they are downstairs in my in-laws' shop, makes me wonder if we are giving up something that is more valuable than we are gaining, when we leave our families and our hometowns in the name of opportunity and independence.  It's hard for me to say, really, not having grown up in a place like this.  Still, I think it's some good food for thought.

(P.S. I'm sorry I don't have pictures, if I can I'll try to add some later.)