Monday, August 22, 2016

Harvest Widow Pride

"Go daddy's wingard! GO DADDY'S WINGARD!"

That's our two-year-old's rebel cry this morning, earnestly fastening the Velcro on his sneakers, pushing us out the door to go to daddy's vineyard (which technically isn't daddy's vineyard, but that nuance is lost on a two-year-old). We told the kids at breakfast that the day's adventures included a trip to one of daddy's growers and tasting, smashing, and juicing grapes. I'm not sure which element has our littlest guy so excited - I'm guessing it's the smashing - but needless to say he's ready to get the show on the road. If only I could get this sort of enthusiasm when we actually have to get somewhere.

We pile into the car (in record time!) and head towards Coombsville, the newest AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the Napa Valley. Nestled in the hills to the east of downtown Napa, Coombsville is especially breathtaking for it's sea of rolling vineyards, silhouetted against Vaca mountain range. Along the drive my winemaker husband tells us how this particular vineyard is his favorite to walk at dawn, the sky saturated with pink and orange, the landscape blanketed with fog. As we wind down country roads, I look out at the farm and ranch houses dotting the landscape and imagine what it must be like to wake up to this view every morning. This is the life my husband and I dream of affording one day.

Today's mission has a purpose - sampling grapes for ripeness. It's mid-August and harvest's annual whirlwind is nipping at our heels. The season officially began for our family last week, when my husband's winery had it's first Chardonnay pick. Today's vineyard trip checks off the boxes of work and family time, the latter being at a premium as we will not see much of my husband for the next two months. We each have a marathon before us - his awash in grape juice, mine as a single parent (aka. "harvest widow").

Despite what I know is ahead - incessant "When will daddy be home?" questions, bath time meltdowns because mommy's mo-hawks don't hold a candle to my husband's, a sense of loneliness after the kids go to bed - I have an incredible sense of pride in this time of year. Above all I am proud of my husband, who has risen to become winemaker at one of the most renowned wineries in the valley. This is the season when his expertise shines; when each day he makes a hundred decisions to translate his vineyards' bounty to the bottle. But I am also proud to play my own harvest role by shepherding our family through this challenging time of year. Those on the front lines are the heroes, but they could not do the work that they do without the army of supporters behind them. We help them be at their best so they can craft the wine that makes the Napa Valley famous.

When we arrive at the vineyard our boys can't jump out of their car seats fast enough. They take off like shots down the rows, running until they are little specs in the distance, stopping every few minutes to pluck a grape from a vine and pop it in their mouths. My husband walks up ahead with a Ziploc bag, picking grapes at random. We spend the next half-hour walking down every fourth row or so, so that at the end his bag is full of grapes that represent the overall profile of the vineyard. Our sons assist by declaring that everything is ready to eat - oops, I mean pick - and scouting out our path with machetes made of old vine canes.

Back home the bag of grapes is smooshed with gusto by little hands, the fresh grape juice decanted into jelly jars for the official taste test. Sticky hands and sticky smiles abound. My husband's take is that the berries are still too tart. The refractometer he uses tells him the juice is at 21.3 Brix (a measure of density that roughly approximates sugar), and he'd like to see it between 23 and 24. 

This week things will really start ramping up for our family as all of my husband's Chardonnay vineyards - including this one - are tracking to be picked within the next few days. Then in quick succession will come the Sauvignon Blanc, the Cabernet, the Zinfandel, the Merlot, the Petit Sirah - the list goes on. Within a week or two my husband and his winery team will likely be at work from before sunrise to 10pm or later, processing up to 60 tons of fruit a day.

And at homes like ours throughout the valley, spouses, kids, grandparents and friends will keep things humming so that their loved ones can surrender to the all-consuming nature of harvest. Robert Mondavi once described Napa Valley wine as bottled poetry; families provide the paper upon which it is written.

You might also like...

1. A Simple Christmas 
2. Dancing in the Rain
3. Bye-bye student loans: How we paid off $50K in one year

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dancing in the rain

Parallel parking at Napa library one morning, the bumper sticker on the beat-up 1980's Chevy sedan in front of me caught my eye.  It was a day when I wondered if my sanity had been lost when I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. After the typical battles of eating breakfast (no, I'm not whipping up waffles and bacon today - enjoy your oatmeal), getting dressed (that underwear goes on your bum, not the rocking horse's...), and brushing teeth (honey, please don't use your toothbrush to clean the countertop) we were running behind on our errands, but the phrase emblazoned on the bumper made me stop for a moment and smile.

"Life isn't about how to survive the storm, it's about how to dance in the rain."

We had been living in a metaphorical torrential downpour for months. We'd recently bought a house in need of much fixing, survived the stress of moving with two little ones constantly underfoot, burned the midnight oil with work projects, and - overall - had simply been overwhelmed by life. It was one of those periods where you start to expect things to always go wrong because nothing ever seems to be going right.

It may be silly to say a quote on a muddy, dented bumper was the impetus of a fresh start, but it's true. It spoke to my heart. It's almost as if God placed it there for me to see.

I sat there for a moment and took a deep breath. Despite two tireless toddlers bouncing out of their car seats behind me, there was a moment of quiet within. And it was in that moment of quiet that I felt the start of a new beginning. A clearing of the mind, a recognition of blessings, and the emergence of a less stressed, more glass-half-full person.

Perhaps it was the word "dance" that really spoke to me, because as soon as we got home I blasted techno music and the kids and I shook our booties like it was going out of style. With arms flying and tapping feet christening the bare floors of our new home, the kids and I spun and tumbled and laughed. As I lay, heart pounding, on the floor - two little bodies using me as their jungle-gym - I realized that I had forgotten how good it felt to just let go and feel alive.

A rainbow breaks through the clouds close to our new home.

This year I've gotten pretty familiar with storms, and that's not only because we're in the middle of El Nino here in the Napa Valley. I've learned that life - especially with kids - is a storm. It will always be a storm. Sometimes it may be drizzling with a beautiful rainbow on the horizon, sometimes it will be pouring, and sometimes - like our 2015 - you'll need a raft and life-jacket to stay afloat. But even if the world is raging around you, you can find joy within. You just have to awaken your spirit - and dance - to find it.

Cheers to a great 2016. May you always find time to dance.


You might also like...

1. A Simple Christmas 
2. How we spend $50 or less a month at restaurants
3. Bye-bye student loans: How we paid off $50K in one year

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Easy toddler craft: A windsock to welcome spring

Spring is finally here! Being a bit of a sun-worshiper, I am always happy when the spring equinox arrives and brings with it longer and warmer days. Signs of the new season in our backyard include apple & peach tree blossoms, new seedlings in the greenhouse, asparagus pushing up in the garden, and an abundance of eggs. Inside our home, I love how the extra light streaming through the windows makes our tiny house feel larger and warms the floors under our feet.

With a three-year-old in our home, I'm quickly learning that everything - and I mean everything - provides an opportunity to teach. Spring is no exception. Each week we've been talking about different topics that relate to spring and the outdoors, from birds to trees to light/rainbows to the wind. In regards to the latter, to help him visualize what he cannot see - the movement of air - we made a windsock. What started as a fun project to fill an afternoon has resulted in a permanent addition to our patio that hangs outside our kitchen window. From his seat at our breakfast table our toddler sees the windsock "capture" the wind and reports his findings with glee.

This project is pretty self-explanatory. All you need is a cleaned can (use tape to cover any sharp edges inside), paint, and 20+ pieces of approximately 14'' length ribbon (the number will depend upon the size of your can and the width of your ribbon). Have your child paint the can and once it is dry help him/her glue the ribbons to the inside of the can. Punch holes in the top with a screwdriver and add string and, voila! Your windsock is born.

Though my toddler is typically not very interested in doing crafts, whenever we work on a particularly fun or interesting project he really gets into it. This definitely qualified! He spent over 30 minutes painting the can - both inside and out. He then couldn't wait to add the ribbons. Once we hung it up he was beaming. It warms my heart to know that the small projects that we do (especially those that require planning and prep on my part) add meaning and joy to his day.

What do you like to do with your family to welcome spring into your home? Please share in the comments!



You might also like...

1. 8 fun ways to use Easter eggs with kids
2. Do-it-yourself family photo shoot
3. A ruler growth chart for our growing family

Sunday, March 15, 2015

8 fun ways to use Easter eggs with kids

As a mom of two little boys, there is little more satisfying then coming up with fun, free projects that result in big smiles and busy kids.

Enter the plastic Easter egg. With it being Easter season, you can hardly walk into a grocery or big-box shopping store without tripping over a holiday display with bags and bags of them. At my house, we already have oodles of these colorful little containers collecting dust in the garage. While they might seem rather useless for eleven months of the year, there are actually quite a few fun and even educational things you can do with plastic Easter eggs. Here are some ideas to make the most of your Easter egg collection all year round.

  1. Have your child "cook" with them with their pots and pans. Put them in an egg carton to add to the fun.
  2. Choose one of every color and separate the two halves. Have your preschooler match the halves by color.
  3. Create a Montessori-inspired sensory activity by choosing various small items (popcorn, coins, rice, beans, paperclips, etc.) to put inside the eggs. Close the eggs but do not seal them. Have your preschooler shake the eggs and try to identify which sound goes with each item.
  4. Do the same as in #3, but use a hot glue gun to seal the eggs and turn them into maracas. My 11-month old LOVES these. (Popcorn makes the best shaker.)
  5. Take one half of an egg and use it to make circles with paint.
  6. Take a handful of eggs to your sandbox. Enough said.
  7. Practice counting and recognizing numbers by writing a number on the outside of each egg and putting the corresponding number of pompoms inside.
  8. Make a list of fun activities to do with your child and place one inside each egg. Do a hunt around the house and complete the activities as you find each egg.
Have another way to repurpose Easter eggs? Please share in the comments.

Cheers and Happy Easter!


You might also like...

1. Make easy peppermint costumes
2. Easy, frugal and festive: Salt Dough Christmas Ornaments
3. Make your own kitchen cleaner

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The incredible, edible oat

Growing up one of my favorite breakfast foods was Quaker Instant Oatmeal. I loved picking out my own individually-sized packet from the box of assorted flavors and "making it" myself (aka. adding hot water or milk). My favorite flavor was strawberries and cream, because the freeze-dried strawberry pieces (really, strawberry-flavored and sugar-infused milk sponges of questionable origin would be a more appropriate description) turned the milk pink. Those were the days when I thought pink milk was perfectly normal. Sweet tooth? Oh my, you betcha.

Fast forward thirty years. While my sweet tooth is still going strong, since moving to California eight years ago I've developed a passion for eating simple, whole foods. Foods with ingredients that, as Michael Pollan would say, your great-grandma would recognize (sorry, Instant Oatmeal - you don't qualify). Being a new mom has taken this interest to the next level as I'm now not only eating healthy for myself but want our kids to grow up loving wholesome, nutritious food. (Mom, if you're reading this, I want to let you know I place the blame for those Instant Oatmeal packages  - and the Pop Tarts, Toaster Streusel, and unlimited Entenmenn's Coffee Cake - on Dad and thank you for all of the nourishing, delicious food you cooked for us as kids. P.S. Dad, thank you for the sweet tooth.)

Enter the oat. I'm talking about the real deal, which comes in 32 ounce round cardboard containers (or the bulk bin) from the grocery store. It wasn't until our oldest son was born that I discovered these beauties sitting quietly on the bottom shelf of the cereal aisle. It started with baby steps - buying one container and making fresh oatmeal and a batch or two of granola - and now it's to the point where whenever we walk into Target my son tells me we need to get more oats. Last week we bought four containers because they were on sale. I'm now so familiar with purchasing oats that I can even tell you, down to the penny, the cost of 32 ounces of oats at Trader Joe's, Target, and Walmart.  The best deal? Target at $2.99 for 32 ounces (or $2.69 when on sale).

Oats are not only an inexpensive, healthy whole grain to feed your family, but are simple and fun to cook. It's easy to involve kids in making things like oatmeal or granola as the ingredients are straightforward, typically on-hand and easy to mix together. In our home we make oatmeal a few times a week (which is just about as instant as Instant Oatmeal), use leftovers to make oatmeal pancakes, and every Sunday my three-year-old helps me make a big batch of granola. He loves mixing (and eating) it so much that I think he wishes we made it every morning. Bonus? When baking in the oven it makes our house smell heavenly.

Below are our weekly go-to oat-inspired recipes. Have one of your own? Please share in the comments. I hope you enjoy!



You might also like...

1. Scones that even I can't screw up
2. How my slow cooker got her groove back
3. Better than Belgian: How to make restaurant-style waffles at home

(Almost-instant) Oatmeal
Makes 2-3 servings.

1 cup regular (or quick) oats
2 1/4 cup milk
Extras: Pinch of cinnamon, handful of raisins or cranberries, honey or maple syrup to sweeten

Add the oats and milk together in a saucepan and place on a medium heat burner. Once the mixture begins to simmer turn down to low. The oatmeal will be ready to eat in approximately 5 minutes, once the oats soften. Add additional ingredients or sweeteners to taste.

Easy Granola
Makes 4-6 servings.

Solid Ingredients

3 cups whole oats
1/2 cup nuts
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup sunflower or pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Liquid Ingredients

1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together the solid ingredients in a large bowl. Melt the butter if using. Add the other liquid ingredients to the butter or oil and blend well. You should have about 3/4 cup fat/liquid mix to every 3 cups oats. Mix the liquids into the solid ingredients.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the granola on top and pat into a single layer. The granola will bake for 20-30 minutes, depending upon if you used butter or olive oil as the fat. You can either stir the granola at about 15 minutes when it starts to brown on top, or leave it in the oven undisturbed the whole time (if you do,  keep a close eye on it so it does not burn). Remove from oven when the top of the granola has a golden brown color. The parchment paper on the bottom of the tray will have browned it from below.

When cool, mix in the dried fruit of your choice (cranberries, blueberries, raisins, etc.). Store in an air tight container.

This recipe doubles easily.

Oatmeal Pancakes
Makes about 20 3 inch pancakes.
From the Joy of Cooking.

Whisk together in a large bowl:
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat in a separate bowl:
2 eggs

Stir in:
1 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
1/2 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 mashed banana (our family's favorite addition)

Quickly stir this mixture into the dry ingredients. The batter may appear lumpy. Use 1/4 cup batter for each pancake.