Puzzles are good for you!

Jigsaw puzzles are a great learning tool for kids, from preschool age on up. They help to build fine motor skills, reasoning, patience, hand-eye coordination, problem solving, memory, shape and pattern recognition, and organizational skills. When my daughter started attending preschool at age 3 she got really into puzzles, and we have enjoyed doing them ever since, working our way up from 25- to 100- to 200-piece projects.

This is our puzzle corner of the "activity closet." Ravensburger are especially good!

It occurs to me that jigsaw puzzles probably offer the same benefits for grown ups as for little kids. I have done two larger jigsaws this week with family and found them to be deeply satisfying. For example, doing a puzzle is much better than fiddling with my smartphone because there are dimensions. Also it's lovely to have someone do a puzzle with you. You can give each other little assignments: "You work on the penguin and I'll do the turkey," or "Let me know if you find pieces of this orange guy." It's a way to be together that's simpler than face-to-face conversation and a relief from the ubiquitous screen time.

Christmas Day diversion: "Alexander the Great Enthroned at Persepolis," a Springbok puzzle, 500 pieces (the actual manuscript folio is housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore)

Boxing Day diversion: "Birds of the World," a Cobble Hill puzzle, 400 pieces (Cobble Hill puzzles have very large pieces grading to very small pieces so young and experienced can both partake)

The Springbok puzzle of Alexander happened to be from the 70s or 80s, and the box contained a useful brochure on how to host a PUZZLE PARTY. I hope if you click on each image you can get more detail, because the suggestions are very useful.

On Christmas Day I reminisced with my elder relation about the REAL puzzle parties back in the day. I remember observing the very particular gestures of the women as they chatted (women seemed to be the main jigsaw champs). She would confidently pick up a piece, try it out in a few ways, then if it didn't match, toss it down without breaking focus and move on to another likely piece. It was that singular trying-it-out-while-talking-about-something-else motion that I found myself making again and again some 30 years later. It felt right. I want to have a puzzle party!

What are your jigsaw experiences? Isn't the yellow puzzle brochure full of great puzzle party ideas?

Running Recap 2014, Goals 2015

It was a good running year. I wasn't as fast as last year, but I was consistent. This is my second year of weekly long runs (generally 10-12 miles long), and I think it is paying off in overall endurance. It was also my first year of winter running outdoors and that really freed up my training and versatility during the early, cold, dark months of the year.

Here are a few notes about this year...

My first goal was also the biggest single event—a half marathon in May. I felt a lot stronger and better prepared this time, but the middle of the race was still a crazy, long slog. Next time I'm seriously considering bringing my iPod. I'm not sure how I feel about music during a race (is it cheating?). I think bringing my iPod would make the race more bearable and probably improve my time. I'm probably going to have to try it just to see if that's true!

I did all of my "usual" shorter races this year, four 5ks, a 4-miler and a 3-miler. In the 5ks I came in either 2nd or 3rd woman in 100% of them, so that's good. I was defending two firsts though and didn't make either one. There were some speedy women in the field this year, and I was happy with my times and efforts despite not WINNING and all.

I enjoyed my longest streak so far, during which I ran every day from Memorial Day to July 4. Even though many of those days I only ran 1 mile, it made June one of my highest mileage months of the year. My highest mileage ever was in November, when I set the goal of running 100 miles in one month. I succeeded.

November 2014 mileage: 100.69 miles. YAY!

For general fitness, I run with a group every Tuesday morning, try to lift weights once a week, do 2-mile fun runs every other week in the summer, try to run 4 miles of hills every Thursday morning, go to SPIN class on Fridays, and get in my Sunday long run every week. I add things when I can, but try hard not to drop things because it makes me grumpy.

I love running so much. I can't really explain it. I love that it's possible. If I set a goal for myself, I can work toward that goal slowly but surely, and many times I will be successful. I'm probably never going to write a novel, never going to have a big beautiful house near the ocean, maybe never even travel in Europe again, but I can run. I can run far, I can run long, I can run faster, and that possibility feels great.

Also I should probably note that I have become obsessed with ultrarunning recently—running a distance longer than a marathon, often on trails. This might be something I'm going to work up to as I just can't shake the idea, crazy as it sounds.

Set goals for success! Here's what I have in mind for 2015

2015 Goals:

Continue with usual shorter races (four 5ks and two holiday runs)
Try a new distance: 10k? 50k?
More snowshoeing in the winter months
More fun runs in summer months

Half Marathon (probably the same one in May)
Streak from Memorial Day-July 4
November Pile on the Miles
Get a couple of 100+ mile months
Learn more about using heart monitor
Try some trail running, get more confident on hills
change hydration system (handheld? I still hate my waistpack)
pay more attention to nutrition, both while running and with everyday food

This book, Believe Training Journal by Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-Dumas, is going to help me!

It's a handsome training journal with tons of tips co-written by one of my running idols, Lauren Fleshman. She even signed it!!

Have you started thinking about 2015? Any goals already in mind?

Swedish Pancakes

We inherited a pile of cast iron pans. I Googled how to restore rusty ones, then checked out the pile on the garage floor. (That curved blade on the upper left is part of a SCYTHE. Why do we have a scythe??)

First I checked if any were Lodge brand, of which I own 4 other cast iron items. I am very dedicated to Lodge! But they were not Lodge.


Next I spread them out for a better look. Several of the pans were not so much rusty as crusty--with baked-on gunk clinging in a stubborn black layer that would take a ton of elbow grease to remove.


I settled on restoring this one pan that has 7 shallow indentations. I scrubbed it with steel wool to remove rusty spots. Then I washed it and dried it thoroughly. Next I covered it with spray-on canola oil and placed it in a 350-degree oven for an hour. The oil baked on in a shiny layer.

Next I went back to Google to find out what the pan is actually for. It turns out to be a "Swedish pancake pan." That makes total sense, as the person we inherited it from had a proud Swedish heritage. So I put it to use for our Sunday morning pancakes. In the above photo I'm cooking up our favorite Bob's Red Mill 10-grain pancake mix.

The little, perfectly round pancakes are super adorable! Shown here with sweetened Vermont whipped cream, my children's favorite pancake accompaniment.

This was a great garage find! Have you found any garage treasure, or used your elbow grease lately?

Salted caramel apple hand pies

Like many recipes I've tried lately, I found this on Pinterest... it's by Just a Taste. I would say these pies are a bit hard to make, and reallllly easy to eat. Actually, they have the same delicious flaky-hot inhalable quality that I remember loving in McDonald's Apple Pies when I was little. Here are my ACTION PACKED photos. (Please visit Just a Taste for the recipe.)

Are there "consciously crafted" caramels at our local food coop? Why, yes there are. 

Basically the recipe has you prepare the dough, prepare the filling, then assemble into adorable morsels.

Top a 3-inch round of dough with filling and some dabs of chopped caramel. Sprinkle on salt.

Cover with another 3-inch round.

Seal with a fork.

Brush each pie with beaten egg, then slash... with elegance.

My helper got creative and made a candy-cane shaped pie. It leaked a bit but worked out fine!

Plate o' pies. Handy!

The filling does shrink a but, but these pies were delightful. Have them plain, with vanilla ice cream, with whipped cream, with cheddar--any way you like.

It seems like the apple baking time of year--have you been doing any? I've made apple pie and apple crisp before, but these little guys were new for me. Recommended!

Hermit Thrush Brewery, Brattleboro Beer-to-Go

There's a brand new brewery in my town, and it may be the closest one to my actual home. It's called Hermit Thrush Brewery and lives on High Street in the location of the old Blue Moose store, formerly known as Collected Works, formerly known as Green Mountain Bookstore. It has been remodeled with storied barn board, shiny brewing equipment, soothing terra cotta-colored paint, and rustic shelves of tasteful house stemware.

Here's what you should do at the Hermit Thrush Brewery. Go in and pick a tasting of 4 beers. Then, pick your favorite and put a deposit on a growler ($3 for small, $5 for large), and pay for it to be filled. Next time you visit, bring your clean empty growler and pay for another fill--no more deposit. If you want to taste again, you can get a single tasting or another flight of 4. It's that easy.

Since the place had only been open for 2 days, we of course had to taste almost everything! The Brattlebeer was super light, made with fresh pressed local apples. Brooks Brown was their brown ale, malty yet still light. The Tardy Pumpkin was an unsweetened, unspiced pumpkin ale--we liked it a lot. The High Street VIPA was, of course, a hoppy treat that I'm planning to get to know better in the future.

Check out this promising new brewery, many more beers to come it sounds like!

Cincinnati and a big surprise

Earlier this month I went on my longest business trip in years: first a daylong meeting in Chicago, then 3 days of meetings in the Cincinnati area. Travel likes this means living in an artificial world of airports, dining out, meeting rooms, and taxis. There's nowhere to go for a walk, nowhere to buy groceries let alone prepare food. I ran 15 miles during the course of the trip, but never outside--it was all on hotel treadmills. It was a fruitful trip though, and I am grateful to have hilarious coworkers to travel with. Here are some food photos that help tell the story.

A shaved beet salad eaten in a hotel restaurant called Andiamo, which is inside Chicago's O'Hare airport. The green part of the salad was mostly arugula and mustard greens, so quite piquant. There were sticky-sweet bits of lemon-almond praline rather randomly scattered about.

The next night's dinner was also at O'Hare, Romano's Macaroni Grill. Here are drinks for three--a margarita, a bloody Mary, and I had the La Rossa.

I ordered appetizer romano meatballs and they were actually amazing. They definitely had some orange zest going on. Also a mediocre house salad.

Then on to Ohio. The facility where we worked had a barista machine: the buttons say things like cappuccino, whipped coffee, coffee latte, whipped milk. I need one of these.

We dined at a Malaysian restaurant (Straits of Malacca) that was pretty good. My dish was called Hokkien Mee—it was thick, chewy, delicious rice noodles with shrimp, chicken, and baby bok choy. Our dinner conversation with local hosts revolved mostly around baseball teams and beer, one of these topics being of great interest to me. (We discussed Vermont's small-batch and highly sought after Heady Topper by The Alchemist, as well as the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati which was home to 38 breweries before Prohibition and is staging something of a comeback. If I ever visit again I want to go on a Cincinnati Brewery Tour.)

The facility with the awesome coffee machine also provided a breakfast buffet (hardboiled eggs, yogurt, berries, granola, bagels, cream cheese) and a hot lunch buffet. Above is lunch on Italian day--meatballs, grilled chicken and vegetables with a creamy pesto sauce.

At another dinner I got a semi-local beer, Commodore Perry IPA by Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland.

Aladdin's Eatery was a Middle Eastern place; I ordered beef kibbee. It looks a bit dry here, but once I asked for tahini sauce and hot sauce to douse the kibbee it was excellent. Rich savory spiced beef studded with pine nuts. I want some more right now.

This wasn't my beer, but it's evidence that we were in Kentucky on this trip. Because the Cincinnati airport is actually in Northern Kentucky. Who knew?!

My beer this time was a Goose Island IPA, from Chicago.


We were at an Outback Steakhouse so we had to get a Bloomin' Onion.

My bacon cheeseburger was surprisingly delicious. Tip: Don't order a steak at an airport steakhouse, because they will NOT give you a proper steak knife. A fellow diner had this problem. We saw a guy at another table actually pick up his steak and start gnawing it.

And then...

When I got home from this trip, late on a Friday night, I was met with a rather major surprise. It was something that had been brewing without my knowledge for weeks, and took three in-laws and several close friends to pull off.

You may recall that a few months back in July I reluctantly traded in my VW Jetta TDI for a Subaru. I missed the VW. It was fun to drive and it had a certain unique class that a Subaru doesn't have. In fact, everybody in Vermont has a Subaru. When I go to drop my son off at his progressive preschool I park in a line of seven other Subarus. Oddly, this dropoff was also one of the times when I would encounter my Jetta being driven around town by the guy who took the trade. I traded it to him for the bare minimum price, in my opinion, being $300. But being a mechanic, he saw its potential and proceeded to fix it up and use it as his driving-around car. So I kept seeing my beloved car, that I'd let go for a pittance, being driven around town and seeming perfectly fine! It's true I couldn't afford to fix it, but still... it bugged me.

At the same time, my spouse's even more ancient car had finally become illegal at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. That's because it was only inspected up until October 2014, and we didn't think we could get it renewed easily without pouring in money for repairs. (For instance, why bother starting your car with the correct key when it will start just as well with a screwdriver? Which is what my husband was using. It was in that kind of shape.) So all week while I was traveling, I kept thinking about how that old Benz would probably be gone when I got home--maybe sold to someone for $300.

These two car stories collided the moment my ride from the airport pulled onto my street to drop me off at 11:30 at night. There in the driveway, in the dark, next to my Subaru, and in the place where the Benz used to be, was MY JETTA. I peered at it as I tried to piece together what I could possibly be seeing. As I struggled to compute, I noticed that a) it really was my Jetta, not some bizarre doppelganger, because it had dents in all the right places, b) it really seemed to belong there, because it was bearing the same license plates that had earlier in that week been on the Benz, and that I knew for a fact belonged to my husband, c) my husband was coming out of the house saying, "Look at my new car! The kids love it!!" He'd been waiting up for me to enjoy the surprise that he'd been working on for days. It was so funny, and I was so totally flabbergasted! What a guy.

Home again. I love my family.

Adorable, cozy luncheon? Try Pickity Place!

We've been lunching at Pickity Place for as long as I can remember. Over the course of about 30+ years we have visited now and again for a charming multi-course lunch in the ultimate woodland tea-room. They serve the exact same menu for a month at a time, and the dishes have heavy emphasis on herbs grown in their own gardens, from herb dips to herbal tea to edible flower garnishes.

Lately we have been making a special effort to get to Pickity Place for a ladies lunch about once a year. My mother, my daughter, and I drive for over an hour to get to "Little Red Riding Hood's house" (it was used as a model for the Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood back in 1948).



 That's a wolf-in-the-bed pillow

The gardens and atmosphere are delightful!




You'll happen to find a lovely blog about last year's mouthwatering menu here. Here's what we had today in October 2014...

Herbs are everywhere, from tucked in the water carafe to sitting sweetly on the table.

Butterfly crackers and herb dip, plus crayons already set out for our younger diner.

Butternut squash soup with ginger creme fraiche. Super chicken-y and savory.

You get complimentary tea or coffee--I picked the spiced tea which was so sweet it tasted like cider. 

Salad with apple, pear, cauliflower & Stilton. 

We were each served a warm slice of cranberry ciabatta bread with orange cranberry butter--so infused with berries it was pink.

 The main course was chicken with a walnut crust and side of sautéed squash. The chicken had a delicious apple-sausage stuffing.

Toffee cheesecake with heathbar crunch, raspberry cream, mountain mint, and strawberry. 

People under 12 can select a half order of the entree, or a kid's menu item. Our kid picked the latter: sandwich, apple, cookies. The latter two come in a cute basket.


The main kid's course was a giant tuna sandwich. One could also choose grilled cheese, cream cheese & jelly or PBJ.

There are not one but two shops on the grounds, plus a picturesque herb drying shed... see below.



As we were leaving we lamented not seeing a cat on this trip. Then we turned the last corner.