Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Blue Backpack Chronicles: Green and Gold in the Capital City

Posted By on Thu, Oct 31, 2013 at 1:41 PM

“They call that the Golden Dome,” I told my 3-year-old son, Theo, pointing toward the shining roof of the Statehouse as we cruised into Montpelier.

“Let’s go there!” he said excitedly.

  • Alison Novak

I promised Theo we’d check it out later in the day. First, we had several other spots to visit in the state capital.

Our first destination was Birchgrove Baking, a cute-as-a-button bakery and café on the edge of town. I ordered a latte and shared a pear tart and a sweet, eggy breakfast cake coated with sesame seeds with Theo. While we ate, we marveled at an elaborate gingerbread haunted house on display and flipped through some photo books, oohing and ahhing at the bakery’s gorgeous birthday and wedding cakes.

A three-minute drive from the bakery is North Branch Nature Center, a 28-acre reserve along the north branch of the Winooski River. The narrow trails snaking through grassy fields are completely out in the open and easy to navigate — perfect for a mom who is prone to getting lost and a boy who likes to run ahead.

One trail led us up to a natural playground with a wooden swing hanging from a branch, a yellow plastic slide burrowed into the side of a steep, leafy bank and a felled tree trunk perfect for walking across. When Theo insisted we start off on opposite sides of the trunk and meet in the middle for a “balance beam hug,” I was happy to oblige.

Nearby, a muddy area with cast-off baking tins and kitchen utensils beckoned to Theo, but we had neglected to bring his boots. Luckily, I was able to pull him out of the muck before his sneakers soaked through.

A bridge brought us over the river and into North Branch River Park. Back on the other side, we blazed a trail down to the water so Theo could get his hands wet and throw in some sticks for good measure.

When we had our fill of the great outdoors, we headed back to the capital and snagged a parking spot directly in front of the Statehouse. Theo wasn’t intimidated by the imposing structure. He sprinted ahead of me, ascending the steps Rocky-style and crinkling his face into a fierce warrior expression when he reached the huge cannons flanking the building.

“The Statue of Liberty!” he said proudly, upon seeing a larger-than-life marble sculpture of a figure with a hand raised next to the building’s front door.

“Nope, that’s Ethan Allen,” I corrected. “He was the leader of the Green Mountain Boys…”

But Theo wasn’t listening. He had spotted a dangerously high stone platform to jump from and was running toward it.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Cooking With Chef Contos

A mother and son embark on an empanada adventure

Posted By on Mon, Oct 28, 2013 at 9:00 AM


My foot was barely in the door of Chef Contos Kitchen & Store in Shelburne, and my inner foodie was already aflutter. Warmth and character filled the quaint store, where Chef Courtney Contos sells a lovely variety of kitchen must-haves and local wares. My son, Charlie, and I walked to the back of the store to a kitchen, ready for a culinary adventure.

"Today we are making empanadas!” enthused Chef Contos. “Does anyone know what country empanadas are from?"

Cooking together has become a new hobby for Charlie and me. For our latest escapade, we spent an afternoon at one of Chef Contos’ kids cooking classes. Contos is a highly trained chef with lots of impressive teaching experience — she was executive chef/instructor for Cook Academy at the Essex Resort & Spa. I would have been happy just to watch and learn myself, but I tried to remember that this lesson was for the kids.


Making empanadas was a fully hands-on endeavor for them. Covered in flour and sporting smiles, the kids were clearly having fun. Chef Contos taught her students how to make the dough and stuff it full — but not too full — with a variety of local, organic ingredients (which pleased this locavore-loving mom).

First, the group made savory bean-and-cheese empanadas. Next, Chef Contos announced, "We're going to fill our sweet empanadas with these local apples! What should we add to them?"

"Cinnamon!" Charlie suggested eagerly. As those empanadas baked, the kids shook up fresh whipped cream in chilled glass jars.

On the drive home, Charlie informed me that our afternoon with Chef Contos was "the best cooking class I've ever been to." As a mere drooling bystander, I may need to sign up for one of her adult cooking classes so I can see for myself.

Chef Contos offers a variety of classes for kids and adults. Find out more at or stop by the store at 65 Falls Rd. in Shelburne.

Tasha Lehman
  • Tasha Lehman

Tasha Lehman is a regular contributor to Kids VT. She lives in Vermont with her husband, Matt, and their three sons.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Home Cookin': Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts

Posted By on Wed, Oct 23, 2013 at 9:00 AM


These quintessentially fall pumpkin doughnuts are baked, not fried — which means we can almost call them healthy, right? For this family treat, I used a King Arthur Flour recipe — outstanding on its own — and added a little burst of maple for fun.


Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts

1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups pumpkin purée (canned pumpkin)
1 teaspoon maple extract
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two standard doughnut pans.

Beat together the oil, eggs, sugar, pumpkin purée, maple extract, spices, salt and baking powder until smooth. Add the flour, stirring just until smooth. Fill the wells of the doughnut pans about 3/4 full; use a scant 1/4 cup of batter in each well.

Bake the doughnuts for 15-18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean.

Remove the doughnuts from the oven. After about 5 minutes, loosen their edges and transfer them to a rack to cool.

The original recipe calls for these doughnuts to be dipped in cinnamon sugar — which sounds delightful — but I chose to serve them warm from the oven with just a sprinkle of powdered sugar.

Check out the original recipe for King Arthur Flour's Pumpkin Cake Doughnuts for more details on making the perfect pumpkin doughnut and if you want to add the cinnamon-sugar coating.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Blue Backpack Chronicles: Cycling and Sculptures in Stowe

Posted By on Thu, Oct 10, 2013 at 9:00 AM

  • photos by Alison Novak


Monday morning was dark and gray, and my mood was equally stormy. My 3-year-old son, Theo, was channeling his boundless energy in all the wrong ways — dipping the TV remote in milk, taking the lid off the toilet and barricading me in the bathroom with a pile of pillows.

I knew my best bet was to get my turbocharged boy out of the house and into a wide-open space, but I feared the impending rain would put a wrench in the plan.

I decided it was worth the risk. We loaded Theo’s pink, streamered hand-me-down bike into the trunk of the car and headed for the Stowe Recreation Path.

Despite the cloudy skies, the 50-minute drive was a gorgeous tableau of autumn colors. We arrived in Stowe Village a little before 10 a.m. and decided to hit Black Cap Coffee to fuel up before the bike ride. With a latte (me) and cinnamon twist (Theo) in hand, we strolled down Main Street, mingling with the leaf-peeping tourists.

The sun had started shining through the clouds and Theo and I soon noticed outdoor sculptures sprinkled through town — they’re part of the temporary “Exposed” exhibit sponsored by Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center. Theo loved interacting with “Box of Courage,” a huge, primary-colored, plywood box dotted with holes that he could pop his head out of and climb through.

To our delight, the outdoor sculptures extended into the first stretch of the bike path. Clusters of pastel balls spread across fallen dead trees like Easter egg fungus begged to be touched. Upon closer examination, Theo and I realized they were made from fabric.

A little farther down, several trees had hot-pink plastic cable ties wrapped around their trunks, which gave them a whimsical, Seussian feel.

Theo glided along the path on his training wheels for about 25 minutes, with me walking and running beside him, before fatigue and hunger set in. The 5.3-mile recreation path has 10 wooden bridges; we made it across three of them and probably traveled about one mile.

After a snack break on one of the many benches lining the path, we headed back, stopping occasionally to examine mushrooms and caterpillars.

By the time Theo crossed the wooden bridge that marked the entrance to the path, my disposition was decidedly sunnier and Theo’s maniacal morning energy had dissipated. It was proof that sometimes a change of mood is only a bike ride away.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Home Cookin': Chicken Pesto Tortellini

Posted By on Wed, Oct 9, 2013 at 9:00 AM


Bake this dish in the oven or serve it hot from the pot — the quick yet tasty meal is a crowd-pleaser! The kids love the cheesy pasta, and the more sophisticated flavors from the pesto and roasted red peppers make adults feel like they're eating a "grown-up" meal. Serve with a side of salad and some warm, crusty bread.


Chicken Pesto Tortellini

1 24-ounce package cheese-filled tortellini
1 cup light cream
1/2 cup white wine
1 7-ounce jar prepared pesto
12 ounces cooked chicken, chopped
1 7-ounce jar roasted red peppers, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Boil pasta according to package directions. Drain and return pasta to pot. Pour in cream and wine and cook over medium heat while stirring. Sir in pesto, chicken, roasted red peppers, garlic powder, salt and pepper. If serving from the pot, add Parmesan cheese and stir until warm and melted. If baking, transfer prepared pasta to a baking dish and top with cheese, then bake at 375 degrees until cheese is melted and bubbly. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Taking a Stab at Halloween

Devilish decorations and ghoulishly good eats

Posted By on Tue, Oct 8, 2013 at 2:39 PM

As the owner of Queen City Ghostwalk, the month leading up to Halloween is my busiest season. But guiding haunted tours of Burlington doesn’t give me a pass on celebrating with my family.

With two grown kids, three teenagers and three grandkids, I’ve carved, dyed, drizzled and stitched my way through dozens of costumes, favors and decorations. I’ve worshipped at the alter of the skeleton crudité and made peace with the delicious — but calorie-laden — hot dog mummy.

This year, with time at a premium, I’m initiating only the easiest eerie decorations and quickest creepy treats. Here’s what I’ll do:

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Interactive Print: A Tour of Kids VT's Tech Issue Cover

Scan this month's cover for music and animation

Posted By on Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 9:21 AM


In this month's Tech Issue of Kids VT, we pulled a newsprint trick from the Harry Potter movies — sort of. Remember how photos in The Daily Prophet spring to life with movement and sound? Using an app called Layar, we've done the same with our October cover illustration.

To see the magic for yourself, download the free Layar app in the App Store. Then scan our cover with your smartphone and watch the techie fun — called "augmented reality" — unfold. Go ahead, scan the image above right now. We'll wait.

So, how did we do it? First, Kids VT lead designer Brooke Bousquet used PhotoShop to add animation to our cover illustration by artist Pat Lewis. Next, we added music. Since you can't throw a rock in Kids VT and sister paper Seven Days' shared office without hitting a musician, it only made sense to create an original score. Our toe-tapping audio clip was created by production manager/GarageBand maestro John James, proofreader/keyboardist Meredith Coeyman and designer/Rough Francis frontman Bobby Hackney on drums.

We think the end result is pretty cool, and helps illustrate the rapid pace of technological change — we couldn't have done this five years ago.

Pick up a copy of the October issue for many more techie tips — from the dos and don'ts of giving your kid a cellphone to the pros and cons of iPads in our children's classrooms. And drop us a line below to let us know what you think.

Meredith Coeyman, John James and Brooke Bousquet work on scoring our cover illustration.
  • Meredith Coeyman, John James and Brooke Bousquet work on scoring our cover illustration.

Meredith Coeyman, Bobby Hackney and John James use GarageBand to create a beat.
  • Meredith Coeyman, Bobby Hackney and John James use GarageBand to create a beat.

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Blue Backpack Chronicles: Bees, Birdhouses and the Beach

Posted By on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 9:24 AM

  • photos by Alison Novak


Monday was 70 degrees and sunny, the kind of gorgeous fall day you feel the need to savor because you know there aren’t many of them left.

So it only made sense to head to the Champlain Islands with my 3-year-old son, Theo. I packed a tote bag full of snacks and we drove north to South Hero.

Our first stop was Allenholm Farm, where the apple trees were bountiful. In no time, we picked 10 pounds of Macs and Empires while soaking up the sun.

The farm also has a petting paddock with chickens, goats, donkeys, a pony and a Scottish highland cow. But Theo was more concerned with some other critters: the bees buzzing around the play area. He was stung once at an orchard when he was a baby and his fear still runs deep.

We dodged bees and preschoolers on a class trip long enough to get some playtime in. After a short snack break at a picnic bench, we were off to White’s Beach, just a five-minute drive away.

I had heard there was an impressive collection of birdhouses nearby, and Theo and I found them a short drive past the beach parking lot. Hundreds of brightly painted wooden birdhouses hung from trees in the swampy private land across the street from the lake, seeming to stretch back endlessly. I’d never seen anything like it.

The rocky, deserted beach proved equally spectacular.

“Look at my beach treasure,” I said to Theo, holding up a small, jagged piece of wood I’d picked up from the sand.

“That’s just some wood,” Theo said. But soon he wised up to the game, pretending a triangular rock was the tooth of a great white shark and tossing his own treasures into my tote bag.

In no time, the lake was calling his name.

“I wanna wet my tootsies in there!” Theo yelled, abandoning his Crocs on the sand and running down to the water. On the shore, he scooped up wet sand and packed it into a sandcastle, topping it with some decorative seaweed. Meanwhile, I wrote our families’ names in the sand with a stick I called my beach pencil.

On our way home, we couldn’t resist a stop at Hackett’s Orchard, right down the road from Allenholm, for a doughnut and some cold, sweet cider.

There was a play area at Hackett’s, as well, which we enjoyed until Theo’s sticky hands and sugar-dusted chin once again attracted those pesky bees.

So Theo insisted I shadow him around the playground, serving as his bee bodyguard. I acquiesced. It was a small price to pay for a near-perfect day.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Home Cookin': Meat & Veggie Lasagna

Posted By on Wed, Oct 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM


I don't "hide" veggies in my kids' food as a way to be sneaky — I think it's important to teach them about eating a balanced diet and trying new things. But I have been known to work a healthy ingredient or two into their favorite dishes.

Take the time I added puréed squash to the sauce of their beloved lasagna, for example. "Did you put squash in this?!" my children shrieked. (And let me assure you these were not shrieks of joy.) I've also made veggie lasagna only to be met with similar, disgusted exclamations of "Where's the meat?!" and "Did you use zucchini instead of noodles?!"

Sometimes, my kids' keen sense of taste does me no favors.

This time, I tried incorporating — not "hiding," mind you — shredded zucchini and carrots into the meat sauce. And guess what? It was a tasty success!


Meat & Veggie Lasagna

1/2 onion, diced
1/2 red pepper, diced
1 carrot, shredded in short pieces
1 zucchini, shredded in short pieces
dash of olive oil
1 pound ground beef
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 jar of pasta sauce (more if you prefer a saucy lasagna instead of a chunky one)
1 can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 teaspoon oregano
salt and pepper to taste
1 box oven-ready lasagna noodles
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup raw baby spinach, chopped finely
2 cups shredded cheese (I like using an Italian mix or mozzarella)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray.

In a large pan, sauté the onions, red pepper, carrot and zucchini with a dash of olive oil, until just tender. Pour into a bowl.

In the same pan, cook the ground beef and garlic until the meat is cooked thoroughly. Drain off any grease. Mix in the jar of pasta sauce, as well as the diced tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper. Stir in the sautéed veggies.

Layer the lasagna in the prepared pan as follows: Lasagna noodles, meat and veggie sauce, ricotta cheese, spinach and, shredded cheese. Repeat layers until the pan is full. Cover the pan with foil and bake for about 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for about 5-10 minutes before eating.


Tasha Lehman
  • Tasha Lehman

Tasha Lehman is a regular contributor to Kids VT. She lives in Vermont with her husband, Matt, and their three sons.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Conversations About Calendar 2.0

Should summer vacation be shorter?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 1, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Last year, the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association announced that it was contemplating a change to the K-12 academic calendar.

Worried that some students were falling behind during summer vacation — especially kids whose parents don't have the resources to fill their days with enrichment activities — school administrators are seeking to shrink the end-of-the-year recess by two weeks and redistribute those days throughout the year in week-long "intersessions." They've dubbed their plan "Calendar 2.0."

Here's an explanation, from the website the group set up to explain the effort:

The goal of the proposed calendar is to organize student instruction time so students have opportunities to pause and reflect and expand upon their learning. These intersessions are designed to be used in a variety of ways, including: student enrichment opportunities, chances to provide timely intervention for students who need it, in-depth and project-based learning, opportunities for teacher professional development, opportunities for teachers to review student data during non-instructional times, and opportunities for families to schedule routine appointments or take vacations without interrupting learning blocks of time.

Well, guess what? Turns out a lot of people actually like Calendar 1.0. At the end of August, my Facebook news feed erupted with parents and activists who were peeved about this new plan. Suddenly everyone was urging me to join Vermont's Save Our Summer Coalition and oppose the shortening of summer break.

SOS describes itself as "a group of parents, educators and community members" who have come up with 10 reasons to oppose Cal 2.0. Oddly, none of them have signed their names to their list of objections, though their Facebook page counts more than 1000 supporters.

The SOS complains that, among other things:

• "There is no evidence to support the likelihood that the proposed calendar will improve student outcomes."

• "Intersession programming will likely cost money and/or take money from other student programs."

• "The new break periods will create child care difficulties for working families."

and, yes,
• "Summer in Vermont is short and special."

Most of the commenters on the Calendar 2.0 website's Readers Corner echo reasons cited on the SOS top 10 list.

I've heard a few parents speak out in favor of the reforms, though — most notably, digital strategist and Vermont Public Radio commentator Rich Nadworny. I heard his Calendar 2.0 commentary while driving home from work one day. "Changing the calendar," he writes, "is one of the lowest hanging fruits on the educational tree. And if we can’t make a relatively simple change like this, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever be able to make the more difficult choices required to make the foundational changes needed in our American and Vermont schools."

Still haven't made up your mind? If you, like me, are on the fence about this plan, now's the time to get engaged. The CVSA is hosting four community forums about Cal 2.0 this month. Two of them take place this week. The superintendents say that this plan is just the first draft of a proposal. They hope it'll start a conversation about how best to use student breaks. If you're interested in participating, start here:

Wednesday, October 2, 6:30 p.m. at Essex High School
• Thursday, October 3, 6:30 p.m. at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans
• Wednesday, October 9, 6:30 p.m. at Burlington High School
Thursday, October 10, 6:30 p.m. at Champlain Valley Union High School, Hinesburg

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