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Last weekend, Kiddo #2 helped me make dinner. She was helpful and engaged. She stirred the sauce, poured and mixed ingredients and pressed up right.next.to.me. while I chopped and diced. I did my best to breathe deeply, let her have fun and not micro manage her when she sploshed sauce over the side of the sauce pan. She did great, and I twitched a lot, forced myself to refrain from making snappy comments and just let her be a part of my kitchen.

I am trying to cultivate more patience with my kids when they help me cook. I wish I didn’t care when floors and clothes got wet, or dirty or covered in paint or tomato sauce, but the wiring in my brain that gives me the patience to be crafty and focused with children is faulty. I have a tendency to short circuit and get bossy easily and say things like, “give me that,” and “let me do it.” I like my cupcakes to look pretty instead of smooshed, I hate picking up bits of paper and glitter off the floor, and I don’t like cleaning paint or glue off my or my kids’ fingers. I avoid most art projects that involve moisture and colors that stain and schedule activities that don’t involve scrubbing hands and faces afterward.

My aversion to messes doesn’t spill over into other areas of the house. I don’t seem to have a problem with piles of papers or clothes. I am not even all that bothered by clutter although I am definitely neater now that we have kids. But I can’t seem to handle wet gloppy kid messes. Even as a kid I didn’t like getting my hands sticky, though I did love to play with flour. I love how soft and cool flour feels while sifting through my fingers–until it turns into a wet gummy paste and then flour is quickly added to the icky list.

I want to let the kids slop on the frosting when decorating cupcakes and not feel my body tense up when they accidentally dump glittery sprinkles onto the floor. My kids have aprons they can wear, and I have a powerful vacuum and a Costco supply of sponges. We spend a lot of time in our kitchen, so I need to be able to teach my kids to cook while refraining from snatching items from their hands when they threaten to pour the entire contents into a dish. How bad could three extra tablespoons of oregano be in a pasta sauce? Apparently, we won’t be finding out because no matter how hard I try to contain my mild obsessive compulsive perfectionist tendencies, I end up hovering over my children, futzing and clucking while I attempt to keep spills to a minimum.

Scott has much more patience with the kids in the kitchen than I. I could leave the impromptu kiddo kitchen classes to him, but that just feels like I am giving up on my kids and myself. I don’t want to miss out on helping them grow up around the chopping block and stove. It would be easier to shoo my kids out of the kitchen and cook by myself instead of slowing down and taking the time to teach them how to chop vegetables and create meals. With limited time to wedge chores, fun, classes, homework, baths, sports and dinner into an already packed evening or weekend, I find it hard to slow my brain down to the speed of my five-year-old. I like to be quick, precise, efficient and focused when attempting to get a meal on the table in under 30 minutes. That said, it isn’t fair of me to deny them the opportunity to experience cooking and make mistakes in the kitchen.

Despite my desire to cook by myself last weekend, I worked really hard at maintaining patience so Kiddo #2 could enjoy herself and feel welcomed. I had to quietly tell myself to slow down a few times, which definitely helped me keep focused on her experience and remain calm. I had to remind myself that a spill can be wiped up easily and hands are super easy to rinse off. And even a less than tasty meal is only a minor inconvenience. I am trying to keep my kids’ kitchen failures in perspective. I expect as my kids grow older and maintain better control of their hands and are less likely to push half of dinner out of the pan and onto the stove, I will feel more comfortable cooking with them. In the meantime, I plan to keep inviting them into the kitchen no matter how much my body involuntarily lunges forward to prevent potential mistakes. I will cut myself a break though, and let them do the gloppy art projects at school.

Below is my stuffed shells recipe. The vegan ricotta involves smooshing your hands into the tofu to get it the right consistency. It’s a great recipe for kids to help make– and a task I much prefer to let them handle.

Stuffed Shells
Directions:
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
-Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Once the water starts boiling, add in an entire box of jumbo pasta shells.
-While you are waiting for the water to boil and shells to cook, begin making the tomato sauce and tofu ricotta.

Tomato sauce ingredients:
2 large cans of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon of olive oil
5-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 tablespoon of oregano
1 tablespoon of dried basil or a small handful of fresh leaves that your kiddo harvested from your garden
6-7 good cranks of the pepper grinder
Salt to taste

Armed with her trusty pair of kid-friendly craft scissors…

…there was no reason she couldn’t tame the bolting basil herself.

Sauce directions:
-Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan
-Add the garlic
-Saute until the garlic has turned golden
-Add the two cans of tomatoes to the garlic (give the can opener to your kid and see if he/she can open it on their own) and the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low

While the sauce is simmering, start making the tofu ricotta. This can also be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

She started off thinking it would be fun to stick her hands into a bowl of squishy tofu.

But her face quickly proved that she loves sticky, messy fingers about as much as I do.

Tofu ricotta ingredients:
1 block of firm tofu, mashed by little hands if you have an extra pair living in the house
½ to ⅔ cups of Veganaise
2 tablespoons dried or fresh dill
2 teaspoons fresh basil (leftover from the earlier harvest)
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon pepper
salt to taste

Ricotta directions:
-Mash the tofu into a large bowl until it is a crumbly and mushy
-Add all the ricotta ingredients and stir well until it begins to resemble the consistency of ricotta
-Adjust seasonings to taste

Assemble:
-Once everything is ready, take a large casserole dish and scoop a few heaping spoonfuls of sauce into the bottom and spread evenly.
-Take a large soup spoon and stuff each shell full of the tofu ricotta.
-When you have snuggly filled the casserole dish with stuffed shells, cover the shells with the remaining tomato sauce.
-Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling up on the sides and the filling is heated through.
-Serve with homemade garlic bread and a huge tossed salad.

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I’ve lost my spine. I was the girl who used to jump off 50 foot cliffs, ride roller coasters for the adrenaline rush and surf in the washing machine waves off the coast of Santa Cruz. Now I am just a middle-aged mommy wuss. While on vacation I took Lennon body surfing. He loved it. I thought it was pretty great too until a wave ground my body into the unforgiving shore and left sand imprints and bruises all over me. While I churned in the waves, the thought of my seven-year-old getting just as pounded forced my heart to drop a couple of feet into my knees. He was fine and loved the rough action of the waves. I got all motherly, gave a quick lecture on waves, rip tides, never turning your back on the ocean, blah, blah, safety, boring mother rambling on about something (insert the sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice here) and then suggested we hang out in the pool for a bit. He promptly declined my offer.

I had hoped my spine hadn’t completely turned to mush, but I know it began going soft a couple years ago when I rode California Screamin’ with Scott and his cousin Ami at Disney California Adventure. She’s my age and single with no kids. She was thrilled by the rush of the roller coaster, five gazillion loops and those horrible stomach lurching death drops into a hellish abyss. I was not. I prayed out loud, a lot, and cursed, a lot. I remember tearing up with relief when the ride finally ended. I crawled out of the car with sweaty palms, feet and my stomach trying to decide what exactly to do with my lunch. The guy I spoke with afterward who gave me a medical understanding of what the brain experiences on a roller coaster didn’t help my recovery either.

When I was younger, I swore I would never lose my spine for all things exhilarating. I would jump off cliffs just to mess with the head of my boyfriend who was afraid of heights but still felt compelled to jump if I did. I am sure he would enjoy knowing I was getting my karmic justice now. I blame motherhood. I never expected having kids would turn me into a bowl of mealy oatmeal.

I wish I could say I was carefree and relaxed about parenting and exposing my kids to adventurous situations, but I struggle with the idea of letting them experience life on their own. I battle my over-protective demons every single day, try to keep my mouth shut about the little dangers and save the lectures for the big ones. Lennon is getting to the age where he is going to start filtering my warnings, so I need to pick my freak outs carefully. Do I warn him about the slippery, muddy trail that he insists on running down? Sure, but I will try to limit my comments to just once in the beginning of the hike because when he lands hard on his bottom, the mud and bruises aren’t going to kill him. The fall may even teach him to be careful more than my yelps down the trail at him to “slow down!” Do I give him the “respect the ocean” speech and go swimming with him in the waves so his tiny 48 pound body doesn’t get pulled out to sea? Absolutely.

I couldn't have kept up with him on the trails, and yes, I tried.

He wore his mud stains well and with pride.

I know that just because I can’t seem to stomach the adrenaline rush anymore doesn’t mean I should encourage my children to live bland lives. Though the thought of my children jumping into crashing waves off a cliff into the ocean and getting sucked down and disappearing into a cauldron like we witnessed a few local boys do last week makes my whole body quease up–the part where we wouldn’t be able to save those boys should a rogue wave knock them out was particularly painful to watch. Adventure is good, but pushing the limits of life and death, not so much. I need to help my kids discern which is which and then trust that as they get older, they will make the RIGHT, I mean, mindful choices.

After a great deal of prodding from Lennon and some pointed looks from Scott, I toughened up and went back out into the waves and by the end of the trip, I was able to enjoy the ocean with my kid instead of constantly fearing his demise. I realized that the presence of the boogie boards we rented on the last day functioned a bit like an ocean security blanket for me. My reacquainting with the ocean and Lennon’s three days of experience navigating the waves definitely helped. Plus, we weren’t by ourselves on a remote lava shelf jumping into a churning cauldron of death. If something had happened, my chances of saving Lennon or finding someone who could were pretty great. Ironically, watching those boys jumping off that cliff helped me put body surfing on a relatively mild beach in front of a hotel into perspective.

As our kids get older, we will introduce more adventure into their lives. I am looking forward to 10 years from now when we can take them on the Napali Coast Kayak trip, and in the meantime, I will work at using those adventures as exercises to build up the muscles surrounding my soft spine. Perhaps some smaller adventures will keep it from atrophying altogether.

In the spirit of mush, I am re-posting a recipe for oatmeal but with some new toppings. My kids eat oatmeal all year long and since we recently visited Hawaii and already miss the tropical fruit, I suggest throwing in some fresh banana, brown sugar and topping it with chopped pineapple and toasted coconut. See, even oatmeal can be adventurous sometimes.

Homemade Oatmeal (Total cook time is 10-15 minutes.)
Directions:
-Add about a cup and a half of soymilk to a cast iron pan.
-Add in thick cut oats by the handful until they just begin to reach the top of the milk.
-Add a couple of dashes of cinnamon.
-Add a pinch or two of salt.
-Heat until the soymilk starts to boil around the edges, then drop to a medium simmer.
-Stir frequently as the milk begins to cook down and the oatmeal thickens. You want to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. My kids like their oatmeal slightly chewy so adjust the milk and simmer down to desired thickness.
-When the consistency is right (there really is no science to oatmeal), remove from heat and add chopped pineapple, shredded, toasted coconut, brown sugar, bananas and a touch more milk if you like.
-Serve with a side of toast and lilikoi jelly.

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This year, Scott uncovered the secret to creating authentic curries. A stroll through a Thai restaurant kitchen on the way to escorting our daughter to the bathroom unveiled an awesome discovery: Thai restaurants use pre-made curry. All those cookbooks that list 20 different ingredients (only found fresh in Thailand) to make a green, yellow, red, or panang curry, fail to tell you that really, all you need are these:

 

Palm sugar, tamarind, and your secret friend, curry paste.

For fourteen years, Scott has attempted to create a Thai curry and Pra Ram tofu that tasted like what we get in a restaurant. Our homemade curries never tasted right. They were good, but failed at curbing cravings, and inevitably I needed to eliminate my green curry obsession with what my taste buds deemed to be the real thing. With the frequency of my cravings for Thai food, that can get pricey.

So as you navigate your third day of Thanksgiving leftovers and your cravings move away from harvest flavors, head to your local Asian food store, purchase a curry paste and some tamarind paste, and try making a curry.

Red Curry and Rice—I could eat a plate, twice*

Ingredients

8 ounce can of coconut milk

Curry paste of your choice (make sure to check there is no fish sauce in the ingredients)

Salt or soy sauce

Tamarind paste

Palm sugar

1-2 carrots

Some combination of the following:

1 bunch of broccoli

10-12 small to medium size mushrooms

Half of a small butternut squash

Firm tofu

Thai basil

Long grain white or brown rice

Directions

Start the rice. Heat the coconut milk in a saucepan until it is just starting to simmer. Blend  curry paste by the tablespoon into the coconut milk until you reach your desired level of spiciness. Let the curry and coconut milk simmer for 4-5 minutes. Add salt or soy sauce to taste, two tablespoons tamarind paste, and three tablespoons of palm sugar. Cut up whatever combination of veggies you have in your fridge into big chunks. When adding the veggies to the coconut milk, start with whatever cooks the longest first. Add in basil last. Simmer until vegetables are soft. Serve over rice. This aromatic dish takes about 30 minutes and is perfect for a weeknight meal.

*Play on Michael Franti‘s song, Red Beans and Rice.

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Potato Comfort

I need some comfort food. Now. I need to sit in a pair of soft pants on my squishy couch with a plate of twice-baked potatoes in front of some brain-cell-destroying TV. The personal and political drama of October spilled into the first week of November.  I think it is okay to just say goodbye to 2010 now and check out until January. The year is like a bad container of leftovers left on the counter to fester and rot. We need to let out the gas, dump all the contents, and start over with a new menu. Fortunately, for my little family, we were only forced to eat a small portion of the 2010 meal, but unfortunately, our family and friends were served much larger platefuls.

So, a few days ago I sent out a call on Facebook for new 2011 menu ideas, and my friends came up with some suggestions. I think they’ve helped to create a lovely meal—one in which we could all enjoy. I only hope that next year’s chef  (God, Obama, the universe, fate, destiny, Oprah, whoever you put your faith in, etc.) will actually deliver.

Proposed 2011 Menu

Cocktail

A warm snifter of justice topped with a sprinkling of organic grassroots activism.

Appetizer

Freshly harvested blessings peppered with economic upturn and paired with a fine vintage of full-bodied health.

Entrées

Grilled sense and reason with a side of unbiased information

or

Pizza*

Dessert

A triple-layer cake of compassion, patience and mindfulness drizzled with a love and tranquility sauce.

Until our sumptuous meal is served, or the pizza arrives in a comforting box at your door, please feel free to join me on the couch for some salty, stuffed potatoes.

Vegan Twice-Baked Potatoes

Ingredients

4-6 Russet potatoes scrubbed clean and pierced for baking

3 bunches of broccoli, including stems

1 package of smoky tempeh strips (They have a bacon-y flavor. Check your natural food store.)

1-1 ½ cups (or as much as needed to reach desired flavor and consistency) of Real Food Daily’s cashew cheddar cheese sauce (We use this versatile, smooth and creamy sauce for casseroles, nachos, pizzas, tamales, etc.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

–Heat the oven to 400 degrees and bake potatoes until soft (approx. 45 minutes to an hour).

–Make the cashew cheese sauce.

–While potatoes are baking, chop broccoli into very small pieces and steam until soft and bright green. For added texture, chop and steam the stem as well.

–Cut tempeh into small pieces and heat in a skillet.

–Once potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice in half and scoop the insides into a large bowl. Don’t tear the skins. Set them aside as you will need them later to hold the stuffing.

–Add the broccoli, tempeh, cheese sauce, salt and pepper to the bowl of potatoes  and mix well.

–Heap the potato skins full of the potato mixture and put back into the oven for another 20 minutes or until the tops are crispy and golden and the mixture is heated through.

–Serve with a salad and/or beer and your favorite show.

*Special thanks to Dina for keeping it real.

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A co-worker of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer. And while she waits for her surgery to be scheduled, she is feeling stir crazy and would like to stock her freezer with tasty meals for her son that are easy to reheat post surgery. So for this post I am calling out to you for help. Please take a moment and post your favorite recipe (vegan, vegetarian, meat-filled) in the comments section so that my co-worker can gather some ideas on what to make. Think simple, home cooked, freezable, kid-friendly, comfort foods that make you feel taken care of. Quick breads, muffins, baked goods are also welcomed. Her son is particularly fond of Italian and Mexican foods but don’t let that limit you. If you have some time, send a little inspiration wrapped in the directions of a good meal. I know your contributions will be much appreciated!

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