Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Zahara's New Play Kitchen

Dan and I were thinking about what to get Zahara for her second birthday, so naturally I turned to Pinterest for ideas. Play kitchens seemed to be popular, and having seen Zoey enthusiastically play with them at friends' houses, we knew it was the right choice for us.

At first I had all sorts of wild ideas about making a kitchen from old cabinets, or even from scraps of wood. Dan brought me to my senses and reminded me that I am no longer a spouse on sabbatical with endless free time. Instead, we decided to go for the middle ground between of store-bought and home-made: an IKEA hack.

IKEA sells a great play kitchen for a reasonable price. I loved the size and the various components, but I was not a fan of the look. I'm just not into that raw birch look.

Once again I turned to Pinterest to find examples of glammed-up IKEA Duktigs. I decided on white cabinets, a butcher-block counter, and a pop of color in the top bookshelves. I had a few of the supplies I needed, and gathered the rest at Home Depot.

Dan was out of town the week before Zahara's birthday, which meant I needed to work from home so I could do drop-offs and pick-ups for little Z. Since I wasn't spending two hours each day commuting, I actually had time during the day to work on this kitchen. It was perfect timing.

The first step in creating Zahara's custom kitchen was sanding all the raw pieces of wood with 150 grit sandpaper. I gave all sides a light sanding so that it would accept the paint more evenly.

I had a quart of paint color-matched to the IKEA white, using a recipe I found online. I gave each piece three very thin coats. After two coats I could still see a little bit of the raw wood peeking through, but after three it was perfect.

I used my leftover stain from the DIY ruler to make my butcher block. I love the warmth that the dark wood adds. Two coats were perfect to create this look.

After giving everything a few days to cure, Dan was home and it was time to assemble. We waited until the night before her birthday so she would wake up to a fun surprise. I know this sounds weird, but it's nights like these that really make me feel like a parent. Assembly didn't take too long, but staying up and putting together a surprise for the morning just feels like a classic play out of the parent playbook.

I mentioned before that I wanted to add a pop of color to the bookshelves. I waited until everything was assembled to measure out where to paint. Then I painted a couple of quick coats on what would become the two end cubbies.

We decked out the new kitchen with some adorable pots and pans and a 14-piece vegetable set, both from IKEA. Our friends helped stock the fridge with some play groceries (thanks Dani and Brian!).

I could not love this kitchen any more; it came out even better than I could have imagined. And for Zahara, it was love at first sight! It gives me such pleasure to watch her washing her veggies, making meals in her microwave, and cooking on the stove.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Zahara's Second Birthday Party

I've heard from multiple sources that when planning a party for  a two-year-old, the mantra should be "keep in simple stupid." Toddlers are not known for their love of sharing, so inviting a host of babies into their space to play with their toys may not be the best idea. With that in mind, we planned a small barbecue at our local playground with just a few friends. It actually went pretty well!

A couple of things really helped: the tents and the water table. Zahara pretty much stayed at the water table the entire time. 

I have a tendency to go overboard with party planning, but I reigned myself in this year. I don't have nearly as much free time now that I'm working again, and I knew that time would be better spent elsewhere. I simply reused bunting I made for Dan's 30th birthday and for Zahara's first birthday. I think it still looked pretty festive.

I made cute little party favors from goodies we found a the Dollar Store. I used paint pens to draw a little elephant on each bag, and stuffed them with a couple of race cars, a squishy football and a box of chalk.  

We kept the food simple too: hot dogs and hamburgers and all the fixings. For dessert we ate rainbow cupcakes and watermelon.

Dan's parents and sister came in town to help celebrate. We extended the party for one more week when my parents came in town. Zahara is so lucky to have so many friends and family who love her.

Sure, there were a few tantrums, but overall, everyone seemed to have a great time. I can't believe my little baby is already 2. Happy birthday Zoey Jane!

Read about Zahara's other birthdays:
Zahara's First Birthday

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dear Zahara: 24 Months

Dear Zahara,

It seems impossible, but you are two years old today. The last two years have been the fastest, hardest, funniest, craziest time in our lives, and we wouldn't trade it for the world.

It is so fun watching you navigate the world through your imagination and curiosity. We've entered the "what is that" phase of toddlerhood. So far I don't mind answering that question as many times as you ask. I love seeing you piece bits of information together to form new concepts. It amazes me how much you understand about the way the world works.

You love using your imagination to play pretend. We dress up like superheroes, have tea parties, and take care of our "babies." You love giving your stuffed animals new diapers and bottles, and shushing or singing to them if they are "crying." Less adorably, you like to pretend to be a baby yourself and will often whine or cry until I pretend to give you a bottle. That game isn't my favorite.

You're very interested in anything that mummy and daddy are doing. You especially love cooking with us and pretending to put on makeup with mummy. We really have to watch everything we say because you hear it all! You'll often repeat back phrases that we weren't even aware we said. Most often you'll boss the kitties around by shouting phrases like, "girls, be nice," "no fighting," and "Zuzu, off the table!" These are all classic things mummy says to our cats.

If you could, you'd spend all day at our neighborhood park on the swings. Every day as soon as you get home from daycare, all you want to do is get on your tricycle and go to the park. That's our favorite story time. You'll usually ask for a particular story--pirate, mermaid, and astronaut are top requests.

Zahara, every day you truly live up to the meaning of your name: bringer of light. We love being your parents--especially when you tell us that we're your friends. Right back at you kid!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fun and Funky Japanese Dinner

Have you ever heard of izakaya restaurants? I hadn't. They are sort of like a Japanese tapas restaurant in that you order a few small plates at a time over several rounds. Last night we went with some friends to Daikaya Izakaya in Washington, DC and it was phenomenal!

Terrible lighting; great friends

The atmosphere in Dikaya Izakaya is funky and cool--totally befitting the type of food and drinks they serve. Dishes were weird, sometimes scary, but always absolutely delicious. Between Dan and I, we ate six small plates plus a dessert. I was pleasantly full, but not stuffed.

We started our culinary tour with some drinks. Now, this is a nice place, so when we saw sake bombs on the menu, we were sure there was some twist. Sure enough, it was a mixture of Japanese beer and ginger beer with a sphere of sake that exploded when it hit your tongue. Much less messy than the traditional version. It was too gingery for me, but it was a cool concept.

Our first round of food brought a salt-grilled mackerel with grated chili and daikon, and a crazy dish called chawanmushi that was one of my favorites of the evening. Chawanmushi is a steamed egg and dashi custard with shiitake mushroom sauce and parmesan cheese. The texture was incredible--almost like a panna cotta. Very smooth and creamy. The mushrooms lent tons of umami to the dish while the parmesan added the perfect amount of salt. I could have eaten five of these dishes.


Next we had the grilled avocado and tuna poke. The avocado was so simple and so perfect. The poke was really interesting too. It had big chunks of macadamia nuts, bits of seaweed and was drizzled with sesame oil. I loved it.

Here's the sign of a great restaurant. Based on online reviews, our friends ordered the pork and Brussels sprouts skewers, which they said were every bit as delicious as promised. When we told the waiter we don't eat pork, he brought us a new vegetarian menu and told us about each item that could be made into a veggie version. We ordered the Brussels sprouts minus the pork, and they absolutely lived up to the hype. So good!

Our last savory dish was one of my favorites of the night: the cod roe spaghetti. I was pretty scared of this one, but thought I'd give it a try. It was perfect. Creamy, salty, a little crunchy from the roe---just really complex and interesting.

Often the fancier the restaurant, the more disappointing the dessert. For someone with a huge sweet tooth like mine, that's not a great end to an evening. Thankfully, Dikaya Izakaya did not fall into that trap. Our chocolate ice cream with miso-banana caramel was the perfect end to the meal.

Chocolate ice cream with Japanese custard in the background

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Family Fun in Boston

I am so proud of my sister in-law Amy, who just graduated from Framingham State University! This is a huge accomplishment for anyone, but I'm particularly proud of Amy who did it all on her own. Of course she had love and support from her friends and family, but it must have been tough when her parents moved to Florida last year and she stayed in Massachusetts to finish school. Not only did she survive, she thrived! She even made Dean's list her final semester!

Dan, Zahara and I flew up to watch Amy walk across the stage last month. This was the first time we've been to Boston since Dan's parents moved. Dan still has a lot of family in town and we were able to stay with his cousins Paul and Yana. It was great spending time with them and their little boy Sasha. We don't get to do it nearly enough.

Sasha, who just turned three, is all boy. He loves running, throwing, kicking, jumping and getting dirty. It was so fun watching him and Zahara play. Paul and Yana have an amazing house in the middle of the woods where the kids were able to run and chase each other. My favorite moments were when Zoey was running after Sasha begging him for a kiss.

We also got to spend some quality time with Paul's brother Jim, his wife Nathalie and their two-year-old Nina. The last time all three cousins got-together was when Zoey was only a few months old. To see the three of them play together was absolutely amazing. We went to a farm which was a huge hit. The kids especially loved the chickens and the hay ride.

Jim and Nathalie had us over to their house for a play date while Sasha and Yana went home for a nap. The girls ate some ice cream, read some stories and had a mostly-tantrum-free time. I mean, they are two years old after all.

A few miles outside Paul and Yana's town is the best ice cream place I've been to outside of Italy: Uhlman's Ice Cream. It is so creamy and indulgent. Dan took me there ten years ago when we were first dating. I am so happy it lived up to my memories of it. We even let Zahara have some, and man, did she love it!

I wish we had more time to spend with the rest of the family, but I'm so glad we got to bond with our cousins. I really hope we can make this a regular affair.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dear Zahara: 23 months

Dear Zahara,

Happy 23 month birthday! I can't believe next month you'll be two! Where has the time gone??

We had a lot of fun this month visiting family and enjoying the beautiful weather. You were your usual, adorable, talkative self. Some new phrases have entered your lexicon that are cracking us  up. Current favorites include: "I don't care, daddy" and "that music is awful." If there's one thing you are not lacking, it's an opinion. You've got one about everything.

This month you're really into imitating. Whether you're pretending to put on make up with mummy or cooking with daddy, you love doing grown-up things. You also imitate words and phrases. Mummy will be telling daddy a story and suddenly you'll chime in with "blah blah blah," a phrase that until now mummy didn't realize she said so often.

I wish that you will always be as happy, loving and adorable as you are right now. We love you oodles of noodles! 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Homemade Beef Tamales

When my sister was only a few years old my parents hired a live-in helper. Cheva took care of Bradi and I throughout our childhood. She cooked, she cleaned, but more importantly she became a part of our family.  Bradi is now 28 years old and lives on her own, but Cheva still lives with my parents. Like I said, she's family.

Mom and Cheva being silly

My dad is a world-class cook, so we rarely had need for anyone else to to help out in the kitchen. But every now and then Cheva would make an incredibly authentic Mexican feast. My favorite treat was her homemade tamales. She'd usually use my dad's leftover brisket or turkey. Sometimes it would be extra fancy with prime rib. She'd make dozens upon dozens and we'd store them in the freezer for rainy days.

I'm not sure why I've never attempted to make tamales before. But a few weeks ago I made a crock pot beef roast. It was really flavorful, but a little dry. It occurred to me that it would make a great filling for tamales. The next day I was off to the store gathering ingredients. Dan made the tamales and they were awesome! This recipe is definitely a keeper.

Homemade Pot Roast Tamales
Original recipes from here, here and here

Crock Pot Pot Roast*
  • 2 pound boneless beef chuck shoulder roast
  • 2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2.5 tablespoons of taco seasoning (recipe below)
  • Place all ingredients in a crock pot and cook for 8-10 hours on low, or until meat pulls apart with a fork.
  • Shred meat and discard carrots (or reserve and eat separately)
  • Reserve juices

Taco Seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • Combine all ingredients
  • Store remaining seasoning in an airtight container

Original recipe from here

  • 1 bag dried corn husks, about 18
  • 2 cups instant masa mix
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 cups reserved beef broth from drippings*
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • Soak dried corn husks in a bowl filled with warm water for 30 minutes to soften
  • Measure the remaining juices from your pot roast. Supplement with beef stock for a total of two cups of liquid
  • In a large bowl, combine the masa and baking powder. Pour the broth into the masa a little at a time, working it in with your fingers
  • In a small bowl, beat the vegetable shortening until fluffy. Add it to the masa and beat until the dough has a spongy texture
  • Rinse, drain and dry the corn husks. Put them on a baking sheet and cover with a damp towel
  • Lay one of the husks on a plate with the smooth side up and the narrow end facing you. Spread a thin, even layer of masa over the surface of the husk with a tablespoon dipped in water
  • Add around a tablespoon of the meat to the center of the masa. Fold the narrow end up to the center and then fold both sides together to enclose the filling. Pinch the wide top closed. Use butcher's twine to tie the tamale together 
  • Stand the tamales up in a large steamer or colander with the pinched end up. Place the steamer into a large pot filled with 2 inches of water. The water should not touch the tamales
  • Lay a damp cloth over the tamales and cover with the lid. Keep the water at a low boil, checking periodically to make sure the water doesn't boil away. Steam the tamales for 40 minutes
  • The tamales are done when the inside pulls away from the husk. The tamale should be soft but not mushy

The final result isn't beautiful, but it is delicious! Can't wait to make these again soon!

*The raw pot roast and all of its ingredients can be put in a ziplock bag and frozen for up to three months. To cook, thaw in freezer the night before and cook according to directions above. Or, cook from frozen for approximately 10 hours.