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Friday, December 30, 2011

Stone Soup Party

Looking for a fun, educational, low-cost, at-home way to entertain your young kids while they're on winter break? I've got one for you!

In the hectic race to stay ahead of/entertain my "vacationing" (ahem.) children, I discovered a fun little activity. We did it today, and I thought that those of you who have younger kids (I'm going to say 7 and under) might also find to be a pleasant diversion while they are out of school for winter break. Or if you homeschool, this would work for you, as well, perhaps on a cold, dreary day when winter is dragging along making everyone stir-crazy or cabin-feverish.

I'm calling this a "Stone Soup Party." It's a little reading, a little cooking class and a little lunch all rolled into about 3 or 4 hours of activity.

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(Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown, is available in hardcover at Amazon.com for $13. I checked it out from my local library.)

What You'll Need:

Stone Soup, the book (I used the version by Marcia Brown)
Some kids (I used four, but if you are tolerant of chaos and have a big enough kitchen, you could probably go up to 8.)
A vegetable peeler, a cutting board and reasonably decent knife for each child (I used my good steak knives.) (Kids can handle knives safely if you show them how! Even a reckless three year old, yes!)
Bowls, spoons, napkins, cups, bread, butter, a soup pot (the wide, shallower soup pot will work best), and a skillet

Ingredients for about 3 qts. of soup:

1 lb. ground beef
2 large carrots
2 celery stalks
2 large or 4 small onions
3 medium potatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 big, clean stone (or more) (I thoroughly washed and then boiled my stone separately for about 5 minutes to be sure it was nice and clean)
3/4 cup uncooked barley
6 cups water in a pitcher
6 cubes beef boullion
1 bay leaf
salt, pepper
thyme (optional, use only if you have kids who are used to such flavor)

*The actual book, Stone Soup, includes cabbage and milk in the soup, but I chose this basic beef and barley soup recipe because I know it tends to go over well with the younger set.)

** And the original recipe for this soup calls for a chuck roast, cut up, plus loads of sliced mushrooms. It is a phenomenal soup made that way. I simply changed it a bit so it'd cook faster. I wasn't sure if my guests would like the mushrooms, so I omitted those.)

How to have the party:

1) Invite guests. I did this two days in advance, via email to their Mommy. Ho-hum. There are certainly more creative ways to go about this. I will leave that part to you and your kids!

2) You could have your guests each bring an ingredient. I didn't, because I am loathe to ask any parent to go on yet another mission for yet another ingredient or item for yet another kid party. I'm thinking no parents needs another of those missions on their already-loaded agendas. Oy!

3) Wash and assemble your ingredients and tools along with enough bowls and spoons and napkins and cups for everyone, including you (you get to eat too!), and have them ready and waiting on a counter away from your work surface.

4) When your guests arrive, allow them a few minutes to play, giggle, explore your house, etc., then seat them cozily around you in a warm, well-lit spot, and explain what's about to happen.

5) Read Stone Soup. You can read it aloud yourself, or if you are lucky enough to have a couple of fantastic new readers on hand like I did, have the kids take turns reading pages themselves. Help them with words they've never seen before -- that's totally allowed.

6) Answer any questions the kiddos have, instruct and oversee handwashing, and assemble all participants in the kitchen. I had my four sit on chairs at all four sides of my kitchen island with their cutting boards in front of them. I suppose you could state some ground rules here and talk about knife safety, but I totally forgot that - I sorta talked about knife safety as we went along, and demonstrated how to safely use each tool as I peeled or cut my portion of each ingredient. We didn't have any knife accidents.

It's all in the supervision, people. (Ahem. LUCK. Ahem.)

6a) (Because I forgot this part, and it's vital, and I'm too lazy to re-number all the subsequent steps!) Get the ground beef cooking in a skillet on the stove while you do the next steps, stopping to stir it occasionally. Cook it until it's just done and drain off/discard the fat.

7) Allow kids to peel carrots. Big kids will naturally help littler kids, I've found, but I did show them once on one carrot the basic process of using a veggie peeler. Once all the carrots are peeled (with the peelings just going onto the cutting boards), take the carrots and cut them into sticks (like for a veggie tray) that will be easy and safe for little hands to cut into chunks. (I've tried to have Bean cut whole carrots into coins and she's not quite strong or agile enough for this yet.) Carrot chunks can be piled into a bowl on the table or countertop as little cutters get them finished up. Remove peels from cutting boards and discard. I suppose you could have them peel into a bowl or something, but I didn't want to clutter the work surface that much. Clutter is dangerous and not a lot of fun for anyone.

8) Trim the celery of all ends and yuckies and cut those into sticks like you did with the carrots. Place your soup pot on the table or counter top and add a little olive oil to the bottom of it (a tablespoon or so). Instruct the kids to cut the celery into chunks as they did the carrots. The celery chunks can go right into the soup pot.

9) Onions can be handled a couple of different ways. You can do them yourself while the kids watch, or if the kids are game, you can let them handle and try to cut them themselves. I showed them how to halve and peel onions and then we began cutting and the kids cut until their eyes began to hurt. I sent them all to wash their hands while I finished cutting the onions and tidied up their cutting boards. Onions go into the pot with the celery. The kids will forgive you for the hurty eyes when they taste the soup.

10) Get the onions and celery cooking in the olive oil over med-low heat. Smash and mince the garlic as the kids look on, then add it to the celery/onion mixture to cook. Have kids peel potatoes and then cut those into 1/2" matchsticks for them to cut into chunks. By this time, my chefs were a little tired of cutting, so I ended up chattering away merrily and cutting up most of the potatoes myself as they looked on. Whatever works! (Keep an eye on the beef and turn it off/drain it when it's done.)

11) Once the onion/celery are soft, remove the pot from the stove and put it on the countertop (on a heat-proof pad if need be), a safe distance from little hands, warning that it's HOT and not to touch. Now comes the fun part! Have the kids put the diced carrots and potatoes into the pot, along with the barley. Have them take the wrappers off the bouillion cubes and pop those in. Drop in the bay leaf. (Let them examine the barley and the bay leaf. They're particularly fascinating as they are relatively new and different to many kids.) AND DON'T FORGET THE STONE! IT'S STONE SOUP PEOPLE! (Really, you don't need to worry. The kids will remind you. The stone is the star of the story, to them.) Have the kids take turns pouring in the water a little at a time, and then grab a big old wooden spoon and let them all have a turn stirring.

12) Return pot to the stove and let the soup come to a boil over high heat. Put the lid on and simmer for an hour. During this time, I let the kids hit the basement and play while I cleaned up the kitchen. If you have older kids or aren't a control freak like I am, you can let the kids help with clean up, too. A countertop wipe and a floor sweeping may be in order, and they can certainly do that part, then go play for awhile.

13) And this is an extra, bonus step. In addition to soup, we also had fresh, homemade bread. I just had the dough ready and rising before the party started and then about 25 minutes before the soup was done, I divided the dough into little roll-sized balls and called the kids back in to practice kneading and forming little-mini loaves. We flattened out each little dough ball and sprinkled it with grated parmesan and garlic and a little olive oil, then rolled them up and baked them for 15 minutes.

14) We had just enough time to set the table and get drinks (water) and stuff (butter for the bread) ready and then the soup and bread were ready for consumption and we had our feast. Also during this time, I tasted the soup and adjusted it for seasoning (added a bit of salt) and then ladled out the bowls of soup a few minutes before the bread was ready and set them aside to cool a bit so the kids didn't burn their tongues.

MAKE SURE TO MAKE A BIG FANCY SHOW OF REMOVING THE STONE. They love that part! Lots of ooh-ing and aaah-ing for the stone-removal. Big ol' chunk of Mom-equity in one easy step! Take advantage of it! In ten years you'll have to buy 'em a car for this kind of approval ratings! SELL THE STONE SIZZLE WHILE YOU CAN, BABY!

15) Enjoy the feast. While we were eating, we talked about the book we'd read and came to the conclusion that coming together sharing made for some pretty good eats, and good things in general. (Sigh... I hope the fact that I loved this so much doesn't make me a nerd bigger nerd.)

Oh well, nerdly or not, this turned out to be a nifty, educational activity for everyone. We read a new book that taught a subtle lesson. Throughout the process of cooking, we did a little math here and there (if we have 12 carrot sticks and 4 kids to cut them into chunks, how many carrot sticks should each chef get to cut up, to be even, etc.?) and we learned a bit about how to hold a knife and when to set it down. We talked about how each veggie grows (I told them the wrong things and let them correct me.) We examined barley and sniffed bay leaves. Then we mushed dough and talked about yeast and rising and kneading. Then we feasted and chatted, remembering the ingredients we'd used and talking about the process.

We had lots of soup and bread left over to send home with our guests for their parents (in time for a late lunch, even!) and to feed our sweet little Daddy when he gets home on this chilly, dreary evening.

Enjoy, my friends!


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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Staying One Step Ahead

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I just want to have one of those days, you know? A pajama day, though not necessarily in pajamas. Just a day that goes hmmm, hmmm, hmmmm in a sing-songy way, a comfortable, meandering day of easy activity with no particular structure.

But I have this boy; this boy who seriously needs structure to stay cool. Needs to know the next item on the agenda, on and on. Not that he knows this about himself, but I, his Mama, feel it in his behavior, and thus deliver it to keep him even and happy and peaceful. And it's minute-after-hour-after-day-after-day of AGENDA - first we will this and then we will that and before you can this, you need to these and those.

Really, both of my kids absolutely crave to be one step ahead at all times. Bean asks me most nights as I tuck her in, Mom, what are we doing TOMORROW?

... (sigh.)

And in my head I'm like Dude, all the information I can currently muster up about the future is that I am fixing to lean over and kiss your forehead and then I'm going to will my tired feet to walk me to the bathroom where I'm going to sit down on the potty indefinitely, by myself, and let the buzzing in my tired head and ears subside. After that, and well into 2023, it's pretty much anybody's ballgame.

Don't worry. I don't say that. (That would explode Bean's head. It totally would. Like - KABAM!) Most days I'm in the position to advance both of my kids their requisite next step. Just not the days like today, when I'm brain-fried and body-worn and longing for wide-open mental spaces and soft, cozy physical places in which I can find simple, restorative repose.

Some days I yearn for a day of freedom from knowing, caring, gearing up for, being in charge of what's next, Mama.

Do you want those days? Do you have them?

(Do I sound whiny?)

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