Monday, October 20, 2014

The mud kitchen with a mosaic

There is something every child with even the tiniest backyard needs, and you’ve probably never heard of it.

A few years ago one of the boys received a play kitchen from their grandparents for a birthday. With a rotating supply of tupperware, empty boxes, spice jars, egg cartons and other food empties, the kitchen always provides some amusement while I’m working in the real kitchen. The boys diligently mix imaginary soups, cook eggs, wash dishes and serve up some pretty interesting dishes. However they are not allowed to play with real food, water or anything else that would create a serious mess.

One day in the backyard they had again dug a giant hole in the turf to make mud patties and I decided they needed a mud kitchen. Well, I didn’t know it was a mud kitchen per se until I searched the internet and found out that’s what it could be called: a station for beating mud eggs, mixing grass soups, flipping wood chip pancakes and baking sand-leaf muffins.

Once I had designed a general plan it was a matter of finding the time to build it. We had a large pallet and some scrap wood that we set aside for the frame, and we dismantled a box that had been used to ship paintings for the top. I scavenged garage sales for spoons, spatulas, an egg beater, a cheese grater, measuring cups and spoons, sieves and brushes. After a trip to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore we were in possession of a sink, and a coworker donated a faucet. Then one weekend we assembled the frame; the pallet provided the back, and we added a few 2x4s to form a rough table-base, screwing scrap wood around the base to stabilize it. The plywood tabletop was affixed last, after cutting a hole for the sink.

The mud kitchen saw some use in the next months, although we were awaiting the grand finale to its construction – a tile counter. Partially for aesthetics, partially to protect the surface from the elements, I wanted a durable and safe work surface. When master-mosaic-layer vecmamma Inga came to visit in August, we put her to work. She strategized with the boys, using chalk to draw the basic designs and then following with tiles and cement. After covering the entire surface she grouted the result, polishing the tiles to get the desired look. Which was wow! and the realization that if we ever move we’ll have to pack the mud kitchen. Not only have the boys’ Latvian folk symbols been incorporated into the surface, but their drawings of people, cars, mountains and circles decorate the table; it’s a work of art!

Roberts paved a small area with bricks and placed the kitchen on top, to help keep it level and to keep the area around the boys’ feet from becoming… well, muddy. With hooks for the various kitchen implements and a milk crate or two to store all their containers, it’s easy to clean up. Every once in a while we pull the hose over to rinse it off, but the boys don’t mind the leaves and pine needles that fall on top; if anything, they get incorporated into that day’s cuisine.

Some friends have suggested adding fittings to the faucet so that we could run the hose directly to the sink, and a downspout under the sink for drainage, but we tend to try and conserve water and I think the boys have enough fun as is. We’ll pour a couple of pitchers for them to incorporate into their sauces and soups, and that will usually last a while. An improvement I do hope to make is to return to ReStore and buy a used cabinet. The shelves would make for better storage, and I would fashion the surface into a “stove” of sorts, complete with burners and knobs. Or maybe two cabinets, so they have an oven as well…

As with any toy the boys will occasionally lose interest, but they always return and spend a surprisingly large amount of time playing in and around their mud kitchen. I don’t mind when the kitchen tools wander over to the sandbox or picnic table, and we often find jugs of mysterious concoctions stored in the playhouse or on the porch. Today Lauris had mixed up mud paint and was busy painting his playhouse with the pastry brush, while Mikus sorted his little treasures into a muffin tin. The kitchen is always a big hit when they have friends over, and when playtime is finished we send them to the pool or rinse them off with the hose. It’s a win/win situation; the boys can get creative with little or no boundaries, and I get to keep the mess out of the house!

Close-up of the mosaic on the sides: a car and the three brothers

This is a project that can be built to suit almost any budget and skill level. Our most expensive additions were the sink ($10 used from ReStore) and the mosaic top, but both of these could be omitted. Most people can find some extra implements in the kitchen they aren’t using and keep a few plastic containers out of the recycle bin to stock the shelves. For a more custom fit you could spend a little more and not used scavenged lumber, but the beauty in this project is that you don’t have to be an architect or in design – instead of building the frame from scratch you could always use an old coffee table or cabinet (check out all the different kitchens people have come up with!). The kids will love it just as much!

Now that the days are cooling down we won’t be hosing off too often after our play in the mud, but we’ll still be spending as much time as possible outside before the cold really kicks in. You’ll find us collecting colorful leaves to use in our next salad, harvesting pine cones for tea and picking weeds to put in our casseroles... Maybe you’ll join us?

Friday, October 17, 2014

In the Swamp Rabbit box - a week's worth of produce

I'm no Julia Child, but living in France broadened my horizons in the kitchen, forcing me out of my comfort zone and into the realm of cooking from scratch with fresh and sometimes previously unknown ingredients. I didn’t completely abandon everything I learned upon returning to the US despite reverting to some old favorites including macaroni & cheese and certain Trader Joe’s frozen meals, but it has been easy to slip back into a boring routine, especially with the arrival of Vilis and the following upheaval in our domestic lives.

Last week the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery had a deal on their produce box ($15 instead of the usual $25) that has derailed that boring routine. I think I’ve mentioned that I like their produce boxes because there is no obligation (you can buy once a year or twice a week), pick-up is flexible (after 4pm on Wednesday or Friday and anytime on Saturday) and the contents are always fresh and local. So it came to be that I was presented a new challenge: to use 7 ingredients I have little or no experience cooking with (and a handful that are more familiar) before anything spoils, and to do so in such a matter that the little people will eat it. Without further ado, here is a week’s worth of meals inspired by the Swamp Rabbit Grocery produce box!

source: here

SATURDAY: We had a busy day and so dinner was quick and easy, with BLT’s featuring the lettuce out of Greenbrier Farm in Dacusville. Start small, right?

source: here
SUNDAY: In researching some of the more unfamiliar ingredients I came under the impression that the arugula would be best eaten sooner than later, and so the Tyger River Smart Farm (out of Taylors, SC) hydroponic arugula was incorporated into pasta salad with goat cheese via this recipe from Martha Stewart. I used tri-colored rotini since gemelli pasta wasn’t available, and substituted white wine vinegar for the red wine vinegar as it is a little milder and was what I had in the cupboard. End result; this is better as a side dish than a main meal, and the boys avoided eating any arugula, red onion or pasta that wasn’t plain. The goat cheese and cannellini beans were a big hit, and the Dijon was a nice accompaniment to the arugula. Prep time 10 minutes, total time required 25.

source: here

MONDAY: Next up was the kale (Bioway Farm in Belton, SC), which I recognized because it’s what has been growing in my pallet garden! (One of the salad mixes included kale seeds, and it was the only thing to survive the summer heat.) We had been mixing leaves into our salads, but I had not tried anything more complicated. Turns out, kale can be rather uncomplicated. Tonight’s dinner was Real Simple’s roasted pork chops and butternut squash with kale. Except that in lieu of the squash I used the sweet potatoes (Crescent Farm, Clinton SC) from the produce box and therefore skipped the sage. End result; the boys both had a tiny taste of kale and politely declined any more, and surprisingly the sweet potatoes were a hard sell to the younger one. I was pleased with the kale but found the pork chops a little on the tough and dry side. Prep time 30 minutes, total time 55 minutes.

source: here

TUESDAY: Soccer night calls for something quick and easy as the boys only get home around 7pm, and although tonight’s game was rained out I was happy for this simple recipe from Country Living. Jumbo shrimp with bok choy calls for baby bok choy, but since I had the grande version (from Clemson Organic Farm) I rinsed and roughly chopped and once again was pleasantly surprised with the result. I might have simmered the citrus-soy glaze a little longer to achieve a more syrupy sauce, but it wouldn’t have changed the end result; the boys once again mostly refused the greens after taking a taste (Mikus did eat the stalks). It was a good thing I made rice to accompany the dish, as that is what filled stomachs, and although I enjoyed the shrimp I think next time I would choose a sesame oil recipe. Prep time 10 minutes, total time 15. (PS For the recipe I used Bee Well honey, Pickens SC, also purchased from Swamp Rabbit - they've got the best deal in town!)

source: here

WEDNESDAY: These ratatouille wraps by Rachel Ray were great for adults, but didn't go over well with the boys. They like ground beef burritos with veggie toppings, but apparently these eggplant (Clemson Organic Farm) wraps were too far removed from what they were expecting. The boys enthusiastically ate empty tortillas instead, and Roberts confessed they tasted only slightly better than they looked. I enjoyed the goat cheese in combination with the veggies, but end result: I have a bunch of leftover ratatouille. Recipe states prep time is 15 minutes and a total of 25, but I found it to be closer to 40. 

source: here

THURSDAY: I roasted a whole chicken and made roasted scarlet turnips (Greenbrier Farm in Dacusville, SC) and baby blues as a side (although I couldn't resist adding carrots as well). I just love the color contrast between the orange carrots, red turnips and the purple potatoes, which I’ve been a big fan of ever since first seeing them in France. The scarlet turnips are of an heirloom salad variety but taste about like regular turnips. The microgreens (Iszy’s Heirlooms in Liberty, SC) joined the leftover lettuce from BLT night for a side salad, also featuring veggies from Tomato Vine. End result; no leftovers! Everyone loves the roasted chicken, especially because it doesn’t dry out when cooking whole. Ask your butcher to spatchcock it, it’ll require less time in the oven. Prep time 15 minutes, total time 60 minutes.

source: October's Real Simple Magazine

FRIDAY: Roasted carrots with chimichurri are on the menu tonight, taking care of the cilantro in our produce box with the recipe from October’s Real Simple. If we had a grill I would send Roberts outside with some steaks, but as we don’t… I still have a few hours to decide, right?

So what else was in the produce box that isn’t included in the above dinners? I confess that I took the big, beautiful, green bunch of collards (Thicketty Mountain, Cowpens SC) over to my neighbor first thing, because I know how much she loves them and I was facing a daunting crisper drawer full of greens – I think Lauris and Mikus will forgive me. The apples (Lively Orchards, Hendersonville NC) we ate as snacks and with lunch, and the beets… well, maybe I’ll get around to Roberts’s favorite soup, aukstā zupa! Thanks to the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery for a healthy week in culinary adventures!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Aviation Park at GMU

The Greenville Downtown Airport Park has become one of our very favorite parks here in the Upstate, and it just keeps getting better! Last time I wrote about the park it was still in the early stages, with only the amphitheater, runways, grass and fencing installed (see post “Watching the planes at the airport downtown”). The playground equipment for children 2-5 was installed in June of last year, including a set with slides, bridges, climbers and pilot panel, a swing set, a bi-plane climber and two 2-seat airplane bouncers.

In December a Cessna 310 “landed” in the park, providing a great backdrop to what was going to be the pavilion. Then this June, the playset for older children was installed, but we still mostly visited the park very early in the morning as there was a lack of shade on hot summer days. Still, the boys love the newest addition to the Greenville park scene.

The lack of shade was why we were excited to see the picnic hangar with tables completed before the end of the summer, as it gave us a place to get out of the sun for a water break or snack. Then there are days like this past Monday, when we arrived at the park after two days of rain and the hanger provided a dry spot for home base.

Greenville Tech took an old Boeing 737 and converted the fuselage to what will be the park entrance. The Greenville Downtown Airport Park Project is still raising funds for the installation of the entrance and front fencing, park benches, educational signage and restrooms. To donate to the project please visit the Greenville Downtown Airport website

The park isn't the only reason to visit the downtown airport, as there are frequently aviation-themed events taking place in or around the airport. This weekend is no different; Friday the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour will be returning to Greenville, you can read my post “WWII bombers in Greenville” about their visit last year here. Of course the Runway Cafe and their fried oreos provide another good reason to visit...

Finally, the local family website Kidding Around Greenville has created a photo scavenger hunt for children ages 2 to 5. We had fun placing the pictures to things found in the park! The scavenger hunt info and pictures are found here.

Almost there! Source here

Monday, October 13, 2014

Vilis's first Star Wars convention

It was a busy weekend in Greenville, with over thirty festivals, concerts and other events happening across the Upstate. Here’s the rundown on all of them… Just kidding, we only made it to one! (But here’s the list in case you're interested)

We opted to head to Roper Mountain Science Center on Saturday morning for Star Wars Reads Day, this month’s Second Saturday program. Meant to be an opportunity for the public to visit the learning spaces that students occupy during the week, Second Saturdays showcase special events or themes in addition to opening up the farm, planetarium, observatory and other science exhibits for fun and learning. A couple of Second Saturday programs we’ve attended have been the Blueberry Festival and Green Halloween, and of course we love the Center’s butterfly garden and the Holiday Lights. Usually there is an admission fee for non-members; this was the first time I’ve attended that there was no charge. Admission usually is $6.00/adult and $5.00/children ages 5-12 and seniors. With all the great programs offered by the RMSC you might want to check into an annual membership; the affordable price includes admission to 300 science centers and museums worldwide.

We headed first to the Symmes Hall of Science where the majority of activities were centered. A demonstration of how Han Solo was put into carbonate was the first thing the boys checked out, resulting in a large Darth Vader-shaped foam package we carried around for the rest of the morning. Then they built rubber-band propelled planes with the Science on the Move SC 4-H, which we even hooked up to fishing line for a demo. The boys’ plane flew 35 miles an hour! We adjourned outside to enjoy our lightsaber ice pops where the rocket build-and-launch station was located, and I was impressed at what could be accomplished with some PVC pipe and a bicycle tire pump. Lauris and Mikus took turns launching their paper rocket into the air. 

Once back inside we cut helicopters out of paper and then made hovercrafts out of CDs and balloons, but the highlight might have been operating the remote-controlled R2D2. They definitely enjoyed that more than taking photos with the storm troopers, Vilis is really the only one who cooperated and he was still mostly asleep…

We didn’t go to the movies in the Giant Dome Theatre and Hooper Planetarium, although I’m hoping to make it to the weekly Friday Starry Night (a guided look at the current night sky, a feature show, the "Mars Rollercoaster" Ride and viewing at the Daniel Observatory) one of these days. It was the Daniel Observatory that was our next stop, to see if we could get a glimpse of the sun through their refractor telescope. Although the sun didn’t oblige us, both boys enjoyed taking a look at the clouds through the telescope and having a look around the observatory.

Our last stop was the Living History Farm, to visit the barn animals and enjoy the beautiful autumn weather. There were blacksmithing and woodworking demonstrations occurring, but the boys gravitated towards the corn grinding – they just wanted to feed the chickens…

Eating their 'lightsabers'

The rest of the weekend was definitely low key. Saturday afternoon we joined families with babies born in the last months with the Greenville Midwives for some food and games, but otherwise there were a lot of Legos. Roberts took frequent naps to try to get rid of the virus that has been plaguing him all month, and I ran errands to fill up our near-empty fridge. We had hoped to head downtown for Fall For Greenville, but it rained almost the entire day Sunday which was probably for the best; although a great time with delicious food and good music, the crowds aren’t so fun with three kids in tow. Maybe next year?

The next Second Saturday at Roper Mountain will be the Fall Harvest Festival on November 8th. For more information on the Science Center and their programs, visit or call 864-355-8900. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Yard House in Greenville

The newest addition to the Woodruff Road restaurant scene is Yard House, the chain that features craft beer and globally inspired American dishes. With my mother in town an extra day to care for the boys, Roberts and I (with Vilis in tow) headed invitations in hand to opening night. Located in the newly improved Magnolia Park near Cabella’s, the chain has locations across the US but is the only one in South Carolina.

We grabbed two of the last open seats at the bar, and our tasting experience began in earnest. I would like to preface that this was my ideal dinner – little portions of a dozen different dishes, giving me the opportunity to try a little of everything! From the appetizer menu we sampled the wings: available in buffalo, firecracker and jerk styles in a choice of traditional, boneless or gardein (the vegan alternative made from soy, wheat, pea proteins, vegetables and grains). I was curious about the gardein, as Yard House has a good choice of menu items with the chicken/beef substitute, but it turns out that with a good sauce the wings did indeed taste “just like chicken.” The blue crab cakes with fresh mango & papaya, passion fruit beurre blanc and tomato oil were perfect, and the chicken garlic noodles stood out with the addition of shiitake mushrooms. We passed on the sliders, but they did seem to be a hit with the crowd. My favorite from the appetizers was the grilled Korean BBQ beef: boneless short ribs, spinach, daikon radish and green onions, the flavors perfectly melded and the meat tender and juicy.

Yard House on Urbanspoon

While we sampled we checked out the bar menu. With 130 draft beer selections of which 26 are from the South and 10 from Greenville, they have the craft beer scene covered. There is the Chalkboard Series, which features a rotating selection of five drafts prominently displayed on a digital “chalkboard.”  The choice of martinis, sake, cocktails and classics was extensive, a “Fresh & Skinny” menu listing options with a calorie range of 140-200 per cocktail.

The house favorites menu category was represented by the penne with chicken, which was accompanied by mushrooms, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, marsala cream sauce and parmesan cheese. The pasta was delicious, but I felt like I should be skipping the carbs to save room for seconds of some of the other foods, such as the skirt steak salad. Possibly my favorite from all the choices I sampled, the unique entrée contained a generous portion of wonderfully marinated skirt steak, peppers, avocado, green beans, home-made chips, onion, tomato and pickled egg all topped by a gorgonzola vinaigrette.

The open kitchen kept us entertained, even while rolling out more tapas; the spicy Thai chicken pizza and the margherita pizza were good, although I would choose one of the seafood entrees before a burger or pizza. The salmon was perfectly cooked despite the volume of food the kitchen was having to keep up with, but the winner was the cilantro lime grilled shrimp, surprisingly served with spicy hummus as well as a brown rice sun-dried tomato tabouleh. The final dish that stood out to my palate was the grilled Korean pork belly, with radish kimchi and seasoned with black & white sesame seeds and chili threads.

Knowing we will not always be so lucky to have a babysitter I was happy to see a yummy-sounding kid’s menu. In addition to the staples of chicken strips, pizza and mac&cheese there were choices like Korean bbq beef, chicken teriyaki and gardein burgers. For opening night things seemed to run rather smoothly, and the staff we had contact with was knowledgeable and courteous. I realize that on this evening it was all hands on deck to showcase the best that they have to offer in terms of taste and presentation, but I have a feeling the experience will be the same on our next visit, if not better once the bartenders and waitstaff have ironed out the kinks and learned the ropes. We'll have to go back to see, also because we had to leave before dessert! Yard House stands out among the restaurant chains in Greenville, with not just their craft beer selection but the quality and variety of food. With gluten-free and vegetarian options, the wings/pizza/sliders, and the more sophisticated and ethnic dishes, Yard House is truly catering to the diverse and international Greenville.
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