Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: "And After Many Days" by Jowhor Ile

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile appears at first to be a book about a son who goes missing. Told from the perspective of the younger son, Ajie, the book opens with a description of the Utu family on the day that Paul, the older son, leaves the house to visit a neighbor and never comes home. But it soon becomes obvious that this book is not primarily about the family’s search for the missing son, or even about how they are affected by his loss. It is simply about a family, and Paul’s disappearance serves merely as a turning point between “Then” and “Now”, as we go look back into the past and explore the family relationships prior to the disappearance and then continue on afterwards as the family carries on without Paul.

Set against a backdrop of war-torn Nigeria in the 1990s, the contrast between the culture and the political unrest of the period, which is so completely foreign to most North American and European readers, and the typical issues of the family, which are so familiar, is what is most striking. Paul, Ajie, and their sister Bibi experience typical sibling squabbles, vying for their parents’ attention and affection, developing their own identities as they grow up, struggling with school and friendships and figuring out their own futures. We can all identify with Ajie’s frustration at being blamed for fights he didn’t start, the children’s admiration of their father, the youngsters’ excitement at their first taste of independence as they leave home to attend boarding school. These feelings are universal. It is easy to forget the different world that this family lives in until outside events break in: students are killed by corrupt police; Ma tells the children the story of how their father’s mother gave birth to two sets of twins, who were all drowned and the second set blinded, to prevent them “from seeing their way back to this same family to cause sorrow”; a group of activists are hanged after a mockery of a trial. These events are shocking to most readers. Life is cheap in this world, and it must go on even when a son goes missing.

Ile creates a beautiful picture of this family, deftly bringing in stories of the parents’ pasts and experiences of neighbors and friends to create a clear picture of the world that has formed these individuals into the family they have become. Much like Ajie, we become so wrapped up in the lives of those who are left that we temporarily forget about Paul, and then feel guilty when we remember. At the end of the book, when we finally learn Paul’s fate, it is, in some ways, merely another moment in the life of these people, no more or less important than any other. It is something that must be accepted, because it has happened and cannot be changed. But it highlights the fact that Ajie’s life went on without his brother. He followed his own path, becoming an adult in this unpredictable world in which men are executed without a trial and brothers disappear without much of a police inquiry.

Ile sums up the point of this book in Ajie’s thoughts as he looks at the manuscript of a book his mother has written on native plants: “Even if they become extinct,” he thinks, “at least a memory of them has been preserved and can be called to life any day.” Ajie’s memories of his family, both before and after Paul’s disappearance, keep Paul alive and through them, Paul continues to be a part of the family. Memories, whether those of Ajie’s parents or his own, are a powerful tool that keeps his family together and carries on their history into the next generation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. For additional information on this book, please see the Penguin Random House webpage.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I Don't Want to be a Helicopter Mom

My natural tendency as a mom is to be vastly overprotective. Particularly since my son (the older of my two children) tends to be anxious about new situations (gee, wonder where he gets that from??), I am hesitant to launch him off into the unknown unsupervised. But at age 6, he is more than ready to deal with most situations without me.

I, however, am not.

Fortunately, I am aware that I am not doing him any favors by hovering over him and doing things for him that he can – or should be able to – do himself. I’m not going to increase his shaky confidence by making him feel like he needs help all the time. By treating him as if he can do things, I force him to learn how to do those very things, and to prove to himself that he can do those things. I know this. But it’s still hard to do.

There are times when I have to literally bite my tongue or sit on my hands to avoid helping him. He gets frustrated quickly, and often gives up after only a brief, half-hearted attempted at a task like turning a shirt right-side out, unbuttoning a stiff button, or figuring out a difficult math problem. But I’ve begun to take baby steps in making him solve his own problems. I start by giving him a time limit: he needs to try on his own for, say, 5 minutes before I come and help him. It’s taken us both some time to make those 5 minutes be actual problem-solving time rather than pretending to try while watching the clock tick down. If he’s still struggling, I explain to him what to do: reach into the armhole and grab the cuff; pull the button towards the center of the buttonhole; look at the numbers in the ones place. And then, once again, I give him time to try and think and struggle. And I don’t volunteer to help again unless and until he specifically asks me to. And finally, I show him what to do, but then make him do it. I reach inside and turn the shirt right side out, but then I turn it back inside out and make him fix it. I show him how to angle the button and slide it through the hole, then rebutton it and have him try. I draw boxes with the numbers in the tens and ones places in them, then give him a similar problem with different numbers to solve by himself.

It’s frustrating for both of us – at first. But if we both struggle through it, the triumph of independence is a reward for us both. And the next time the situation arises, I can remind him that I know he can solve that problem, because I’ve seen him do it. He might need a little reminding, but each time I force him to solve that problem without help (or with less help each time), the quicker he can solve it, and the more confident he becomes.

I’d like to think that my helicopter mom tendencies will wane as he grows older and more independent, but I suspect they will become even harder to fight as the problems he struggles with grow more mature. When he’s bullied on the playground, when he’s snubbed by a friend, when he isn’t invited to a party or doesn’t make the soccer team or gets turned down by the girl he asked to the school dance, I will desperately want to step in and fix everything for him. But I can’t do that. I won’t do that. As difficult as these lessons are to learn, they are his lessons, not mine. I will give him advice, I will give him support, but I won’t give him answers. I’ll guide him to find his own answers. It won’t be an easy journey for either of us, but the more difficult path leads to a much happier and healthier adulthood than the easier one.

So when he tells me I’m a mean mom because I won’t do his science fair project for him, or write up a job application for him, or call his company for him when his paycheck is wrong, I’ll just smile and know that I’m not really a mean mom. I’m a great mom. 

And he's a great kid, who's going to be an even greater adult.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Desserts to Make with your Kids

Since today is National Pi Day, my 6-year-old son and I baked a pumpkin pie (his favorite). It reminded me of how fun and easy it is to make desserts with kids. Here are a few of my favorite dessert recipes that are great to make with a young assistant!

Pumpkin Pie

If you use a pre-made pie crust, making a pumpkin pie is pretty much an issue of dumping all the ingredients into a big bowl and stirring. Older kids can help measure; younger ones can break the eggs and whisk. There are hundreds of pumpkin pie recipes out there, but the one on the back of the One Pie brand canned pumpkin is easy and delicious – not too spicy for young palates, and the molasses adds extra flavor and sweetness.

Frozen pie crust
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
scant ½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin or squash
 2 eggs, beaten (with hand whisk or electric mixer)
1-1/2 Tbsp butter, melted
1/8 cup molasses
1-1/2 cups milk
Pre-bake pie crust according to package directions. Cool completely.

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and spices in a large bowl. Stir in pumpkin, eggs, butter, molasses, and milk. Pour into cooled pie crust. If you have extra filling, pour it into ramekins, set ramekins in a baking dish and add water to close to level of filling and bake alongside pie. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for an additional 50 minutes. Filling should be slightly jiggly in the center, but will set as the pie cools.

Resurrection Rolls

These sweet, doughy desserts are fun as an Easter treat, since they symbolize the empty tomb, but they’re a fun treat any time of year. This recipe is great for really little ones because there’s no measuring required.

Frozen crescent roll dough
Marshmallows (full size)
Melted butter
Sugar and cinnamon, mixed together

Spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray. Arrange balls of crescent roll dough, leaving about 2 inches between balls. Flatten each ball into a 3” diameter circle (it’s fun to squish with the bottom of a drinking glass). Place a marshmallow in the center and wrap the dough around it, pinching to close completely. Roll in the palm of your hand to smooth and seal. Brush generously with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Return to greased cookie sheet and cover with plastic wrap sprayed with non-stick spray. Let rise till doubled (~30-60 minutes). Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Lime Fascination

This was one of my absolute favorite desserts as a kid – to eat AND to make. The hardest part was waiting for the jello to set before moving on to the next step! If you don’t wait long enough, you end up with a layered dessert with mostly green jello on the bottom and mostly whipped cream on the top. Delicious either way, though!

2 cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (a pre-made chocolate pie crust will also work, as will crushed chocolate graham crackers) - use either a food processor or a rolling pin to make crumbs
4 Tbsp melted butter

1 (13 oz.) can evaporated milk
1 pkg lime jello
1-1/4 cups boiling water
¼ cup lime juice (can substitute lemon juice)
1 cup sugar

Combine chocolate and butter. Set aside a few tablespoons for topping (or use chocolate jimmies) and press remainder into the bottom of a 9” square baking dish.

Chill the evaporated milk by refrigerating overnight or placing in the freezer for about 15 minutes. In a medium bowl, dissolve the jello in boiling water. Add the sugar and lime juice and stir until completely dissolved. Cool slightly (you can scant the boiling water and add a few ice cubes at this point), then refrigerate until partially set.

Pour the evaporated milk into a large mixing bowl and beat with electric mixer (start on low and increase speed) until it forms a solid, whipped-cream-like foam.

When the jello is partially set, beat until a light, airy texture. Fold into evaporated milk, mixing until color is even and not streaky. Pour over the crumb crust. Smooth with spatula and sprinkle with reserved crumbs (or chocolate jimmies). Cover with plastic wrap (hold up with toothpicks if necessary to avoid sticking) and chill for several hours before serving.

Gingerbread Boys

There’s something universally appealing about making gingerbread boys. These cookies are just as delicious cut into squares with a knife or circles with a drinking glass, but kids love using a cookie cutter to make little boys and girls. This recipe is moist and delicious enough to not need icing, but if your kids are artistic, feel free to add icing decorations after the cookies are cooled.

1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1/3 cup Crisco (or butter)
1 tsp vinegar (white or cider)
1 tsp baking soda, dissolved in ¼ cup hot water
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp salt
2-2/3 cup flour (adjust as needed)

Combine all ingredients, adding flour gradually until dough is a workable consistency. Roll out on a floured board (slightly thicker dough will result in a softer cookie) and cut with a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Bake on a greased cookie sheet (cookies will spread slightly) for 5 minutes at 400.

Crazy Cake

This is a delicious, moist cake, but what makes it special is how fun it is to make. It reminds me of making mud pies! Kids love to dig wells in the dry ingredients and pour in the liquids, then mix it all together. Adults love that there’s no big mixing bowl to wash afterwards.

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 Tbsp white vinegar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups cold water

Sift together all dry ingredients in ungreased 9x13”pan. Make three wells and pour oil into one, vinegar into another, and vanilla into the third. Pour cold water over all and stir well with fork.

Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely and frost as desired.

Fun Fudge

Fudge is always fun; mini marshmallows are always fun. Put them together, and you get double fun! And now that microwaves have taken the place of double-boilers in melting the ingredients, fudge is a much more kid-friendly recipe.

18 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp margarine or butter
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups miniature marshmallows (white or multicolored)
1-1/2 tsp vanilla

Melt chocolate chips and margarine in microwave-safe bowl, 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until smooth. Add sweetened condensed milk and heat an additional 30-60 seconds, stirring till well blended. Fold in marshmallows and vanilla. Spread evenly in an 8” or 9” square pan lined with waxed paper. Chill 2 hours or until firm. Turn out onto cutting board and peel off waxed paper. Cut into squares and store in covered container in refrigerator. 

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Rainbow Cocktails

I haven’t written a cocktail blog in a while, and as I was browsing for ideas, I noticed that I have quite a few recipes saved for cocktails that are particularly bright and lovely colors, and I immediately thought: Rainbow cocktails! I wondered if I could come up with a cocktail for every color in the rainbow. Unfortunately, these recipes do often call for slightly less common ingredients – but perhaps try them out at your local watering hole, and then stock your own bar with the ingredients for a few of your favorites. Here, in ROYGBIV order, is my cocktail rainbow!

Red: Lady Verona
The obvious base for a red drink is cranberry juice, staple of cosmopolitans and many other sweet-tart cocktails. The Lady Verona is a slightly sweeter variation of a cosmo that uses cranapple instead of cranberry juice, lemon instead of lime juice, and maple syrup.

In a shaker over ice, combine 1-1/2 oz. vodka, 1/2 oz. triple sec, ½ oz. maple syrup, and ½ cup cranapple juice. Squeeze in the juice from half a lemon. Shake just till chilled and pour into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.

Orange: The Bowery
Since I dislike orange juice, the base for an orange-colored drink could be cider or rum. But I opted for my beloved Domaine de Canton for this decidedly non-sweet cocktail. 

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add 2-1/2 oz. Domaine de Canton, the juice of half a lemon, and 2 dashes of bitters. Shake until well chilled and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with  lemon twist.

Yellow: Lemon Basil Martini

A standard lemon drop martini would have been an easy choice for a yellow cocktail, but I decided to go with a slightly more savory version. The bite of the basil adds a nice complexity to this sweet-tart drink. 

Cut a lemon in half and use it moisten the rim of a martini glass. Dip the rim in decorator’s sugar and chill in the freezer until ready to use. Place 4 or 5 fresh basil leaves in a shaker of ice and muddle with the handle of a wooden spoon. Squeeze the juice from both halves of the lemon into the shaker and add 2 oz. vodka, ½ oz. triple sec, and ½ oz. simple syrup.  Shake until well chilled. Pour into the prepared glass and garnish with a few basil leaves.

Green: Lime Martini
In fairness, I will admit that the cocktail pictured above used green food coloring to create a more intense hue. However, the Rose's lime juice alone is enough to create a nice, if pale, green color. 

In a shaker filled with ice, combine 2-3/4 oz. vanilla vodka (or vodka with a splash of Tuaca), 1-1/4 oz. citrus vodka, 2-1/2 oz. Rose’s lime juice, a splash of simple syrup, and (if desired) a drop or two of green food coloring. Shake well and pour into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Blue: Sweet Tart Martini
Blue curacao is the cause of the lovely ocean-blue color of many cocktails. Nearly any recipe calling for triple sec can be turned blue by substituting blue curacao. This martini recalls the flavor of SweeTart candies by combining the citrus of the curacao with the sweetness of amaretto. 

In a shaker filled with ice, combine equal parts vodka, amaretto, and blue curacao. Add a splash of simple syrup. Shake until chilled and pour into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or twist.

Indigo: Jet Black
This variation of a sweet martini (which differs from a classic martini by combining gin with sweet rather than dry vermouth) adds a hint of licorice in both flavor and color by adding a splash of Sambuca Black. 

In a shaker filled with ice, combine 1-1/2 oz. gin, 2 teaspoons sweet vermouth, and 1 teaspoon Sambuca Black. Shake gently and strain into a cocktail glass.

Violet: Purple Dragon 
There are a few specialty liqueurs, such as Hypnotiq, which add an impressive purple color to any cocktail. However, a similar effect can be created by combining blue curacao with cranberry (or pomegranate, or raspberry) juice. Like a margarita, a salted rim is standard, but the Purple Dragon can also be served with a sweet rim, if preferred. 

Moisten the edge of a martini glass with a few drops of blue curacao and dip the rim in coarse salt. Place glass in freezer until ready to use. In a blender, combine 3 oz. vodka, 1-1/2 oz. cranberry juice, ½ oz. sweet and sour mix, ½ oz. 7-Up (or Sprite), and a few ice cubes. Blend on high for 20-30 seconds. Pour into prepared glass.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Costa Rican Dinner

Out of the blue this morning, my son requested that we make today another “country-themed” day, and since I had been talking about Costa Rica as our next featured country, I decided to go with it. I didn’t have time to contact my Costa Rican friends (I have several) and ask for their recipes, so I did a quick Google search and came up with several similar recipes. Most websites included some variation of a delicious-looking breakfast dish called “gallo pinto,” or “spotted rooster.” This black beans and rice dish usually included onions and red bell peppers. I also found a wonderful recipe for “Costa Rican Tilapia” that was cooked over a similar beans and rice base, but which used tomatoes instead of bell peppers. Since my kids love bell peppers and are not fans of tomatoes, I decided to combine the recipes and came up with this dish, which I have dubbed “pescado pinto” (“spotted fish”). The full recipe is at the bottom of this entry.

The ingredients needed are relatively common: a red bell pepper, a couple of limes, some fresh parsley (or cilantro), an onion, long grain rice, canned black beans, minced garlic, olive oil, dried oregano, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, sugar, and some kind of white fish. 

The original recipe called for tilapia, but my grocery store didn’t have any, so I used haddock (it was on sale, plus I really like haddock). I’m sure cod or even bluefish would also work, just keep an eye on the cooking time for thicker fillets.

First, bring 1-1/2 cups of water to a boil with a pinch of salt and a little butter. Add ¾ cup rice and simmer (covered tightly) for 20 minutes. When cooked, leave covered to keep warm.

The fish needs to marinate for 15-30 minutes, so make the marinade while the rice is cooking. Make the marinade in a Tupperware or baking dish large enough to lay out your fish fillets in with not much overlap. Begin by juicing two limes: first, roll each lime on the counter, pressing hard with the heel of your hand. This softens the pulp and makes the juice easier to extract. Cut each lime in half and squeeze between your fingers. Get the last of the juice out by pressing each half hard against the bottom of the container. Remove any pits from the juice. (A little pulp is okay.)

Finely chop a few tablespoons of fresh parsley (or cilantro) and add to the marinade along with a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of minced garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and a pinch of sugar. Mix well. 

Lay the fish in the marinade and spoon marinade over the top. Marinade in refrigerator or at room temperature for 15-30 minutes, turning fillets over halfway through. 

While fish is marinading and rice is cooking, prepare the bean mixture. Chop up a medium-sized onion to whatever fineness you prefer. Chop a red bell pepper into small pieces. Have you ever learned this trick to chopping bell peppers? It’s great! (It’s really handy when cutting up peppers for dip.)

Start by cutting off both ends of the pepper, so you have a kind of cylinder. 


Stand the cylinder on its end and cut around the core, separating it from the red part of the pepper. Then lay it on its side and slice from end to end so you can unroll it and pop out the core.


Next, slice the pepper into narrow strips and remove any remaining white pith. 

For this recipe, we want small pieces, so turn the strips sideways and chop. Remove the stem and chop the top and bottom that you removed, as well. 

Set the onion and pepper aside along with three teaspoons of minced garlic.

Open a can of black beans into a colander or sieve and rinse well. Allow to drain. 

In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, pepper, and garlic and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. 

Add the beans, along with two more tablespoons of chopped parsley (or cilantro), a teaspoon of dried oregano, ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (scant or even omit this if you dislike spice – it’s not strong, but it is noticeable in the finished dish), a teaspoon of salt, and black pepper to taste. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until heated through, stirring occasionally. 


When the rice is ready, spread it in a 8” or 9” square baking dish (if making more than two fillets, use a 9"x13" pan). Add the bean mixture and mix gently. Lay the fillets on top and pour excess marinade over all. 


Bake (uncovered) at 400 degrees for 16-20 minutes (thicker fillets may take a few extra minutes). Garnish with fresh parsley, if desired. 

Buen apetito!

1-1/2 cups water
1 Tblsp butter or margarine
¾ cup long grain rice (uncooked)
Juice of 2 fresh limes (~3 Tblsp)
3 Tblsp olive oil, divided
4 Tblsp chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
4 tsp minced garlic, divided
kosher salt
¼ tsp sugar
2 to 6 haddock (or cod or tilapia) fillets
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 (15 oz.) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
Add ½ tsp salt and the butter to the water and bring to a boil. Add rice; reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, until water is fully absorbed. Keep warm until ready to use.
In a shallow dish large enough for all the fillets, combine lime juice, 1 Tblsp olive oil, 2 Tblsp parsely or cilantro, and 1 tsp minced garlic. Marinade fillets for 15-30 minutes, flipping over halfway through.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Saute onion, pepper, and remaining garlic for 5 minutes, until tender. Add black beans, oregano, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for an additional 5 minutes until heated through, stirring occasionally.
Place rice in baking dish large enough for fillets. Add bean mixture and blend together. Lay fillets on top and pour over excess marinade. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 16-20 minutes, until fish is fully cooked (thicker fillets may take a few extra minutes). 

Note: I used two half-pound fillets, which made two adult servings and two small children's servings, and there was enough rice left over for two additional servings. 

Bookmark and Share