Monday, May 31, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Hot Lamb Week

It's getting colder here - winter is coming! My local butcher had a special on lamb this week so we're having that a couple of times. Three of these meals will provide leftovers (the roast, the stew and the shepherd's pie) which will help me out on the busy week I have coming up next week.

Monday - Red lentil dahl with stir-fried Chinese greens (adults); vegetable egg noodles (kids) (V)
We are quite committed to Meatless Monday here.

Tuesday - Roast lamb with roast vegetables and peas & corn
Warming winter roast.

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato-mushroom sauce (V)

We always have pasta on Wednesdays.

Thursday - Lamb & vegetable stew with rice

My family loves stew and they will eat many things in the context of a stew, risotto or soup that they are unlikely to love as stand-alone vegetables. This stew, along with the lamb, homemade stock, red wine and canned tomatoes, will contain fresh tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, zucchinis, and turnips.

Friday - Beef lasagne (leftover portion from last week)
Leftovers are ideal for the tired end of the week!

Saturday - Roast vegetable frittata (served hot) with potato mash (V)
This frittata is yummy cold in the summer but in the winter it's just nicer to have it hot, with the rich flavours of the sweet potato, spinach, capsicum and cheese.

Sunday - Shepherd's pie with lamb mince
Who doesn't love a nice shep pie?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading Notes - My Side of the Mountain

One of the great pleasures of reading with and to my children is revisiting books I loved as a child.

Sometimes this is, of course, intentional; I sought out the Famous Five and Wind in the Willows, Ramona and Swallows & Amazons, E Nesbitt and Lewis Carroll, to share with my girls.

Other times, we stumble across books that I half-remember; books that, once we start reading, I know instantly are familiar to me, whose aesthetic is embedded somewhere in my subconscious memory. One such book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, which I remembered vividly but only as "the book about running away from home to live in the museum". Another, even more potently and happily re-encountered, was the book we have just finished - Jean Craighead George's classic, My Side of the Mountain (1959).

My Side of the Mountain (MSOTM) is, like the Mixed-Up Files, a book about an adolescent running away from home, but is otherwise quite unlike it. Sam Gribley, the protagonist of MSOTM, has little in common with Claudia Kincaid, barring a strength of will and determination to carry the project of flight and independence through. Sam's mission is very much more serious, and permanent, than Claudia's - leaving his overcrowded family home in the city, he heads for an abandoned family farm in the Catskill Mountains to live free and independently, off the wild land. When the action commences, Sam is thirteen.

There is so much practical magic in this book that it's difficult to fully capture it. Sam's first-person narrative, describing his methods of hunting, gathering, surviving, making fire, making clothing, and (to my daughter's untrammelled delight) making his home inside the hollow centre of a tree, is utterly engrossing. The voice is pitch-perfect to my adult ears, just as it was when I first read it at age 9 - Sam is serious, capable, sturdy, intelligent, thoughtful, and young. He does not read as an adult, with adult concerns, but nor does he read as a child. He reads as an adolescent on the cusp of manhood, full of potential, flexibility, committment and energy, not yet constrained by pre-set views of how the world works and how one must operate within it. One of my 5-year-old's favourite passages in the book captures this excitement and clean joy in the world that fills Sam's narrative:

"The following morning I stood up, stretched, and looked about me. Birds were dripping from the trees, little birds, singing and flying and pouring over the limbs. 'This must be the warbler migration', I said, and I laughed because there were so many birds. I had never seen so many. My big voice rolled through the woods and their little voices seemed to rise and answer me..." (p 25)

My daughter says that this passage makes her feel like she can hear the birds and feel happy hearing them.

I love Sam deeply for the vision he presents of what adolescence can be if not shuttered by adult jaundice and expectations - a time of limitless possibilities, a time of explosion of creative energy and exploration of self and world. Sam is highly capable of taking care of himself, without being a superhero, and is voracious in his desire to learn about his world and live within it. (And it's also notable, and heartening, that Sam is only a 'runaway' in a technical sense, having left home on his endeavour with his father's knowledge and consent: "Sure, go try it. Every boy should try it.")

Sam has many adventures and challenges on his mountain, but the most profound is his rearing of a peregrine falcon chick to be his hunting bird. Stealing the baby chick from its nest (which provoked a little tut-tutting here), Sam trains the glorious Frightful to catch game for him and return to his side. Frightful becomes not only a potent weapon in Sam's struggle to survive and thrive in the mountains, but his constant and faithful companion. She is acutely drawn and acquires a presence of her own that is magnified a hundredfold in the two sequels to MSOTM - On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful's Mountain. In a near-miraculous feat, the author manages to give Frightful an individuality without anthropomorphizing her. Frightful doesn't have a personality; she has a bird-identity, a bird-consciousness, and it jumps up brilliantly from the page.

Sam is often described in reviews and critiques as a throwback, yearning after a simpler, more natural, life, and sometimes as a hermit, seeking solitude as he appears to do. My 7-year-old rightly refutes these ideas, however, pointing out that Sam gets lonely for people and seeks them out, and forms friendships with townspeople and most notably the college professor, Bando, who stumbles across his clearing. "He likes to not have to see people all the time, Mum," she mused, "but I think he does like people. And he needs friends to talk to, like everyone." For myself, I would never characterise Sam as a frontiering throwback. He lacks entirely the sense of triumphalism and bending of the land to his own will that that implies for me. In his vision of his life, he is, if anything, a precursor of modern environmentalism and low-impact living. Indeed, Sam takes matters to the extreme, leaving the lightest footprint a human could hope to do upon his mountain home.

As we finished the book today (it ends with Sam's entire family arriving, declaring their intention to live on the mountain with him), my eldest daughter sighed. "That was so good, Mum," she said. "It made me interested in all sorts of things, like how to fish and make a fire and eat different plants and things. I don't think I'd want to do it all but it feels so interesting to hear about it." "Yeah", the 5-year-old contributed. "Like you were really there, holding Sam's hand." Can there be any higher compliment for a book than that?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We Play - Little House

We recently fixed up, painted and tidied out (well, sort of tidied out) the little decrepit playhouse that nestles in under the trees in our backyard. The playhouse is very tiny (think a small shed, maybe 2m x 2m at most) and is emphatically not one of those beautiful outdoor creations that can be purchased these days. We think it was put up by the owner who had the house 15 years ago (the last person here with small children) and it looks like a home job, nothing remotely fancy about it.

Still, my daughters love to play house - they always have - and so we finally bit the bullet, got the rotten frontage & door replaced, painted the whole thing fairy-pink, and let them have at it. It's not flash - it's rough-hewn, cramped, dirty, dusty, bare-floored, really basic. But it belongs to them and it can be whatever they want it to be, every day.

And this week, every chance they've got, it's been all about the little house. The 7 and 5 year olds ported out a bunch of plastic kitchen & tea toys, and their toy stove, to set it up, and artwork to decorate it with. The 5 year old, one of nature's cleaners, has spent happy hours sweeping, wiping, and tidying, begging an old pink bedsheet from me to line her shelves.

The 15-month-old has *so* enjoyed the novelty of pretending to cook at the little stove, bringing in windfall lemons, blossoms, leaves, buckets of sand, for the 5-year-old and her to play with.

The 7-year-old, currently fathoms deep in love with Sam and Frightful of My Side of the Mountain fame, has pretended the little house is the hollow of a tree where she lives with her own peregrine falcon (whose role is played by, in her case, our deaf, partially-blind and darling old dog Basil).

They have all loved having a little place of their own, too small for adults to be part of, really, to play endless games of house and cubby and Masterchef (the 5-year-old does a frighteningly good George impersonation - "Come on, guys! Let's go!" complete with hand-smack).

This house is a little house of dreams, and it has formed the lodestone of our play this week.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Back to Work Week

After my week of flex leave last week to enjoy my middle child's 5th birthday and prepare for her big fairy party, I'll have some catching up to do this week with work, and unusually for me, I need to go into the office on two separate days. I normally work my part-time hours from home with limited attendance for meetings, on average no more than 3 hours per fortnight, so being away from home for a total of 9 hours this week will be very different for all of us. So this week's menu reflects that increased busyness.

Monday - Oven-baked pumpkin risotto with not-bacon (V)
Warming and delicious!

Tuesday - Beef lasagne with salad
This is a definite family favourite and the recipe makes enough for two meals, so I'll freeze a portion for next week.

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato-basil sauce (V)
I'll be at work from 9:30 until 2:30 this day, then will swing by home, pick up the younger girls from the babysitter, then get the eldest from school, and head directly to gymnastics, after which we'll be heading to husband's work to collect him. I won't be home & able to cook until 6:00pm, so pasta it is - 8 minutes from start to plate!

Thursday - Sausages, orange mash & steamed greens
I'm off to a seminar in the city for work for a few hours in the middle of the day, and as I often do food prep in that zone while baby sleeps, this is another easy-eating night. My husband is taking the day off and will be at home with the younger kids and he likes to cook bangers & mash ... so that's what he'll do!

Friday - Polenta-crumbed white fish fingers (with whatever white fish I can get from the fishmongers), home-cut potato wedges and corn on the cob

Saturday - Beef stroganoff with rice
I've had a request for this one!

Sunday - Sweet potato, roast pepper and haloumi salad (adults); vegetarian noodles (kids) (V)
I made up this salad a while ago and we both love it. The kids are not super-keen, however, so they'll have noodles instead!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reading Notes - Introduction

One of the things I'd like to write about regularly, because it forms such a critical part of our family life and of my life overall, is our life in books - the way we experience the written word, the way the children go about developing their own relationship with books and reading, the way particular texts or groups of texts influence us and the childrens' creative worlds.

I thought, to that end, that I would designate Thursdays as Reading Notes post days. These posts are likely to be quite eclectic in nature and range from book reviews (of childrens' books, parenting books and other books), reflections on reading acquisition and research into that area, snapshots of my family as readers and pre-readers, and so forth. I am thinking possibly I might make it a meme if anyone is interested in playing along - I'll get Mr Linky set up for next week if I have any expressions of interest.

To start the ball rolling this week, I thought I would repost an old post from my other blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. This post originally appeared in September 2007, when my eldest two daughters were 4 and 2 (and my baby not even a twinkle in her father's eye ;-) Almost three years on, I can report with confidence that while many other literary loves have come to us, the special place occupied by that tattered rabbit has remained. (And we now own a copy of it!)

In Praise of the Rabbit

"Real isn't how you are made, said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

There are many, many books that my children have loved, and imagined futures for, and played games about, and wanted read over and over and over again. They've enjoyed classics and new tales, nonsense stories and funny stories, sad and serious stories and stories that are meant to be far too old for them, far over their heads. Like me, they are bibliophiles and both possess the quality of submergence, the ability to lose themselves in the story and then extrapolate an imaginary world from the pages of the book.

But among all the Wind in The Willows and Peter Rabbit and Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton and Winnie the Pooh and fairy stories and nursery rhymes and picture books about every conceivable situation known to man or beast, one stands out as their absolute favourite, their uber-book, their lodestone of stories. It is Margery Williams' 1922 classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real.

We don't (yet) even own a copy of this book, but have borrowed it from the library 4 times this year already, reading it at least once a day for every day of the 3-week loan period, and it is always farewelled with regret when it is time to change books. I intend to get them a copy of their own for Christmas, and I hope they'll continue to get as much delight from this book going forward as we have already had.

The story of the Velveteen Rabbit is simple - Boy acquires toy rabbit; boy loves toy rabbit; the boy's love makes the rabbit "real" to him. Then - the dramatic tension - Boy gets sick with scarlet fever. Boy recovers, but - gasp - all toys he's had near him must be destroyed. Rabbit waits his fate in a canvas bag near the garden rubbish heap, thinking about his life and its meaning. Then the Nursery Magic Fairy arrives and flies the squishy toy away to where some wild rabbits are playing. Her kiss transforms him into a real rabbit. "Wasn't I Real before? asked the little Rabbit."You were Real to the Boy," the Fairy said, "because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one."

What is amazing to me in this story is not the plot (although, like all good plots, its simplicity covers a careful and intentional pacing of the story and its meaning). No, what my children and I responded to here is the beauty and warmth of Williams' language, the heartfelt sincerity of her message, the fine emotional shading of the story, and the sense of eternal value earned through pain that it conveys. Whenever we read it, although they know by now how it ends, they are both transfixed with delight at the rabbit's happy ending, and both worry for the boy with his scarlet fever germs, each and every time. They both seem to understand the underlying theme of the book in their own ways - that the gaze makes real, that emotional involvement is not only necessary but a blessing to living a life, even when it hurts. My elder daughter, now 4, summarised it thus: "When you love something or someone, your love makes them important, doesn't it Mummy? Because love is real."

It is a beautiful, lyrical, lovely book. If you have preschool children, I highly recommend you make the Velveteen Rabbit's acquaintance.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Play - Tupperware cupboard

It's been a bit colder this week - autumn setting in - and so there has been more sustained indoor play, although we've still been able to get outside each day for a period of time.

Kept indoors for longer, especially at dinner preparation time, my 15-month-old (C) has been delighted to be introduced to the joys of the Tupperware cupboard by E, my 5-year-old. I store all my plastic containers, utensils and trays in a corner cupboard in my kitchen, the only cupboard to which I've not fitted a childproof lock. Pulling out plastics, stacking them into and onto each other, making pretend cookies and having pretend meals have been excellent games for each of my girls in their turn (the almost-7-year-old only *just* considers it too young for her now!)

The beauty of the Tupperware cupboard is that everything in it is safe for little hands, so I can turn to the stove and continue cooking while the kids play. I think it's really fun for them to be able to play with household things rather than toys - watching them make games with the plastics is amazing.

In one of these pictures, E had carefully arranged cookie cutters on the cupcake serving stand and went off to her bedroom to gather a cohort of toys to take tea with her. By the time she'd come back, C, the toddler, was taking the cutters one by one off the stand, pretending to bite them (murmuring very authentic "mmmm, mmmmms" as she did) then neatly stacking them back into their holding container. E thought this was so clever that she joined in and I stir-fried beef strips to the accompaniment of two little girls emoting wildly at my feet ("mmmm, mmmm", "oh, aren't these just delicious, C!" "mmmm, MMMMMM!")

Monday, May 17, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Party coming week

This Saturday coming up it's my middle daughter's 5th birthday fairy party. She's having 20 little girls here to a fairy celebration, themed in pink & purple (quel surprise) and I've taken a week of flex leave from my part-time job to enable me to focus on getting it all ready and all the food made. This is the first kid's party I've done at home for a couple of years, as we've been doing the playcentre thing, so I want it to be nice for her, and fun for all her friends!

There's quite a few things to do - none terribly onerous, most fun, but a few fiddly (eg as well as the usual fairy bread, home-made potato wedges, party pies & sausage rolls, and franks, Miss almost-5 wants me to make her pink meringues, tea sandwiches, iced pink cookies, pink frogs-in-a-fairyland-pond, and pink cupcakes for the party ... which I can do, but it takes time!)

My menu plan this week, therefore, is focused around familiar foods I can make easily and can set cooking while baking / preparing other things. As usual, I have made an effort to plan at least three vegetarian dishes, as we are trying to reduce our meat intake drastically this year.

Another thing to note - I thought I'd better as this is a brand-new blog and my Zucchinis in Bikinis readers may not follow here! - is that I am a Coeliac, so almost all my meals are fresh-prepared from scratch as packaged foods are problematic for me. It also is the reason why breads and pastry products don't feature greatly in my menu plans.

Monday - Spanish frittata (potato & red onion) with salad greens & corn on the cob (V)
My family likes frittata. It's not exactly a low-fat dish, being packed with cream and parmesan, but it's delicious. And easy! (In terms of who'll eat what, my 5-year-old won't eat the corn, and my almost-7-year-old probably will leave most of the salad. The 15-month-old will eat it all ;-)

Tuesday - Thai green vegetable curry (adults); egg& vegetable noodles (kids) (V)
Sometimes the husband and I like a bit more spice in our meal than the kids can tolerate!

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato-basil sauce (V)
We always have pasta on Wednesdays, as the girls have gymnastics after school and I need something quick, easy and palatable for them to eat.

Thursday - Roast chicken with roasted potatoes, carrots & sweet potatoes, and steamed broccoli
Nothing like a traditional roast to warm you up!

Friday - Poached salmon with home-cut potato wedges and steamed Chinese greens (probably bok choy)
My kids like fish, especially salmon, barramundi, and trout. We often have fish on Fridays. I poach it with lemon & lime juice in foil parcels.

Saturday - Very little!
My darling girl's birthday party is from 2:30 to 5pm on this day and I cannot imagine any of us ending the day hungry.

Sunday - Beef burger patties with crispy potatoes, carrots & sweet potatoes, sauteed zucchini & squash
I will serve the family's meals in burger buns but mine without the bread.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We Play - Plastic Animals on Parade

This week, Miss almost-5 and The Toddler have been creating many games with their tub of plastic animal figurines. The animals have been on sandpit and garden safaris, have participated in block-built farmyards, have been contestants in a cat & dog show, and, ending up rather dirty, were washed in a tub and then spent three nights sojourning in the bath going on aquatic adventures.

The Toddler, being a Toddler, has enjoyed mostly the feeling of the animals, the ways she can make them move under her fingers, the ways they taste (all the better after being smeared with cookie dough, apparently!) E, being at a very imaginative stage of play, has created elaborate stories around her animals.

One thing that I've found both wonderful and also a little sad is how E's narratives have mirrored the issues she is confronting in her own preschool life at the moment. Her tiger has been in tears at being excluded by a group of mean cliquey cats, but he has found a way to rise above, and has befriended the giraffe family instead.

Her platypus has struggled with not feeling like she gets enough time with her Mummy, but the Mummy platypus sat down and read her Mem Fox's Koala Lu, and then baby platypus understood that the Mummy really loved her dearly; "she always has and she always will, see?" E, in the voice of Mummy Platypus, explained.

Her lion didn't like having to compete and try to keep up with all the older lions in the pride, but soon learned that being the littlest wasn't always a problem, and even had some advantages. (E is having a hard time at the moment with the fact that all the neighbour kids are her sister's age or older. That extra 2 years makes a lot of difference in play styles and interests).

Complex, fiddly, noisy and whizzbangy toys get a few days' excited play here, then are set aside, rarely to be picked up again. A basketful of plastic animals, 10 for $2 from the local junk shop, get taken on adventures time and again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

We Play - Fairyland in My Backyard

This week, we've been all about soaking up the last warm days of autumn, and getting out in our garden to enjoy it before the winter sets in.

The kids have been enjoying favourite outdoor activities - drawing with chalk, climbing trees, playing in the sandpit, blowing bubbles, swinging on the swingset, digging up weeds, and creating fairyland spaces.

One thing I really enjoy about outdoor play at home, as opposed to out and about, is the ability for the girls to create an integrated and sustained imaginative world.

In these pictures, the older two are drawing with chalk to create a "magical door" to fairyland, whereupon they then proceeded to pretend to jump into it, and "emerged" in the garden beyond, blowing bubbles at the fairyland palace (aka the lime tree flowerbed), climbing trees for a better view, and building fairy paths in the sandpit and garden beds.

The eldest girl later drew a map of fairyland in chalk, showing the layout of our backyard and marking out the magical places with incredibly inventive names.
(Sadly it was washed away before I got the camera to it!)

Check out Childhood 101 for lots more great play ideas at the We Play page.