Thursday, April 26, 2012

Strawberry sweetness

A beautiful, vibrant rainbow greeted us yesterday morning when we looked out the kitchen window. My 3-year-old daughter Pamela was especially excited to see the colorful wonder. I couldn't help but hope the special sighting signified promise for our day.

But as the rainbow faded and more rain sprinkles showered our neighborhood, our hope for strawberry picking later in the morning dimmed. Pamela put on her "strawberry" dress anyway, perhaps drawing hope from the rainbow that we would be bringing home buckets of strawberries before the day was over. It's always good to follow the lead of a young child with dreams and determination. Her middle name is Hope, after all.

We didn't get to the strawberry patch in the morning. Instead we took Joseph to the allergist for his immunotherapy shots for several environmental allergies. I was happy to cross the errand off of our list for the week, but I should have remembered that those shots also exemplify hope. Hope that someday Joseph, 8, will be desensitized to at least some of those allergies that induce asthma attacks and contact reactions. I've already seen improvement in him after more than a year of receiving the treatment. Those shots also spur hope that the immunotherapy treatments currently being studied for food allergies could also someday help my son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard.

I still wasn't too hopeful that we'd get strawberries when we left for story time yesterday afternoon. But as I wrote recently, a visit to the library always brings smiles. When we left the library after yet another fun story time, the sun was shining and we finally headed to DJ's Berry Patch to pick strawberries.

Joseph and Pamela were so excited to carry their buckets into the field and start filling them with bright red strawberries. Of course, they tasted a few upon picking them to make sure they were just as sweet and juicy as they looked. Pamela loved the tiny strawberries and said they looked like little lights when she picked one with the skinny stem so it swung in her hand like a tiny fairy light. Joseph liked the cool-shaped strawberries that almost looked like little, chubby hands. Both couldn't wait to get home to sink their teeth into more of their juicy haul and had lots of ideas about what we should make first.

First, we just enjoyed the strawberries as they were – delightfully sweet in their own right. Then, we had some chocolate-covered strawberries using melted Enjoy Life Mega Chunks. Today, we made deliciously creamy, dairy-free strawberry ice cream. I also made a batch of strawberry jam for us to enjoy tomorrow on warm bread (King Arthur Flour gluten-free bread mix) that I will bake in the morning with Pamela, my willing assistant. I have fond memories of enjoying my grandparents' homemade strawberry jam as a child. They made and preserved fabulous jam each season, including peach, plum, marmalade and strawberry, which always had a way of bringing me comfort. I make an extremely simple jam recipe – there is no pectin or sealing jars with wax for me. This method works for my low patience level, yet still provides a comforting, sweet addition to our meals.

We still have a bucket of strawberries left from our picking to enjoy. Joseph has requested strawberry shortcake. We made Cybele Pascal's recipe for strawberry shortcake from her Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook last weekend and it was a big hit. But perhaps we will make her allergy-free strawberry cupcakes for tomorrow's strawberry treat.

I am thrilled that such a simple food is so sweet and healthy in itself. It is even more exciting for my kids that there are so many yummy treats we can create with the juicy fruit that are allergy friendly. Even better is the joy I had spending some time in a strawberry patch with two kids who were happy as could be because of a field of fruit. Red has been a prevalent color on my children's faces for us since seeing that rainbow yesterday. I'm so glad that my daughter's hope that was reflected in that rainbow was fulfilled. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Love of the library

I admit I was not a happy camper this afternoon when I pulled out of the driveway with my two kids strapped in their seats in the back of the car. My miserable cold was making me, well, miserable, with absolutely no sympathy from my son and daughter. Though, I've made it clear that I'm sick of going through boxes of tissues and clinging to mugs of hot tea, one child wouldn't put on her jacket and the other had to be reminded again to bring the library bag with him to the car – little things that can sometimes irk this mom. But there was hope. I knew that in only 4 minutes I would find relief because I would be walking through the doors of one of my favorite places – West Regional Library.

In honor of National Library Week, I'm happy to say that I have always loved the library. There is something about being surrounded by books that is like a salve. Bookshelves and baskets overflowing with books fill my home and I'm only happy with a couple books and my Kindle on my bedside table. If I'm in a great mood when I go to the library, the prospect of meeting new characters or becoming reacquainted with old favorites, finding new adventures and learning more information makes me even happier. When I'm not in such a great mood, like today, my negativity seems to dissipate as soon as I walk into the home of thousands of stories.

Books have inspired for as long as I can remember. Whether I was listening to stories at home and during story time at the Northport-East Northport Public Library, using a flashlight to read in the backseat of my parents' car during evening rides home from my grandparents' house or working at the library while I was in high school, books played an integral role in my life. The library has changed since I was a kid. I order books through the library's online catalog so they are waiting for me to pick up, I check out books using the library card on my key ring and computers fill large areas of the building. But the joy that comes from perusing the shelves and jumping into adventures from around the world remains.

My kids love going to the library, too. Joseph, 8, is a voracious reader, who loves going to check out stories and page through nonfiction books. He recently was thrilled to attend a writing workshop, during which an author provided tips on crafting a story. Joseph also got to hone is Scrabble skills at the library thanks to the kindness of a 14-year-old Scrabble whiz I wrote about for The Cary News. When Erik Salgado heard that my son enjoys playing the board game, he offered to share some tips. Joseph was so excited when Erik, who won the National School Scrabble Championship this week with Andy Hoang, and his mom spent a couple of hours with Joseph in a study room at the library teaching him the ins and outs of the game. We even caught a showing of "Kung Fu Panda 2" on the library's big screen. These opportunities are all free and free of food.

Because there is no food or drink allowed, the library is a place where Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, feels safe. He doesn't spend his time looking over his shoulders to make sure no one is eating ice cream or peanut butter sandwiches near him. Sure our love of the library has been tested over the years. For example, when Joseph was younger the kids munching on cheesy fish-shaped crackers (which inevitably made it onto the floor) during story time made him uncomfortable. When I mentioned the issue at the library we now frequent to prevent cheesy crumbs inhibiting our fun when Joseph comes with us to Pamela's story time, they nicely announced it at the start of story time and we've not had any food issues at this library. He's also had to stop reading a few books because his eyes got itchy or he had an asthma flare-up while reading them. Yes, the fact that library books can accumulate dust or go in homes with pets and other various allergens can pose a risk for Joseph. As always, we are prepared to deal with the risks Joseph's allergies pose. But for the most part, his library experiences have been fantastic. And those books that do cause issues are simply returned to the library and replaced with other adventures for Joseph to jump into.

Today, story time helped wash away the last of my bad mood.  I couldn't help but smile as soon as Pamela, 3, and the other kids stood up to sing about gardening and pretend to dig. Although there is no registration required, the weekly 25-minute gathering where preschoolers can enjoy books, music and flannel board stories is on our calendar just like ballet, tennis and all of our other activities. Each week, Pamela listens intently to Miss Sue and participates in all of the interactive fun. Today, she was excited to hold up a picture of a bunny with the number 8 on it when her number came up during the reading of "10 Hungry Rabbits" by Anita Lobel. After story time, she enjoys selecting books then claiming a spot on our favorite funky red bench to discover new stories.

As we packed our extremely worn library bag full of new selections today, my love for the library was once again reaffirmed. As the three of us walked out into the windy day, we talked about which books we would read first and of course, how soon we would return.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Filling our baskets with fun

Little hands were reaching into the box as soon as I opened it, grabbing for the cute little Easter-theme bags of colorful Gimbal's jelly beans. Pamela yelled out, "Pink, pink!" as she clutched a bag featuring the pink confections, while Joseph quickly found the bag full of flavors for honey lovers. Immediately, I started wondering if the jelly beans' arrival last week meant there would be none left for Easter.

My son Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame and mustard, was thrilled to enjoy jelly beans just like so many others during the Easter season when we were introduced to allergen-friendly Gimbal's jelly beans last year. We can find bags of them at the local Wal-Mart, but when I saw the specialty packs for Easter and other varieties on the company website, I couldn't resist making an order. Our Easter desserts will be more festive with the pastel jelly beans and sour bunnies.

Our kitchen is showing signs of Easter's approach this week. My daughter Pamela had fun making Easter cookie shapes and pressing jelly beans into the frosting. Next, we plan to turn red velvet cupcakes (using our favorite recipe by Cybele Pascal) into mini Easter baskets with jelly beans and sour bunny in the middle of the frosting. Then we will place each cupcake into an Easter basket cupcake collar. Chocolate-covered strawberries and homemade chocolate eggs featuring melted Enjoy Life Mega Chunks also will make it onto our Easter celebration menu. Both kids enjoy deciding what desserts to make for the holiday so that the unsafe confections that abound on Easter are not missed.

While we make lots of safe treats to celebrate the holiday, a majority of the enjoyment is without food. Even just hopping around like bunnies, elicits giggles. They both had a blast over the weekend collecting eggs filled with trinkets at the NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) annual food-free Easter egg hunt over the weekend. They both were thrilled to run through the field, baskets waving in their hands as they hurried to pick up their eggs. No surprise that Pamela grabbed mostly pink and purple eggs, while Joseph leaned toward the orange and yellow hues. It is such a pleasure to watch them happily open each egg to discover something new, such as a rainbow-colored ball, sparkly pink ring or bottle of bubbles, without a worry that a deadly piece of candy will pop out with the potential to ruin their fun outing. Instead of candy, the Easter bunny hides baskets in our house that are full of toys, books and other trinkets. Joseph is hoping the bunny will hop on over with a set of Hexbugs, while Pamela hopes the furry friend will grant her wish for a swimming doll.

The wood eggs the kids color each year also help us safely enjoy the Easter tradition of coloring eggs. Joseph and Pamela loved painting their eggs last week and we continue to admire their handiwork, featuring colorful swirls and polka-dots. Their creative juices will continue to flow this week with more crafts and fun school activities, including those plastic eggs and several printables featuring Easter and spring themes. For example, 2 Teaching Mommies provides an Easter symbol set of printables that features adorable little chicks and bunnies that Pamela has enjoyed using for patterns, counting and letter sorting. Both of my children love playing the roll and graph game that has them cheering to see if the chick, the bunny or even an egg will have the most rolls to make it to the top of the graph first.
I hope Easter day is as enjoyable for my kids as the week leading up to it has been. Now, if only I could make sure my little bunnies don't hop off with too many jelly beans during the next few days before Easter.