Wednesday 25 March 2015

Peter Rabbit's Happy Feaster Russian Soup Recipe

Over the last year, Culturebaby has truly fallen in love with Peter Rabbit, his green and beautiful Lakeland habitat, his rabble of friends, his mischief-making. I have no doubt she sees a kindred soul in the cheeky chap. I've also merrily left my potentially purist sensibilities at the door of the TV room and concede, that alongside a selection of engaging and simple introductions to the book produced for tots, it is the animated spin-off Peter Rabbit and Friends that has drawn her into the world of Hilltop and enticed her into the more complicated language of the original Potter Classics. Mr Tod, Old Brown and Tommy Brock are often found, to her delight, lurking amongst the bushes in our local nature reserve - models hastily deposited by Culturedad sprinting ahead in a circuit and returning with a makeshift treasure map. They've also featured in our recent Winter imaginative play scene. Helpfully, on many an occasion, it is also the reminder that Peter Rabbit is prepared to risk everything for the taste of a particular vegetable that has prompted a preliminary nibble from my faddy eldest bunny.

With that in mind we were delighted to be asked to be part of the Happy Feaster Blog Tour by the wonderful publisher Ladybird Books and The Happy Foodie. We were challenged to take storytelling from the page to the kitchen by creating a Spring recipe inspired by the Tales of Peter Rabbit. Now as readers will be well aware, the culinary arts are not really my forte; however, one of the few recipes that I managed to master before I was propelled headlong into the throes of domestic necessity with the arrival of my own little bunnies was an inherited dish from my mother, rooted in her Russian and Polish background. Happily this soup is simple to create, packed with vitamins, and could be created entirely from ingredients snaffled during an illicit foraging spree by a little bunny on the loose in Mr McGregor's vegetable patch.

The dish is essentially a cabbage soup 'shchi', but when my mother grew up it was known by the community as 'borscht'. When I mention this soup people often refer to beetroot, and a different version can be made with this ingredient, but often it was created by the polish and Russian communities with a tomato base. This is how I love it, and I'll make sure I pass it down in this form to my girls too.

  1. Start with a base of chicken stock (better if you create it from chicken bones and 2-3 stock cubes from scratch) in a large soup pan. Add half a teaspoon of dill, 3 bayleaves and salt and pepper;
  2. When the stock is ready, sieve out the bones and leave the stock and bayleaves in;
  3. Add three large diced potatoes, half a chopped cabbage (white works slightly better than green);
  4. Separately fry a large chopped onion or a couple of smaller onions;
  5.  Once the onions are soft, add a couple of tins worth of chopped tomatoes or a packet of passata and mix in with the onions. Heat through until they combine into sauce;
  6. Once the potatoes and cabbage are boiled through, add the contents of the frying pan and mix;
  7. Leave the whole soup to simmer on a very low heat for around half an hour;
  8. Ready to serve!
It was lovely to receive, as part of this blog tour, a little selection of new Peter Rabbit titles to prepare us for our annual holiday to Potter's heartland, the Lake District. We've visited her beautiful home Hilltop on many an occasion (and with Culturebaby at a few months old), but we can't wait to take her back this year as she'll really appreciate and remember it. Whilst this was not the original inspiration for Peter's favourite foraging grounds, it certainly could well have been with its rambling gardens and well-stocked vegetable patches. Last year we also had a great trip to Wray Castle, the (now) National Trust mansion where Beatrix first experienced the Lakes. Unsure what to do with this Victorian oddity, the Trust have turned the castle into a playground, including installing a Peter Rabbit experience especially for families to enjoy. I'm sure Beatrix Potter (whose work supported the foundation of the National Trust) would have very much approved. (For a great suggested walk and boatride to the Castle that we managed with a pram, see here).

The literary goodies in our postbag included a couple of great introductory guides to the creatures of Potter's imagination and a cool retro "complete and un-nibbled" edition of the original tale, published to celebrate the 80th Birthday of Penguin Books. I love the little features such as the quirky library lending card in the front cover and the bitemarks at the rear.

I'm a big advocate of introductory editions to more complicated classics and employ a host of early myths and tales in pictorial form as an introduction to longer classic titles. These serve as an effective way to ensure that characters and simple storylines become familiar long before our own little bunnies are ready for the Edwardian language of the original. A favourite in our household was the touchy-feely lift the flap book Peekaboo Peter. This and the new Peter Rabbit Big Box of Little Books are great for one year old Culturetot. This collection of nine miniature board books, introducing some of the major characters in Potter's tales is perfect for little paws to handle. The titles are colourful and simple, feature original artwork and can be read, stacked and even form a puzzle when turned over. They are ideal for the girls to explore together. Culturebaby is also currently a big fan of pop-up books so The World of Peter Rabbit Pull-out Pop-up went down very well. Fold-out books also serve as brilliant backdrops for imaginative play scenes. Following on from our series of 'pretend' museums, I can well imagine this title will be commandeered for play very soon.
For more Spring recipes, inspired by Peter Rabbit and friends, why not head over to The Happy Foodie and discover how celebrity chefs and their children are joining in. You can also pop over to see some of the other great recipe ideas featured on blogs on this tour. So far we've seen yummy Mr MacGregor's Mud Carrot Cupcakes and Peter Rabbit themed Cupcakes and look forward to seeing what EmmysMummy creates tomorrow as next stop on the tour.

Monday 16 March 2015

Ten Great Easter Activities for Tots

We love marking the seasons, creating new traditions and reviving the old, learning about the Church's year and discovering the rhythms of nature together. Here are ten great Lent and Easter Activities the girls have really enjoyed over the last two years:

1. Lent normally starts somewhere around Valentine's Day and Culturetot in particular loved her themed sensory basket. I found a set of measuring cups in the shape of hearts and threw in a base of Risotto rice, foil and satin confetti, dried flower petals, feathers, wooden hearts and - the absolute winner - pom poms of various shapes and sizes. Culturetot really enjoyed scooping and pouring, sorting the items, collecting the pom poms and stacking the cups. All great for sensory awareness, fine motor development and colour matching practice.

2. I make seasonal play baskets for the girls too - the first of these was for Easter last year, and it was so successful I've ensured that we have never been without one since. As we were flipping our pancakes this year we still had high hopes for snow and the promise of a snowman-building day, which has now completely eluded us for the last two years. We compensated by allowing Peter Rabbit and his friends to continue their adventures in our winter snowscape as long as possible and then swiftly replaced the chilly scene with an Easter themed discovery basket. The last two years this has revolved around the theme of spring, Easter and the cycle of life. Last year I started with an aesthetic grass base and added flowers and petals, rocks, feathers, eggs and baby animals for Culturebaby to discover and play with, along with some clips for fine motor practice. This year the theme is more yellow and nest-like with a wide variety of eggs, chicks, nests, feathers and, Culturetot's favourite: pompoms. I also added a favoured themed toy - the egg shape sorter for Culturetot.

3. I've found that Spring is such a perfect time to explore the theme of life cycles. We have six brilliant Safariology life-cycle model sets which come in four or five stages of a creature's development and encourage exploration, sorting and play. I buried the chicken models amidst the Easter sensory basket for Culturebaby to unearth and order. She's also been using a set of cheap opening eggs to create her own hatching chicks.

Last year I also set up a simple pond-like sensory play tub with the frog and turtle sets using a base of green water beads. This fun little resource (not for children who still mouth) are fun to grow from tiny beads with the addition of water, and they are slimy and squishable to the touch. Once the weather improved we also incorporated some of these little models in a spot of outdoor water play.

4. A really simple activity, either for a specific walk, or for any time you are out and about is to spot, photograph and identify spring flowers popping up. We've also been watching the snowdrops wane and make way for other shoots in our own garden. It's been an effective way to teach Culturebaby about flowers, new life and do a spot of revision myself.

5. We have a brilliant local art class for Tots in St Albans called Patchwork Penguin. Combining storytime, messy play and a range of opportunities to create art, the class also ensures that we get the chance to celebrate the seasons, explore favourite books and get messy in a way rather more tricky in the confines of a winter kitchen. It was also the first place Culturebaby learned, a couple of years ago, to sit down in a group and really concentrate on a collective story. Some of our Spring activities were particularly cute and provide a great source of ideas to try again at home. These chicks were made with sponges and a triangle of orange paper and sticky eye, were simple to create even for the smallest artist, and looked so effective. The daffodil was formed from shiny and tissue paper and part of an egg box.

6. One of the most accessible ways to learn about the journey from Lent to Easter for tots is through the simple story of the good shepherd, who loves each one of his animals so much that he is prepared to endure great perils to save even one. I wrote about how to create a simple story play set and a couple of great picture book versions of the story here.

 7. In the same post I also talked about how much we enjoyed creating our own Resurrection Garden for Holy Week, complete with live cress as grass and model characters. Over the course of the Easter Triduum we gradually changed the scene, as Jesus died; his friends and family mourned; and ultimately the empty tomb was discovered with Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. You can find further details about this activity and suggested picture book titles here.

8. We almost have a decorative tree for every season these days, but there is little more uplifting than a gorgeous blooming Easter bough decked with symbols of new life to brighten up the room. It's a new tradition for us as a family but one I adore. Paperchase in particular does some absolutely beautiful decorations. Selecting the branches and decorating the tree with our unbreakable items was a lovely shared experience for the family. I'm very much looking forward to doing the same again this year.

9. Themed colour sorting and counting activities are always a good way to engage both the girls in their various interests and provide a versatile material that can be used in different ways. Culturetot has really taken to these miniature wooden eggs, and has spent a lot of time sorting them and putting them into containers. Culturebaby has been using these eggs and a set of numbers to count the correct amounts of eggs into sections of a paint dish. This has really helped with her precision of counting as well as her numeral recognition.

10. One of the girls' favourite joint activities is creating imaginary culinary offerings, hosting picnics and tea parties. I love it when they use materials I have offered them in other contexts (such as our Easter sensory basket) in their own ways. The've been reminiscing about Shrove Tuesday and cooking up rather a few pancakes this week, complete with pom pom yokes. They've also been careering about the house brandishing their easter baskets and collecting a host of unlikely material. I've rarely seen them so occupied for such a long time. A bargain at £1 for a packet from Poundland.

Spring is Coming by Elisabeth Lebret

Spring is coming, spring is coming, birdies build your nest!
Weave together straw and feathers, doing each your best.
Spring is coming, spring is coming
Flowers are coming too.
Daisies, lilies, daffodillies
All are coming through!

Spring is coming, spring is coming 
all around is fair.   
Shimmer, glimmer on the river, joy is everywhere.

Disclaimer: The majority of ideas and materials are our own for these activities, with the exception of the fantastic Safariology models which were sent to us on request for a variety of activities and review purposes over the last year by Asobi Toys UK. We cannot recommend these educational items enough. As mentioned in a previous blog, the gorgeous resurrection garden idea came from this great blog post by The Encouraging Home, and the great Spring art ideas came from the clever and creative Jo at Patchwork Penguin. If you are St Albans based, this is a simply fabulous class for little ones.

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