soupCookbooks are a weakness of mine. I love all sorts. Earlier this year I was excited to receive a copy of The Soup Club Cookbook to review on our site. This blog is mostly about getting kids outdoors. There are lots of book reviews on here, but the rub is that the book has to have something to do with being together as a family–eating together, preparing food, growing food, etc. There is some potential for that with this book, so I wanted to give it a read.

More than a cookbook, this book is a guide to creating a soup club. With a soup club, friends, family, and neighbors can share the load of preparing weekday meals. Soup can be an easy meal, and it’s easy to make more than enough. For example, three families can each make one batch of soup every week, a batch large enough to share with the other two families. Pass around the jars, and everyone is fed for three nights (plus leftovers).

This book offers a fine collection of soup recipes with lots of practical advice on the best ways to transport soup, organize a club, etc. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a lot of interest in this idea. Everyone likes soup well enough, but few were interested in committing to cooking every week, let alone investing in soup jars and the like. Perhaps this is because I am a man and don’t have many relationships with other men who cook regularly.

In the final analysis, there are a lot of great ideas for soup here, but you really need a particular set of friends to use the book to its full advantage.

 

I really love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Because of that, I love checking out blogs of others who cook and experiment in the kitchen. Since it’s winter and there’s not much going on outside (wind chill near -20 here right now), I thought maybe you would like to see what I’ve been up to food-wise.

indian pickles, garam masala, cucumbers, curry, cardamom, refrigeratorI love pickles, but the whole process of canning pickles has been an obstacle to really having fun with it. I mean, you have to pick up pickling cucumbers by the bushel when they’re in season. Then you have to clear off all your counter space and chop up onions and garlic and whatever else goes into your recipe. It takes a lot of time, and the window for pickling cukes is pretty small.

All that is why I was so excited to hear about refrigerator pickles a few years back. Cut up some cucumbers (any kind you find in the store), add water and vinegar, some sugar and salt, and toss it all into a jar. The next day you got pickles. And if you want to try something unique, it’s no big deal. Just toss it into the mix.

Yesterday I decided to go a little crazy and pulled all the Indian spices from my cabinet: garam masala, curry powder, cardamom pods. Instead of dill, I added a dash and a scoop of all these, plus a little cayenne pepper for some heat.

The results are pretty good. I skipped the usual tablespoon or two of sugar and so they are a bit tarter than I was expecting, but the results are not at all unpleasant.

The food angle is a new one on the site—a little beyond the picnic lunches and such that we’ve shared—so I would love your feedback. If you’re interested in hearing more from the kitchen, or want more specifics on the pickles, leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Pancakes. I love ’em; Grace won’t eat ’em. I make pancakes; she eats Chex. I make flapjacks; she asks for oatmeal. I cook up some hotcakes, and she wants a protein bar.

So you will understand my reserved sense of excitement when I discovered Jim Belosic’s blog, Jim’s Pancakes. I’d seen cooks on the Food Channel use squeeze bottles to create some cartoon-like pancakes before, but Jim’s blog takes that to a whole new level. And earlier this month, the genius of the site came out in a book.

OMG Pancakes! is even better than the blog, pulling together the pancake artist’s best projects with introductory material that teaches you how to do it at home.

The projects Jim has come up with are fantastic. A bowl of small pancakes (the size of a nickel) become pancake cereal. With a little colored batter and some free time on the weekends, he has created bee hives, pancake hamburgers, and even a pancake salad. The pictures themselves are worth a look.

So armed with this thin volume, I set off to create my own special Saturday morning breakfast tradition. I bought the squeeze bottles, mixed and colored the batter, and tried to make a tree, the sun, and pancake cereal (the latter was a hit with Tater!). You will notice, however, that I don’t have any pictures of my own pancake creations. The reason is that it’s really not as easy as it looks, and my first try was a disaster, aesthetically speaking. (Best part about this medium is that your failures taste as good as your successes.) It took some time to get the temperature just right. And the bottles don’t offer as much control as you might imagine. All my lines came out in looping streams of batter.

But here’s the good news: Grace ate all the pancakes we put on her plate! The fact that the tree looked like a green and brown snowman didn’t matter one bit. This in itself was worth the effort, and it’s enough to justify trying ideas from this book until I get it right.

In autumn, families like to get outside to catch hold of the last few warm moments before the sun follows the snowbirds south. Folks bundle up on bleachers at high school marching band competitions, try and take a Saturday to see their favorite college football team play, or they toss the kids in the car and head out to the local orchard. Right now this is mostly about apples (and doughnuts, and apple fritters, and pie), but soon the corn mazes will be in full swing, and then as Halloween approaches we’ll see them turn haunted as the u-pick apple hayrides start making stops at the pumpkin patch.

While apples are at the heart of the fun, cider and doughnuts (cinnamon and sugar, please) are the real draw. So much so that many places forgo the orchard altogether and just sell the essentials, pressing their own cider and cranking up the doughnut machine. Here are our picks for the top ten apple orchards and cider mills in the state of Michigan. Be sure to let us know if we missed your favoritetheres still some season left and well want to make a visit.

Westview Orchards and Cider Mill (Romeo, MI)
Less than 2 miles south of Romeo, and within spitting distance of Van Dyke, Westview Orchards lets you know up front what youre in for. The official name is Westview Orchards & Adventure Farm. While many orchards use special attractions to keep people on site to buy more apples and cider, Westview has created an all-out autumnal carnival. This is the kind of place that sells season tickets ($35/child, $25/adult). While no Cedar Point (or even a Ferris wheel for that matter), the place offers tons of activities, from straw mountains and corn mazes to an elaborate obstacle course and the Three Black Holes illusion. Just visiting for the day, tickets will run you $8.50. But dont forget the cider and doughnuts, or their delicious apple pies. Fall Family Weekends run until the end of October.

Spicer Orchards Farm Market & Cider Mill (Fenton, MI)
Just off M-23 in Fenton you will find one of the nicest apple orchards in the state for an autumn weekend out with the family. They have a nice balance herequality fruit, a farm market store with plenty of Michigan-made treats, and lots for kids to do. Theres a petting zoo, play area, corn maze, bounce houses, and hayrides. The farm is open all summer selling seasonal fruit and veggies, but it is in the fall when all the activities are kicked into high gear and the crowds descend en masse. Spicers Fall Festival Weekends run until the end of October.

Yates Cider Mill (Rochester Hills, MI)
The Yates Cider Mill began back in 1863 as the Yates Grist Mill. A decade or so later, the Yates family added a cider mill and began pressing apples for local growers. Still powered by water, the operation at Yates is worth a visit just to see how the old ways are sometimes the best ways. Serving great cider and doughnuts, they also have pony rides and a petting zoo. But the real fun is watching the production of cider, from the water wheel that powers the mill to the pulp car that removes pulp by way of a train track. Yates is open year round (theres an ice cream shoppe for warmer weather), but the pony rides are just available on fall weekends.

Jollay Orchards (Coloma, MI)
Southwest Michigan is a fruit growers paradise. Its Michigans original wine country (before the benefits of the 45th parallel up north were exploited for their exceptional whites). Some fine wines are produced here, but much of the regions grapes go toward making jelly and juice. Apple growers also benefit from the areas sandy soil and climate-tempering proximity to Lake Michigan. Jollay Orchards in Coloma is a product of the lands plentitude. In September and October, weekends celebrate their Harvest Festival. Kids and adults both pay just $6.50 for a corn maze, animal farm, haunted house, and (new this year) a Ferris wheel. Hayrides take you back to the apple orchard and pumpkin patch. The farm market sells doughnuts and appley treats like pies and dumplings.

Almar Orchards & Farm (Flushing, MI)
Jim Koans outfit west of Flint near the small community of Flushing offers more than just the usual fall fun, though it does have that. You can use a visit to Almar to teach kids something about organic farming and sustainability. The farm uses pigs and hens to provide fertilization while maintaining the usual pests. Take the wagon ride back to the apple trees and you find a much different orchard than other places. Theres a bit of a wild look about the place. For the adults, Almar produces the best hard cider around. Bring home a bag of apples, maybe some doughnuts for the kids, but dont forget a case of J. K.s Scrumpy for yourself. The store is open 7 days a week, year round (except holidays). The petting zoo is open during the week in October, hayrides on the weekends through October.

Robinettes Apple Haus & Winery (Grand Rapids, MI)
Grand Rapids has something special in Robinettes. Their Apple Haus serves up great cider and doughnuts, but also has a small lunch counter and baked goods. The corn maze is pretty elaborate, and families like the hayride. Mountain bikers should take a spin on their complex twist of mtb trails ($3/day). And the winery makes fruit wines and a decent hard cider. The autumn activities are open through the end of October. The Apple Haus and Winery are open year round.

King Orchards (Central Lake, MI)
While Friske’s in nearby Ellsworth boasts a lot of fun kids stuff, it’s the kind of “outdoor fun” that’s replicated on playgrounds and church fairs everywhere. King Orchards is a place where you get out of the car, grab a bushel basket or two, and head in and amongst the apple trees. Rows of different varieties are clearly marked, and kids love to help fill the baskets, picking the choicest fruit. Afterward, buy some doughnuts and apple cider. They have much more than apples, so come prepared.

Knaebes Mmmunch Krunchy Apple Farm (Rogers City, MI)
You dont find many apple orchards in northeast Michigan. In fact, Knaebes is the only one I know of, and frankly, they deserve a mention for just the chutzpah it takes to try and grow fruit on this side of the state. I mean, theres a lot working against them up here. That said, they offer a huge variety of applesfrom the usual Gala and Jona-golds to classic Northern Spy to the newly discovered Rip Van Runkelperfect for pies, tarts, and or simply taking a cheek-dripping crunchy bite. They also sell doughnuts and pies. Open Oct through Nov 24, every day but Mondays.

Historic Parshallville Grist Mill (Fenton, MI)
A few miles north of Spicers Orchards in Fenton, the Historic Parshallville Grist Mill opens its doors every fall to sell cider and spiced doughnuts. Local apples are brought in and pressed on site. The cider remains unpasteurized. (For purists, this is special treat. For parents, young children should probably stick with the cider at Spicers.) Theres hardly a weekend when the line isnt creeping out the front door. Thankfully, theyre open daily into mid-November.

These are where we go around here. Where is your favorite family orchard or cider mill? I would love to hear from folks all over the country, especially if your autumn traditions are different.

For a full list of orchards and farm markets, the Michigan Apple Committee has recently released the Michigan Farm Market Finder app (now on iTunes, coming soon to Android).

Thinking about a picnic this weekend? Here in the northern states, September seems to have ushered in Autumn. Every weekend from now on with even a hint of warmth could be our last hurrah. So are we thinking about a picnic this weekend? You betcha!

Eating outside is a summer tradition with us, and picnics are extra special. If we can stow a decent lunch in a pack, we don’t have to worry so much about making sure we get the timing right when we go out for a hike (or whatever else we have planned). We can go when we’re ready and stay out as long as we like.

If you plan ahead, the prepping and planning can be a time to get the kids involved. We try to involve Grace from the start. A little buy-in at the planning stage may not guarantee she’ll eat what we put out, but it gives us the chance to say, “Look, you picked it. You better eat it.”

When pulling together a menu, we have a chance to make healthy choices, so we include a lot of fruit and veggies. With a couple freezer packs, fruits and veggies will stay fine all day. Foods with mayo or eggs or ham, we usually leave at home. For protein we will toss a package of lunch meat in the bag, usually right on top of the cold pack.

For our last trip I came up with the idea of using up our whole wheat tortillas by making “Salad Wraps.” (Yeah, I know. I should copyright this kind of thing, but I think genius should be shared. When you tell your friends all about the Salad Wrap, be sure to use the name. I swear it will catch on like wildfire and you will get props for being an early adopter.) The plan was as simple as the name itself.

Before we left, my wife put together a quick fruit salad with the fruit we had on hand. Then she chopped up some romaine, red peppers, and a handful of tiny carrots. This went into the Rubbermaid, topped with some slivered almonds.

This is the picnic table we found at the trail head at the state park. In addition to the fruit and veggie salads, we have a bottle of dressing (raspberry vinaigrette, nummm), a bottle for the boy, the tortillas, a few cheese sticks, and (hidden behind the salad) a pack of Little Debbie chocolate doughnuts.

Pour the salad out onto the tortillas.

Add lunch meat, in this case turkey, for protein.

Add dressing.

Wrap it up.

And eat!

There are a thousand other things you can bring on the trail or in the car: hummus and pita chips, pasta salad with an olive oil based dressing (again, no mayo), apples and oranges, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, etc., etc.

If you have a favorite picnic snack tell us about it. We’re always looking for great ideas.