Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cozy meal for the whole family

We were really lucky to get a nice white Christmas here in Portland, Maine. Just like in a favorite Christmas movie it started snowing right as we were getting out of bed on a Christmas morning and it was snowing all day long. It just felt magical and so perfect! That's why no matter how much I love California, I don't think I could live there, because I'd be missing too much such perfect cozy snowy days. The snow has been on the ground ever since Christmas day, but today we got a beautiful additional white layer. It started snowing as we were having a nice ( and educational) family time in our local library. We looked out of a window and saw huge snowflakes peacefully coming down. It is my favorite kind of snow. Immediately I wanted to go home and make some cozy meal, which is what we did.

One of the coziest meals for me is a beef stew. I know there are a million recipes for beef stew on the Internet, books, etc, but I like to think mine is special and most importantly very kid-friendly. It's special because it has a little secret ingredient (apple cider) and kid-friendly because it's so simple and hmmm...what's the word... clean maybe (?), because it doesn't have many spices and the rich delicious flavor comes from just a few ingredients that go in it; so very easy on little bellies. Another reason why it's a special meaningful meal for us is because a beef stew, funnily enough, is one of the [three] dishes that MJ cooks wonderfully! He was the one who really taught me to cook it. A few years ago when we first moved to Portland and I started working and he was looking for a job at the time, I loved coming home to an amazing smelling apartment. It smelled of the beef stew that MJ had been cooking for hours. Now every time I cook it, it reminds me of that time.

Also it's important to mention that Allie has been a bit sick over the last few days and hasn't been eating well, and this beef stew tonight was the first thing she's eaten so much of over the last few days. She really, really enjoyed it.

Well, let me finally get to the recipe here.

Apple cider beef stew with garlic rye croutons


For the stew:

1 lb beef, cut up in pieces (I get the kind "for stewing" for this dish, it's all cut up and ready to go)
2 large carrots, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced. Plus 1 clove for serving.
4-5 potatoes, cut up in bite sized pieces
1 C apple cider
2 C beef broth
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

For garlic rye croutons

Rye or marble rye bread (3-4 slices is enough to serve 3 people)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and left whole
salt to taste
olive oil for drizzling

Start by heating up some olive oil in a Dutch oven. When it's very hot, brown up the seasoned (salt+pepper) meat and then transfer it onto a plate lined with a paper towel to get rid of the grease.

Once the meat is out, add a bit more olive oil to the Dutch oven and add in the celery, onions and carrots. Add some salt and cook for about 10 minutes while you peel and chop the potatoes.

The veggie juices will pick up some of the great "brownness" that the beef created, but to finish off deglazing, use apple cider.

Scrape the bottom and the sides of the pan to pick up all the drippings and then add in the potatoes and cooked meat back into the pan. Now, I know a lot of recipes instruct to add the potatoes a lot later into the cooking process, but I like too add them right here, because then they get sooo soft and tender and just fall apart in your plate and almost create this nice potato-ey sauce. Delicious!

Add in the chopped garlic and some bay leaf.

Pour in the beef broth. I used about 2 Cups, but keep pouring until the veggies and meat are barely covered in liquid. You may need to add a bit more than I used.

Stir everything together to combine, cover up with a lid. 

Bring to boil and then reduce the temperature to low and simmer for 1,5 hrs. In the meantime, make yourself a nice glass of eggnog with some spiced rum and a bit of nutmeg and enjoy it.

When it's done, adjust the seasoning and serve alongside garlic rye croutons.

To make the croutons (so easy!):

Toast in a toaster or under the broiler sliced rye bread and as soon as it's out, rub (liberally) both sides of bread slices with a clove of garlic. Cut it in the pieces of the size that you like, sprinkle with some salt and drizzle with some olive oil.

Just a word of advice, this is one of those dishes that takes forever to cool down and every time we eat it, it tastes so great that we cannot wait to let it cool and keep burning our mouths. Every time! So a reminder for myself and suggestion for you: serve it at least 5 minutes before you sit down to eat. Garnish with some parsley if you like and definitely add just a tiny bit of fresh minced garlic.

 Enjoy on a cool winter night with your loved ones.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Baby vegetable purees

To continue the topic of making baby food and seeing how popular my post on making baby fruit purees was, I wanted to share  few recipes on making baby vegetable purees. The idea is the same as with the fruit and the cooking/storing/freezing techniques are too, it's just different sets of ingredients. You can find more information on why I've decided to start making my own baby food in my post here.

To make any of the below vegetable purees you will need:
  • a regular pan with a lid;
  • if you'd rather steam the fruit instead of boiling (more health benefits when steaming), use a steamer basket inside of a pan. I've done  both ways;
  • blender or a food processor;
  • food storage containers;
  • obviously, ingredients;
  • and if you do freeze the leftovers, which I recommend, ice cube trays and freezer bags.

When you first start feeding your baby veggies, you shouldn't use veggie combinations right away, that's too much for a little belly. Start with just 1 pureed vegetable and a few weeks later once you know that your baby reacted well to certain vegetables, you can start mixing them up.

Here were some of Allie's favorites, some dishes are pure veggies and some are combination of fruit and vegetables.

Butternut squash puree 
All-time favorite! Peel and chop a whole butternut squash. You can either roast it at 400° for about an hour or boil or steam it in some water for 30-40 minutes, depending on how large your pieces are. Transfer the cooked squash in a blender, process until smooth. You can also add some cinnamon or nutmeg to it at the end.

Pumpkin puree
Tastes very similar to butternut squash and the cooking way is exactly the same.

Sweet potato puree
Tastes very similar to butternut squash and the cooking way is exactly the same.

Carrot and pea puree
Carrots and peas is a classic combination. The puree of the two veggies combined tastes nice and sweet and Allie loved it. Cook even parts of peas and carrots. Feel free to use frozen peas. Cook peeled and sliced carrots for about 8 minutes until soft. Add the peas and cook for another 3 minutes. Process in a  blender until smooth.

Carrot and ginger puree
This one has a very... hmm...interesting taste. Let's say it's an acquired taste, but if you can get your baby to eat ginger, I know this would make a least our pediatrician very proud! It took Allie a few tries before she started eating it and she would never have much, but even a bit of ginger goes a long way. Put peeled and cut up carrots (1 lb) and peeled and  minced fresh ginger (1 tsp)  in boiling water. Cook for about 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth.

Avocado puree
This one is the easiest as it doesn't require any cooking. Just mash up an avocado and add just a bit of lemon juice to stop it from browning. Allie's gone through periods of liking and and disliking it, but I hope you baby likes it, it's so good for you!

Edamame and apple puree
You'll need about 2 apples for 1/2 lbs of edamame. Put edamame (frozen is ok) and chopped up apple in some boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes. Drain most f the water and process in a blender till smooth.

Spinach and apple puree
Put 2 cut up apples and 2 cups of spinach in boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes. Drain most of the water and process in a  blender until smooth. If you find that this puree is a bit too spinach-y, you can cook it in apple juice instead of the water to give it a bit more sweetness.

It's all about experimenting and you can come up with other combinations: regular mashed potatoes; potatoes with carrots, sweet potatoes and apple, peas and apples... 

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to get your toddler to do something…

Clearly, we can make our kids (well, at least, small kids) to do anything we need them to do, but the challenge is to get them to do anything voluntarily. I recently had an “a-ha moment” that I wanted to share.  After having that special moment and trying out the trick, I actually realized that it was pretty obvious and it was just one of those things that you couldn’t believe you hadn’t thought of sooner… But anyway, in case anyone hasn’t gotten there yet, sharing my story…
The other night, Allie and I were taking a bath together.  We do that a lot: it’s more fun, it’s a great bonding time, an opportunity for me to do a bath in a more relaxing way rather than breaking my back trying to clean Allie from outside of the tub, it’s a nice experience all around. I love taking baths myself, so the bath routine is something that I am looking forward to, it doesn’t feel like a chore at all. Allie loves to play with her little containers in the tub and “make me tea, coffee or juice in them”.  Once in a while she’ll ask for “kuzi” and then I’ll turn the Jacuzzi jets on and she‘ll get her toes tickled by them. It’s very fun. Lots of laughs and songs and games.  Anyway, to get back to my story, we were taking a bath the other night and I had this “boo-boo” (speaking in Allie’s terms) on my knee that I noticed and started to look at and pick on.  Allie took an interest and helped me pick it for a minute and then got back to her business of “making coffee”(which means pouring water from one container to the other until I guess it reaches a certain consistency?). I continued with the boo-boo… Picking and cleaning… I must’ve been doing it for a few minutes at least. When I finally looked up, I saw Allie sitting and picking on her non-existing boo-boo on her knee. That was so cute! She was copying what I was doing. This is when I realized that to get her to do anything, I’ll do it myself without really looking at her (so she doesn’t figure out that’s a trick) and looking really interested and into doing whatever I am doing.
My project #1 was to get her to brush her hair. Now, this is kind of embarrassing, but we almost never brush Allie’s hair. She really doesn’t like it and she doesn’t have much hair anyway, so it’s not that big of a deal and I’ve always figured if she doesn’t like it so much, why torture her?  Un-brushed hair hasn’t really made anyone unhappy yet.  But deep in my heart I always want to brush it… So lately what I do is I start brushing her hair and if she resists (I should say “when”, not “if”, because she always resists), I stop and get to brushing my own hair with Allie’s hairbrush. I don’t look at her, but I act over-excitedly about brushing. Most of the time, she then starts reaching for a brush too and I let her have it. She’s also been letting me brush her hair, which I almost want to make our official family holiday – the day when Allie’s hair started to look brushed and nice. Very exciting!
Since then, I’ve been using this little technique to get Allie to do certain things that she doesn’t want to do sometimes and more often than not it works!
I hope this works for you, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

20 gift ideas for a toddler girl

Since it's a holiday season and many of us are busy with holiday shopping and even busier with trying to come up with gift ideas, I thought I'd share some gift ideas that a toddler girl would be happy to receive. This is the list I would be looking for in my pre-baby era, when I had no idea what's appropriate for what age. I am still not a great consultant in what's appropriate and fun for what age if you ask me about a 6 year old, or a 9 year old, but I know my stuff when it comes to the ages that I've been through with Allie (which is age 1 and age 2, so yeah lots of experience). Below is the list (of toys mostly) that Allie either has and LOVES or some items that I know she would love. Hopefully this would be a good little guide for someone who's trying to get a gift for a toddler girl of about 2 years of age.

  • A tea set 
  • An easel with accessories (brushes, pencils, markers, chalks, paints...)
  • Legos (a starter set with quite big shapes)
  • Pretend doctor's kit
  • Cut-able fruit and veggies set
  • A doll with long hair that she can brush
  • A baby doll
  • Accessories for a baby doll (bottles, feeding items, bib, etc)
  • A color book with favorite characters (for Allie it's Elmo and Minnie Mouse)
  • A new cozy and soft blanket
  • Cardboard books are always great
  • Etch a scatch
  • A little pet (doggie for examle) with a string that she can "walk"
  • Baby stroller (HUGE hit!)
  • Baby doll bed/crib/pack-and-play
  • Jewelry (not the Tiffany kind of course... Allie loves little bracelets and fun necklaces)
  • Toy piano
  • Fun set of dishes (plate, bowl, spoon, fork, cup)
  • Puzzles
  • Set of small animals

Happy Shopping!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How to plan a toddler’s birthday party

Allie turned 2 last week and MJ and I were considering whether we should have a birthday party for her or just a small gathering of the 3 of us plus our dog.  December is a busy month so having a gathering of 3 plus dog with some cupcake definitely sounded attractive, especially since Allie is not yet old enough to be mad or upset about it, so we could definitely get away with it. But then we thought that December will be busy every year and we shouldn’t fall into the habit of not celebrating Allie’s birthday just because we are too busy buying Christmas presents and getting ready for all the other holidays coming up. So we’ve decided to throw Allie a small birthday party and this was the list of things to think about and decisions to make. I'll say right away that we had a pretty modest party, so this may be useful if you plan on somthing similar.
We’ve looked into renting a space and I did an extensive google search in our area to see what was available. Things didn’t look so good, because it was either too late (we had started thinking about the party about 3 weeks before it happened), too expensive or too inconvenient time wise (with the nap schedule of most toddlers this age). So the decision was easy enough to make: party at home.
The decision to have a party at home automatically brought up another issue: whom we were going to invite. We would’ve loved to invite out child-less friends who know and love Allie and it was also very important to have kids over so Allie could play with them. Friends with kids plus friends without kids added up into a pretty major company that our small house would not be too comfortable for, therefore we made a decision to invite only kids (and their parents, of course).  We ended up inviting 9 kids, not really knowing if they’d be accompanied by just one or both parents.  That number seemed reasonable, as it almost never happens that everyone ends up showing up, so we expected about 20, maybe 25 guests in total.  We ended up having 15 guests in total. Perfect!
Nice paper invitations sent by mail are great. But we just went with a free and quick Facebook invite. So easy! You just create an event on Facebook and invite whomever you want. You indicate the details you want on the invite: time, length, RSVP option, etc. It worked great and made it easy to track our guest count.
Time and length
Time of the party was easiest of all to decide. The options were either before or after nap, and we went with the after nap option, since that way we had the entire morning to get ready. From what I hear most 2 year olds have a pretty similar nap schedule), so 2:30 pm seemed like the perfect time.  For length, all the sources I found online had similar suggestions, that an hour – hour and a half is an appropriate length of the party for toddlers.  We weren’t exactly going to kick people out after a certain time, we just figured that as long as kids were having fun, we’d be happy. But it was funny that an hour and a half was exactly how long it ended up lasting.  The Internet was right! :)
My first impulse was to order pizza and be done. But my Russian soul  could not make a piece with that. I’ve decided that I’m going to cook. But the food had to satisfy a few criteria:
-kids need to like it
-adults need to like it
-it needs to be easy and quick and inexpensive to cook
-it can be eaten without any silverware and even without sitting down
-while eaten by kids “on-the-go” around our house, it shouldn’t be messy to eat and has little chance to be dropped
I was so lucky that my mom visited the week of Allie’s birthday party! She helped me with all the cooking, so not only cooking became less stressful, but we also had so much fun hanging out in the kitchen together for the entire morning!
Here is what we ended up having:
-Veggie platter with a White Bean Dip. Cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, celery and carrots and the bean dip could not have been easier to make: in the food processor I threw 2 cans of cannelloni beans, the herbs that I had on hand (chives, parsley, dill and some mint), a bit of lemon zest, a clove of grated garlic and some olive oil; processed it all for a minute. Done! Delicious and healthy for kids.
-Pigs in a blanket. That was my new discovery. I am going to make them for every single occasion from now on. So easy and so popular! You just buy those teeny little hot dog, wrap them into strips of store bough crescent rolls dough and bake for 10-15 minutes. You can serve them with some fancy store-bough mustard  but I actually whipped up a batch of homemade ketchup.
-Little pizzas cut into bite size pieces. That was also super easy. I bought pre-baked crusts and just slathered some tomato sauce on them,  added some mozzarella on top and pepperoni on 50% of my pizzas. So I ended up with 2 kinds of pizzas: cheese and pepperoni.  I put them in the oven when the guests started to arrive, so I had hot pizza in just a few minutes.  Just remember to cut them into small pieces for the kids.
-Crepes with different filling were the star of the show. My mom was completely in charge of that and all the compliments go to her. Thank you mama! It took her a while to bake all the crepes before the filling went in, but if you want to have them as your “star”, you can just buy crepes and only take care of the filling at home (of course, they won’t be as good as my mom’s, but still… good alternative). For filling my mom did three fillings: one was cut up boiled eggs, second was sauteed mushrooms and third was herbed cream cheese. Wrap the filling in the crepe and then slice it into bite size pieces.
-Cupcakes. Of course you have to have some kind of cake for a birthday party. I made carrot cupcakes, so everyone had their individual cake and the fact that they had carrots in them somehow made it better for kids in my head. There are million of recipes for carrot cupcakes, I made this one by Martha Stewart. Delicious!
For drinks we had:
-juice boxes for kids
-red and white wine for adults
-Warm apple cider with spices going in a slow cooker and a bottle of spice rum next to it. Alcohol free for kids and with some rum for adults.
Remember to have on the table:
-Sippy cups for kids
-Paper plates
-plastic forks
unfortunately I only remembered about needing to take pictures at the end... But this is a little piece.

There are some really cool activities that I found on the internet, and I think next year Allie and her friends will be ready for them, but at 2, here is what we did: 

  • We had a kid’s radio playing on Pandora in case anyone felt like dancing and Allie did dance for a little bit, but a dance party that I had in mind didn’t really happen (perhaps too young?). 
  • We also placed a bunch of white paper and crayons all around the party areas, so a couple kids colored and drew. 
  • We put out the toys that would be fun to play: bowling with stuffed toys; a little Melissa and Doug house with people, a few balls, a few balloons. Kids seemed to have a lot of fun with those.
I considered playdough, but I am glad I changed my mind. I think the cleanup would’ve been a lot longer and harder.


Balloons worked great! They also doubled as entertainment, kids loved playing with them. I also bought this gorgeous Happy Birthday sign, but I am yet to find where I put it, needless to say it never got hung up  on time for the party. We also got party hats and blowers, they were fun and festive to have around.

Party favors

Girls got bracelets and boys got soccer or baseball or basketball balls. Thank you Target!

I'd say Allie's 2nd Birthday party was a great success: she had fun and got great presents and MJ and I enjoyed having fun friends over and loved seeing kids play together.

Monday, December 3, 2012

New routine: teeth brushing

Well, not actually new at all for Allie at this point, but just a couple words for those who are about to enter the teeth brushing days. Our dentist told us right away that we need to start brushing Allie's teeth as soon as she starts eating solids, so we started pretty early, at about 5 or 6 months. At first it wasn't brushing in the sense that most people understand it, but rather cleaning Allie's gums. We would just take a washcloth and wipe Allie's gums. She wasn't a big fan of that at first, but like with everything, once we started doing it every night, it became a routine and Allie didn't mind it all. She actually started liking it, as I imagine it felt good to her gums when she started teething.

When she got her first couple teeth, we switched to an actual tooth brush. A baby tooth brush, of course. That was a novelty to Allie and she didn't have any problems adjusting to it, especially when we started using those toddlers' toothpastes that don't contain any fluoride and taste great. And yes, a lot of times, she would just chew on the brush and enjoy the taste of the tooth paste instead of brushing, but I think it was ok, since it was just important to get her used to the feeling of a toothbrush in her mouth (my dentist did not agree. She said that was not cool to just let her chew on it). Anyway, little by little she is learning how to brush and I have to say she does it really well now. She has almost a full mouth of teeth and brushing her teeth is an essential part of her bath time routine.

With this very long introduction, what I really wanted to write about is a small challenge we once faced. Once upon a time Allie has decided she no longer wants to brush her teeth. She didn't let me or MJ do it and she refused to do anything with that toothbrush. That behavior was going on for about a week and I tried to brush through tears and screaming, but this, of course, was neither very productive, not enjoyable for anybody. 

So one night when we were fighting about brushing her teeth, I had Allie open her mouth and said "Oh my god, you have a fly in there!" (Now, if anyone is curious, this fly thing wasn't really a product of my imagination or creativity. When I was little and went to a dentist, I remember him telling me at the end of the appointment that he got a fly out of my tooth. That was pretty scarring and I actually thought this was true until I was 20 or so). So I guess with this whole teeth drama we were going through with Allie, the "fun" memory of a fly in my tooth came flushing. As soon as Allie heard about the fly in her mouth, she immediately got all curious and still and let me get it out (aka brush her teeth). Same thing happened the following night and the night after that.... 

For the last month or so Allie brushes her teeth without any protesting because that's how she gets a fly out of there and when she's done I do some final "fly removal" and we end up with brushed teeth every night. Clearly, that little trick worked for us, and I hope this inspires some ideas with your little ones if you face a similar problem :).