Books: i-SPY Creepy Crawlies and i-SPY Trees
2016, Collins Poem: A Calendar of Sonnets: March by Helen Hunt Jackson
How is Spring where you are? Here it is in full bloom and today we finally had a properly warm day. It’s so nice to be able to hang the washing on the line again!
Here is what we’ve been up to lately.
Currently I’m reading a couple of mysteries, but we’ve also been going about looking for signs of Spring with some i-SPY books.
These are particularly fun because you earn points for each species you spot, but there are many nature guides/books out there. The RSPB Handbook of British Birds comes out whenever we see a strange bird on the feeder. If you want a book to read rather than use as a field guide, my husband has been reading The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey. I’ll get back to you if he has any thoughts on it. So far this Spring I have spotted, among others: a wren, dunnocks, robins, goldfinches, honey bees, bumblebees, snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, violets, primroses, and various flowering trees including cherry, apple, and blackthorn.
It’s a great time to go for a walk and see what you can spot! Even small spaces like lawns, hedges and flowerpots will have an amazing world of minibeasts waking up and starting to roam about. And even if you are still snowed in, if you look closely the trees should be budding and birds returning.
The other day my husband made marmalade, which we have never done before. It was quite a production, but now we have a row of gleaming jars full of citrusy goodness. I personally don’t like marmalade, but if you, like my husband and Paddington Bear, are a fan, it’s one of the easier preserves to make.
Marmalade is nice on a toasted tea cake or even hot cross bun on one of those still-chilly mornings. And if you don’t like it, you could have lemon curd instead. Citrus fruits are really nice to have in the colder months, when there are fewer fruits around.
Right now our windowsills are just covered in a variety of seedlings, gathering their strength indoors before they face the cold. There are rows of dahlias, citruses, Black-eyed Susans, and even a little maple grown from seed.
No doubt it will be cold and blustery again tomorrow, but the seedlings are a cheerful sight and fill us with expectation for the Summer.
What have you been reading/eating/doing this March?
Book: All Join In by Quentin Blake
1998, Random House
March is a funny month. It’s still cold (and, in some places, snowy), but the daffodils and crocuses are pushing up, the snowdrops are already blooming, and the trees are all covered in catkins and buds.
Now is a great time to put on your wellies and go for a muddy walk to look for signs of Spring.
Today’s book is All Join In, a book of seven poems written and illustrated by Quentin Blake. They are loosely related in theme, but all relate to a motley group of family/friends who get up to all sorts of activities, usually noisily and messily, but with great enthusiasm. All Join In is all about making music…or just noise.
‘The Hooter Song’ concerns a pair of children who thoughtfully ‘help’ various adults by surprising them with bicycle horns.
‘Nice Weather for Ducks’ is about a muddy walk and joining in the duck song.
‘Sliding’ concerns various means of going downhill quickly: banister, sled, etc.
‘Sorting Out the Kitchen Pans’ is about some more helpful children who take up the noisy task of…sorting kitchen pans.
‘Bedtime Song’ is not a lullaby, but about joining in with yowling cats.
‘All Join In’ (part two) is just about all the various ways the family and/or friends all join in, whether with cleaning, painting, or eating a chocolate fudge banana cake.
These poems are fun for anyone, but they would be particularly fun for younger children, because they are meant to be read aloud. Little children love repetition that they can join in with, and each of these poems has that. They are often fun things to shout out, as well, such as BEEP-BEEP or QUACK QUACK QUACK! They also have the benefit of a simple but effective rhyme scheme which is good for demonstrating how rhyming and poetry work. I certainly know what I will be bringing to class for World Book Day.
The illustrations, of course, are typical Quentin Blake: very lively, fun, and fluid, with lots of funny little details to find. They complement the messy, noisy poems very well and make the characters seem like people you’d love to hang out with.
The downside is that many children would probably be inspired by these poems to start sorting out the kitchen pans! But that could be fun too. So get together in a group, make some noise, walk through mud, do some Spring cleaning, or go sledding, and when that’s tired you out, enjoy a slice of Ferdinand’s chocolate fudge banana cake. Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake (grain-free)
Ingredients For the cake:
1 greenish banana, thickly sliced
3 cups peanut butter (or almond, cashew, sunflower or other nut or seed butter)
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 cup plain cocoa powder
⅔ cup grated coconut
1 cup maple syrup
1.5 Tbsp brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1.5 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
For the frosting/topping:
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 cups cream
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 banana, thickly sliced
2 cups grated coconut
Mix together all of the cake ingredients except for 1 cup of the chopped chocolate. Put greaseproof paper in a round 8 inch cake tin and sprinkle in some of the chocolate you put aside. Then pour in half of the batter and spread with a spatula to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle over some more chocolate and then put your banana slices on top of that. Try to place them on their sides so that when the cake is cut they will be more visible.
After that, pour over the rest of the batter and top with the rest of the chocolate. Bake at 180 C/356 F for 25 – 30 minutes, checking after 20 to make sure it is not getting overdone. It’s OK (and in fact, desirable), for the cake to be a bit squidgy, like a brownie. When the cake is done, wait for it to cool and turn it out. While it is cooling you can make the frosting, which is a basic ganache.
Melt the 2 cups of chopped dark chocolate very gently in a double boiler (you can rig one by using a metal or Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of simmering water). Remove from heat and then slowly whisk in the cream and coconut oil. Put in the fridge for 10 – 20 minutes to cool — you want it to be pourable but not too runny. Meanwhile, put your banana slices on top of the cake (you could try whole bananas like Ferdinand, but I suspected that would end in disaster). Then pour the ganache over the cake. Bananas are quite difficult to coat, it turns out, so you may have to melt some extra chocolate and dip them in. Lastly cover in shredded coconut — because if we’re having chocolate, fudge, and banana we might as well have peanut butter and coconut too.
And it’s OK if it looks super messy because that’s what we’re going for, right?
Also this is only a small cake but then again I’m not feeding five adults, twenty-one children, a cat, and a duck.
This is the perfect treat to enjoy with a glass of milk after a walk in the cold March air. And although Pancake Tuesday is over, we might as well have a couple of days more of a carnival atmosphere of noise and rich food. Especially if it’s raining.
Books: The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books
The other day we went to the first country show of the year. It’s always a lot of fun, with tractor and hedgelaying displays, dogs, falconry, sheep shearing, sheep herding, and much more.
I was excited to see that the May was in bloom, which means it really is properly Springtime!
Where we live it takes a long time for the warm weather to arrive, and even when it does, you can never trust it to stay nice, so we take advantage of the sunshine whenever we can. And one of the best ways to do that is to have a picnic, like the mice do in the “Spring Story” in The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge. The Brambly Hedge stories involve the daily lives of a community of mice. Kind of like Redwall, but without the fighting and violence. The edition of Four Seasons that I read has an interesting introduction which includes the author’s description of how she came to write these stories. She says that one of her favorite pastimes as a child was to observe the tiny lives of little creatures in the grass, which is something that I used to do as well. Another interesting point is that she cites Arthur Rackham and Leonardo da Vinci as her main influences. Arthur Rackham is a wonderful illustrator, but it was da Vinci who inspired her architectural and technical interests.
Apparently all the various dwellings and technology in Brambly Hedge was designed to actually work in real life, “apart from the occasional problem of scale.” Everything the mice use could in theory be provided by the countryside in which they live. You can see this thought and attention in the lovely illustrations, which are fun to pore over to try to see every little minute detail. I thought the introduction was very interesting, and while the stories themselves are obviously for younger children, older children who are interested in illustration, writing, or general world building might find it useful. But on to the story! “Spring Story” is the tale of what happens in the mouse community on a Spring day which happens to be the birthday of young Wilfred Toadflax. The rest of the mice conspire to make a surprise picnic for him. That is the gist of the plot, but the appeal is in the details of the various characters, their homes, and the exciting comestibles they come up with for the picnic.
This chapter is a fun read, and while the text may be difficult for under sevens to read on their own, the pictures are really the star of the show anyway and should be interesting for all ages. And it would be good inspiration for young children to invent their own world, maybe inspired by watching the minibeasts in the grass. It is certainly a great inspiration for a picnic.
Pack in a hamper with two spoons, cloth napkins, and a container for the egg shells. May wine (or Maiwein or Waldmeisterbowle) is a wine steeped with sweet woodruff which might be difficult to get hold of outside of mainland Europe, plus it is not for the kids, obviously. You could substitute any other floral drink like elderflower cordial.
Picnic 2: Sausages & Crumble
(serves 1 )
Italian sausages fried with onions & peppers, and topped with fresh basil
Rhubarb crumble cooked in a mini ramekin with a lid
Bottle of water or apple juice
Pack the sausages, onions and peppers in a ramekin or tiffin with a flat lid. Put the rhubarb ramekin on top of the other tiffin. If you don’t have these exact containers you could use any sort of stackable containers. Put the stacked containers and cutlery (a spork is most useful) on top of a large cloth napkin and tie two corners tightly on top, and then the other two corners over again, like a furoshiki. This is really convenient and easy to carry.
Another thing to consider is entertainment. In Brambly Hedge, after the picnic the grown-ups napped while the children played hide-and-seek, which is totally valid depending upon the circumstances.
But you can also bring a book, which is another benefit of having a hamper.
I brought a book of folk songs because it seemed appropriate for a country show in May. For the second picnic I packed a rhubarb crumble, which is definitely seasonal and an easy dessert. This one is grain-free.
Grain-Free Rhubarb Crumble
4 stalks of rhubarb, chopped
2 1/2 Tbsp butter or other fat
1 cup ground almonds
1/3 cup raw honey or sweetener of choice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/3 c. coconut sugar or other coarse sugar
2 Tbsp gooseberry liqueur or gooseberry jam (optional)
Put the chopped rhubarb in a baking dish (you can also put some in little ramekins like I did for the picnic; everything else is the same, it just cooks in about a 3rd of the time).
Dust with the ginger and dot with the honey. Drizzle over the vanilla and the liqueur or jam if using. Put the rhubarb in the oven under the grill for 5 minutes, just until it starts to soften a bit. For the topping, mix the butter into the almond meal with your fingers until it is fully incorporated, then add the sugar. Sprinkle over the top of your rhubarb. This makes a soft, English-style crumble, if you prefer crunchy you could add flaked almonds, coconut flakes or oats. Bake at 175 C or 345 F for 20 to 30 minutes (10 to 15 for a ramekin). The crumble is done when it is golden and a little bubbly.
With Summer on the way and a long weekend this week both in the UK and the US, now is a great time to pack up your picnic of choice and go find someplace to enjoy the sun.
Books: Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter
1997, Frederick Warne Citrus and Spice: A Year of Flavour by Sybil Kapoor
2008, Simon & Schuster
To further explore the verdant theme and make use of all the cress now growing on my kitchen windowsill, I reread The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, which is an extremely watery, green sort of story, perfect for a rainy day. The story concerns Mr Jeremy Fisher (a frog), who lives in a “damp house amongst the buttercups at the edge of a pond.” So close to the edge, in fact, that the water gets into his larder, but Jeremy Fisher doesn’t mind that; he likes getting his feet wet. He also is pleased when he sees that it’s beginning to rain.
“I will get some worms and go fishing and catch a dish of minnows for my dinner,” said Mr. Jeremy Fisher. “If I catch more than five fish, I will invite my friends Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton. The Alderman, however, eats salad.”
Jeremy Fisher does indeed go fishing, but the rest of the story is a series of misadventures. He fails to catch anything for a long time, so he decides to have his lunch of a butterfly sandwich (!). But while he is eating he is pinched by a water-beetle and hears a mysterious splash which he is afraid might be a rat. Then he catches, instead of a minnow, Jack Sharp the stickleback, who flaps around with his prickly spines, and a shoal of other little fish laugh at Mr Jeremy Fisher. Worst of all, Jeremy is then eaten by a big trout. Thankfully, the trout doesn’t like the taste of Jeremy’s a mackintosh and it spits him out.
Poor Mr Jeremy Fisher can’t offer his friends minnows for dinner, but it turns out all right in the end. Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise brings a salad in a string bag, and Jeremy serves roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce, on the subject of which the author comments:
“which frogs consider a beautiful treat ; but I think it must have been nasty.”
This story is fun for all ages, although it does have a little bit of peril for Mr Fisher. Though he had a bad day, he managed to persevere, adapt and make a nice dinner for his friends anyway.
2 slices sourdough bread (I used Schär gluten free seeded loaf)
2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them)
2 handfuls mixed baby spring greens
2 large snips of cress or mustard & cress
1 tin sardines
2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp good butter
2 Tbsp young leeks, sliced.
1 sheet nori or kombu
4 fillets anchovies
Squeeze of lemon juice
Mustard and hot sauce to taste Method
First make the salad: arrange baby spring greens on two plates, and top with cress, chives, and a couple of anchovy fillets (these are very salty so use caution!). Then cut the nori into one inch strips and sprinkle on top (these are salty too so you only need two or three). If you like you can cut them into shapes — I cut them to look like butterfly wings. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil. Next fry the leeks and slices of bread in the butter on medium heat, or you can also use olive oil.
When the bread is golden, set aside and fry the sardines. Be careful with the sardines as they may fall apart if handled roughly. After a couple of minutes, when they are hot and slightly crisp, remove them and the leeks to a hot plate and fry the eggs. Duck eggs are preferable because they are very rich. They also should take only a minute or two to cook. Try to keep the yolk a bit runny. Add the fried bread to the plates with the salad, and top each slice with a couple of sardines. Then put an egg on top of the sardines. Sprinkle with a bit more cress and chives. At this point you can add a squeeze of lemon, although my sardines came in a tin with lemons, so I just drizzled a little of the lemony oil onto my eggs. Serve immediately with hot sauce and mustard.
Of course, maybe your guest is more like Ptolemy Tortoise and doesn’t want fish. In that case, you could make this cute mini stacked omelet. Cheese & Cress Omelet
1 handful baby spring greens
1-2 Tbsp cheese of choice (I used unpasteurized Red Leicester), grated
1 Tbsp milk or cream
A dash salt and pepper to taste
1 snip cress or mustard & cress
2 eggs (preferably duck eggs)
1 tsp butter or olive oil for frying Method
First add the spring greens with a dash of oil or butter to a medium pan to wilt. This should take less than a minute. Remove and set aside. Add the cream to the eggs, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk them up and pour half the mixture onto a medium hot pan. If you have a mini frying pan you can use that, or you can pour the eggs into a metal cookie cutter to help them keep their shape. Flip the omelet when it starts to bubble in the middle (it should only take about a minute). After another minute, remove the omelet to a hot plate and pour the second half of the egg mixture onto the pan.
While this is cooking, top the first omelet with the wilted greens, cress, and cheese. When the second omelet is cooked, place on top of the first and scatter with a bit more cress, cheese, and baby greens. Serve at once. If Jeremy Fisher’s misadventures don’t put you off, never mind the rain and go fishing!
Whether you fish or not, have friends round for dinner, and cook something with a lot of green. It doesn’t have to be grasshoppers!
Books: Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley
1990, Puffin Citrus and Spice: A Year of Flavour by Sybil Kapoor
2008, Simon & Schuster We have been having a lot of April showers lately, which will hopefully lead to a very verdant Spring. I looked to my stack of cookbooks for some inspiration. Citrus and Spice is a very fun cookbook which has a focus flavor for each month. April’s is “verdant” and the descriptive introduction mentions shoots, herbs and leaves, including the “flavour of crushed watercress.”
You can buy watercress and other cress, but it’s more fun to grow your own. There are many different kinds, but I wanted to grow the same kind as Milly-Molly-Mandy. I have this very cute pink and white striped copy of the Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories. The second story in the book is entitled “Milly-Molly-Mandy Spends a Penny”. In this story Milly-Molly-Mandy finds a penny in the pocket of an old coat.
She asks her family what she should do with it, and they all give different advice: put it in the bank, buy a skein of rainbow wool and learn to knit, buy some seeds and grow mustard-and-cress, buy a little patty-pan and make a cake in it, save it up until she has three and buy a baby duckling, and get some sweets.
In the end, Milly-Molly-Mandy buys some mustard-and-cress seeds, which she plants. At last they grow into a clump of “fresh green mustard-and-cress, that made you quite long for some bread-and-butter to eat it with.” Milly-Molly-Mandy sells the cress to her neighbor for twopence, and then uses one penny to buy some rainbow wool. She asks her grandmother to teach her to knit a kettle-holder. She sells the kettle-holder to her mother for one penny, uses the penny to buy a shiny tin patty-pan, and bakes a little cake. That day, a lady cyclist stops by Milly-Molly-Mandy’s cottage and asks for a glass of milk, and the patty-cake looks so good that she asks if she might have that too. Milly-Molly-Mandy gets a penny of what the lady pays for the milk and cake. The story goes on in this way, and Milly-Molly-Mandy manages to do everything her family suggests, and in the end puts the last penny in the bank to save up for a duckling. This is very cute story for all ages which also has a good message about the good use of money. Milly-Molly-Mandy’s patience and sensible use of her penny enables her to get all the things that she wanted. You probably can’t buy most of the things she buys for a penny anymore. But you can still get mustard and cress seeds for cheap. I did buy some cress at first, but I couldn’t find mustard-and-cress, so I decided to grow my own.
Just a tiny sprinkle of seeds on damp paper towel or soil will grow a nice bunch of mustard-and-cress in only a few days.
To start simple with mustard-and-cress, I took Milly-Molly-Mandy’s suggestion to try it with bread-and-butter. If you don’t have cress, you can always add whole grain mustard to mimic the flavor. Mustard-and-Cress on Bread-and-Butter
1 slice of good bread
1 Tbsp good salted butter
1 bunch fresh growing mustard and cress
OR cress and 1 tsp whole grain mustard
You don’t need a recipe for bread and butter! Add the mustard and cress to taste. This needs to be served right away as the cress will wilt. You probably can’t sell your cress for twopence, but you can grow it, snip it and grow some more!
Book: The Willow Flute: a North Country Tale written and illustrated by D. William Johnson
1975, Little, Brown and Company.
Goodbye Winter! Many flowers are out now: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils. The mornings and evenings are lighter. Now when I have to get up before 6 am there is a slight brightness to the sky, which makes it a lot easier to drag myself out of bed!
However, it is still very, very cold — colder than it was in December (we’ve had a very weird Winter here). So here is a book for cold weather that looks forward to Spring.
The Willow Flute tells the story of Lewis Shrew, who lives in a great forest. One March evening, Lewis puts on his “boots and his old overcoat, his muffler and his mittens” to go out into “the white woods” to gather twigs for firewood.
When he goes out into the woods and sniffs the air, the woods seem different, even though they are still covered in ice and snow. But “a hint of springtime swirled in the wind.” After gathering twigs, Lewis sits down to rest and falls asleep. When he wakes he is disoriented by the night and cold, and he longs for his house and a cheery fire.
Lost and scared to go out on the surface because of owls, he starts to tunnel under the snow. His clothes are soon torn and he loses his muffler.
Eventually he finds shelter in an abandoned cabin. There he finds a willow flute and plays it.
As he plays, the world begins to warm and thaw. Rain falls and melts the snow, and Lewis can now see his own house. It’s a very interesting moment when Lewis begins to play the flute, as the black and white illustrations begin to have color, starting with himself:
This is a strange little book. The writing is simple and straightforward:
“He paused to breathe the good air. The sun sparkled through the trees and caught on the wonderful flute; a robin landed in a pine tree and green things were thinking of growing.”
But the illustrations are idiosyncratic and striking, done in a very bold and graphic style in black & white, with the interesting choice to bring color in gradually with the arrival of Spring. Older children could explore these stylistic choices in art, with the creative use of hatching and crosshatching, detail and negative space, and other techniques to create an interesting image with just pen and ink.
Another interesting idea would be to explore the story itself, as the author makes the interesting choice to not really explain many things — whose cabin is it? How does the magic flute work? What is the meaning of the cryptic sign (“The bird, whistle please”) which is on the cabin door? Who put it there? Why? These could all be good prompts for creative writing.
This is a very interesting book in and of itself, and suitable for all ages. I myself have certainly had the experience of going out of doors in late Winter and finding that something is subtly different — a hint of Springtime is in the air. I have felt that this year already, but right now it is cold! It may well be where you are too. So here are some cold weather recipes.
Maybe my number one comfort food is beef stew. Daube is a French version, which is cheap, healthy and super comforting. I’ve added ox cheek, which is full of collagen to make it extra unctuous and amazing.
5 garlic cloves, chopped, or 2 Tbsp garlic paste
1/2 lb stewing beef
1 ox cheek (optional, you can replace it with more steak or chuck, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got it!)
1 cup carrots, chopped
2 cups onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cup red wine
Chuck all the ingredients into a large Dutch oven or casserole dish with a lid. You can brown the meat and onions first, but I never bother, because who has the time? Cover and put in the oven at about 300 degrees F (that’s about 150 C). Bake for 2 1/2 to 2 hours (but check on it now and again to make sure the liquid isn’t drying out, and top up with water if it is). Once the meat is fork-tender, it is done! Serve on its own, or with egg noodles (I had mine with vareniki).
Since we could probably do with a hot drink, too, here is a recipe for Butter Tea! Butter tea (or po cha) is common in Tibet and neighboring countries, and is a good alternative for people who want to try Bulletproof-type coffee but don’t like coffee! It is very rich and nourishing.
2 cups water
2 black teabags, or loose equivalent (I used chai)
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp butter (yak butter is traditional, but if, like me, you haven’t got it, use some good yellow grass-fed butter)
1/2 cup cream or whole milk
1 tsp honey (optional) Method
Boil the water and then steep the tea. Steep for at least 3 minutes so it’s nice and strong. Add the cream, salt, and butter. If you have a churn or a blender you can use those, or shake in a jar. But be careful — hot liquids can expand and leak! Personally, I use a tiny whisk that I can roll between my hands — almost as quick as an electric mixer and I don’t have to plug it in! I have found that the butter emulsifies wonderfully. Drink while nice and hot! Note: it may be an acquired taste for those not used to it. You can add a teaspoon of honey, which changes it from salty to salty/sweet. Not necessarily authentic, but this recipe isn’t very authentic to begin with!