Category Archives: Michelle Cusolito

I spent my childhood mucking about in the fields, forests, and swamps around the farm where I grew up. As an Exchange Student in high school, I traded rural living for city life in Cebu, Philippines. These early experiences set me on my current course exploring nature and culture like the locals. When I’m not mucking around the world, I’m usually in my local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children.

Michelle Cusolito: Go Mushroom Hunting With Your Kids

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 19, 2012 at 08:33AM

Photo taken in Bartlett, NH 6 Oct 2012

Many people associate autumn with aging and the approach of death. Indeed many poems have been written about being in the “autumn” of one’s life. Sure, annual plants die during the first frost. Deciduous trees lose their leaves and  look dead to some. But around here, mushroom/fungi seem to come to life out of nowhere during September and October.

Have you noticed how many are around? Last year, I took a walk and focused on locating and photographing the variety of mushrooms I saw. Yesterday, I left my camera at home but saw just as many when I was out in our woods.

So here’s a nature adventure for you and your kids this weekend- go out mushroom hunting! Maybe hand your kids a point and shoot camera and see how many they can photograph. (Use the “macro” setting to get good shots. The symbol looks like a flower on most cameras). Later, you can try to identify them using a field guide, if you choose.

CAUTION: Just remember that many mushrooms are poisonous. Only trained experts should pick and eat mushrooms. In fact, I generally encourage my kids not to touch mushrooms because I can’t identify the poisonous ones. If we do touch them, we immediately wash our hands thoroughly.

How many different kinds of mushrooms do you think you can find? Have your kids make a prediction before you go out. Then, I hope you’ll report back to us!

If you don’t live in the northeast or an area with lots of mushrooms right now, what organism can you search out this weekend? I’d love to hear what you find.

Related Posts:
Mushroom Hunting

Stress Therapy: Get Back To Nature


Michelle Cusolito: Wordless Wednesday: Leaf on Rock

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 17, 2012 at 08:22AM

You might also like:
Fall Leaves- This post suggests fall leaf crafts you can do with kids, including a modern twist on an old placemat activity.

Michelle Cusolito: Travel Tuesdays: Real Travel

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 16, 2012 at 08:00AM

Real travel is not comfy,  says Ilan Stavans. It’s not tourism.  It’s a
journey.  Maybe a pilgrimage. 
A search. 
A getting lost. 
Back in July, Tom Ashbrook featured Ilan Stavans on his show. I was just back from our latest travel adventure and missed it at the time. I finally listened to the podcast last Friday. It offers an interesting perspective on travel. I hope you ‘ll find some time to listen. You’ll likely want to download it and listen on a portable device in your car or something- it’s about 45 minutes long.
If you want to be a more thoughtful traveler and perhaps turn your journey into a sort of pilgrimage, check out The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza.
I first read this book more than ten years ago and I confess-I did not initially connect to all of the content. Over time, however, I’ve grown to see the wisdom of Dispenza’s words and have found that the more I follow his suggestions, the more transformative my trips have been.
What do you think about the distinction between travel and tourism? What is “real” travel? Is one kind of travel inherently right while other options are wrong?

Related Posts:

Michelle Cusolito: Wordless Wednesday: Lost River Gorge

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 10, 2012 at 08:33AM

Photos taken 8 October 2012

Michelle Cusolito: Travel Tuesdays: Close to Home

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 09, 2012 at 11:49AM

This weekend my family spent the long weekend in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with friends. Without traffic, it’s about a three and a half hour road trip, so it’s pretty close to home.

We climbed a mountain on Sunday. It’s funny to see how kids choose to go up vs. how adults (with longer legs) go. My daughter went through a skinny gap in the rocks. Right around here is where my she said, “This is fun!”

Here we are at the top.

Whoops. We almost lost a few kids over the edge. (Don’t worry…it’s only an optical illusion. Boy did they have fun with this!)

On Monday, we went spelunking at Lost River Gorge. Ok, so not the serious kind of caving that serious spelunkers do, but we had a great time. My husband and all the kids went though the lemon squeezer but I opted out… too claustrophobic for me. 
This one was a tight squeeze but I managed it!

I know I’ve written often about traveling internationally on this blog, but that’s not the only way to travel. We love exploring natural places close to home. Every part of the world has features that make it unique. And, if money it tight for your family, perhaps a road trip is more manageable. 
How was your long weekend? Did you get out in nature? What did you see? What local area is your favorite to visit?

You Might Also Like:
Travel Tuesdays: Mount Desert Island in Chatham, MA.
Travel Tuesdays: Top 10 tips for Traveling With Children
Travel Tuesdays: Be a Traveler in Your Hometown or State

Michelle Cusolito: Cooking With Kids

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 05, 2012 at 10:03AM

On Tuesday, I shared a list of my favorite cookbooks. Then, on Wednesday, when I was at my kids’ Pediatrician’s office, I was reminded of another cooking resource I wanted to share with you:  ChopChop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families that is distributed free through Pediatrician’s offices in our area.

From their magazine:

ChopChop’s mission is to inspire and teach kids to cook and eat real food with their families.”

“We believe that cooking and eating together as a family is a vital step in resolving the obesity and hunger epidemics.”
If cooking as a family is new to you, you won’t find a better resource than this quarterly magazine. The recipes are kid-friendly and kid-tested. Every step is explained in language accessible to kids (and adults who may not be comfortable in the kitchen). Beautiful photographs show a variety of kids cooking together and enjoying what they cooked.  Kids can complete some of the recipes alone while others require adult assistance. All clearly indicate when adult supervision is needed. The magazine also provides fun activities related to cooking and healthy living. For example, the fall issue includes as an article written by a teenager about beekeeping and directions for sprouting celery on a kitchen windowsill.
One unspoken part of the magazine that I also love is the children who are shown in the photographs. Children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds are shown engaged in cooking and having fun in the kitchen. The fall cover shows a variety of children including a girl who may be Muslim since she’s wearing what appears to be a head scarf. I’m happy to see a magazine that portrays all kinds of kids doing the everyday job of cooking. (If only there were more children’s books that did the same!)
ChopChop is a non-profit organization. Readers can pick up the magazine in Pediatrician’s offices or subscribe. A Pay-It-Forward Subscription which costs $14.95 gets a subscription for you plus a family or community in need. There are also many other ways you can donate to help bring this resource to families or communities in need.  (Note: I contacted the organization to ask how a family in need can get a subscription. When I receive a response, I’ll update this post).
If you haven’t seen ChopChop, I hope you’ll check it out. You can also visit their website through the links I’ve provided in this post. Even if you can’t access the magazine, the website includes tons of great recipes.
Does your family Read ChopChop? Do you know of other resources that may be helpful to readers?

A few of my favorite fall recipes:

Michelle Cusolito: Wordless Wednesday: Driftwood on Black Brook

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 03, 2012 at 08:00AM

Photo taken 17 September 2012

Michelle Cusolito: Travel Tuesdays: Cookbooks

From: Polliwog on Safari
October 02, 2012 at 08:00AM

By now you realize how much I enjoy cooking. I especially enjoy cooking foods from other cultures. Today, I’ll share my favorite cookbooks that will take your palates on a little vacation.

Note: Try checking them out of your local library and taking them for a test drive before you buy them. That’s what I did with many of these.

1. Hands down, my favorite, go-to cookbook is Where Flavor Was Born by Andreas Viestad, photographs by Mette Randem. Part geography book, part history lesson, part photo book, it also has amazing recipes. I haven’t cooked every recipe, yet, but all of the ones I’ve made (and that’s many, if not most of them) have been awesome. Last week we made “Cumin Toasted Chicken Drumsticks with Honey” for a dinner party. Our 9 year old guest said, “This chicken in heavenly!”

2. The Essential Asian Cookbook by Wendy Stephens. Noticing a pattern? I love cookbooks with lots of photos. Especially when I’m cooking something I’ve never seen, never mind eaten. How else am I supposed to know what it looks like?

3. Rice and Risotto by Christine Ingram. Can you say wild mushroom and Parmesan risotto? Mmmmm. Many other delicious recipes, too!
4. The Vegetarian Table: North Africa by Kitty Morse. North Africans are not typically vegetarians, but this cookbook captures the flavors of the Maghreb. One of my favorite recipes is “Couscous T’Faya” (Couscous with Caramelized Onions and Raisins). I made it before our trip to Morocco and was pleasantly surprised to have this exact dish when we were there.
5. The Iraqi Cookbook by Lamees Ibrahim. I’ve already shared the recipes for Timman Queemah and Timman Jazar from this cookbook. It offers a wonderful look into the culture of a country many people only associate with war. 
6. My favorite cookbook for those just venturing into cooking from other cultures is Global Feast Cookbook: Recipes from Around the World by Mystic Seaport Museum. It was my first cookbook of this sort and it eased me in. Many of the recipes have been altered slightly to accommodate American ingredients and cooking styles. It’s a good place to start. Two drawbacks: 1. no photographs, 2. it’s out of print. (Amazon offer used ones for sale).
7. The Usborne Internet-Linked Children’s World Cookbook by Angela Wilkes and Fiona Watt. My kids have been cooking with me for long enough that they love to use my “adult” cookbooks. For budding chefs, however, this offers a nice, easy way to start. (Usborne also offers other cooking titles).

There you have it: my favorite cook books. What are yours?

Michelle Cusolito: Stress Free Birthday Parties

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 28, 2012 at 09:13AM

I’ve noticed a trend in the birthday parties my daughter has been invited to lately… scaled back parties with lots of free play. One was held at a local school playground. Kids played and then had some cake and ice cream. Another was an informal gathering at the beach. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I love this shift. All kids want to do, after all, is have fun playing with their friends. Doing that outside, whenever possible, is even better.

Here’s a quick recap of the party we recently hosted:

  1. My daughter invited 5 friends. (4 were able to attend).
  2. Invitations asked them to bring their bikes and helmets if it was sunny and dress-up clothes if it was raining. The day started rainy but clearer skies were predicted, so most of the girls came prepared for both. 
  3. They started out playing dress-up. 
  4. They had a light lunch of quesadillas, fruit salad, and veggie sticks.
  5. They played more dress up. 
  6. They had cake and ice cream and opened presents.
  7. They combined their two activities and rode bikes while dressed up.

Doesn’t everyone ride bikes in a tu-tu?

Because this party was small- my daughter only invited her closest friends- it was a stress-free party for me to run. The girls arrived and just stated playing. All I had to do was provide lunch and cake and ice cream. Of course, lunch wasn’t even necessary- we could have planned this party for after the lunch hour. We just happen to like to cook, so serving lunch was fun for us. If you hate cooking, skip it!

If you like this idea but still aren’t convinced, read these earlier posts for suggestions.

Free Play and Birthday Parties Describes a party for a 10 year old boy.
Loose Parts Play, Part 2 Includes my “Top Ten List” for planning this kind of party.
Loose Parts Play, Part 3 Offers specific suggestions for families who don’t have a yard or live in a small apartment.

What do you think? Will you embrace this idea? Are there other hurdles you can think of that I didn’t address in this or earlier posts?

Michelle Cusolito: (Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: Protective Eyewear

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 26, 2012 at 07:47AM

Does chopping onions bother your eyes? No problem!

Michelle Cusolito: Travel Tuesdays: Take a Break from the Internet

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 25, 2012 at 11:56AM

He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.

                                                                                  ~Chinese Proverb

You’ve heard it all before…we’re too connected all the time. We need a mental break. Stop checking Facebook, email, twitter, etc. Stop posting your status.

Of course, I agree this is a good idea for our mental health as well as our relationships. But when traveling, there is an additional benefit. Staying off the internet means you get to really be in the place you’re visiting. Think about it. If you’re constantly posting status updates, you’re not really living in the same place as your body- you’re somehow trapped back home-telling all of your friends what you’re doing.

When I was an exchange student to the Philippines, email didn’t exist. The only way I could communicate with my family and friends was through very expensive phone calls or through snail mail. And boy was it snail mail… letters took 10 days to get there. Packages took 3. Now I’m not extolling the virtues of the “good ole days” like some old geezer. But in some ways, I had it easier back then. I had to be present in the place where I was living because I had no choice. If I were a teen exchange student now, I don’t know how well I’d do. I’d like to think I’d manage, but the draw of social media is strong. And a year is a long time.

But here’s the thing. For most travelers, time away does not last nearly that long. Many of us are lucky if we get two weeks off a year. And all of it isn’t usually spent traveling. So when you do get a break-whether your traveling to some far off destination or hanging around your home town relaxing, take a real break. Turn off the computer. Ignore Facebook. Set an “out of office message” on your email.

I’m as much a member of the digital world as the next person, but that’s what I did when I was lucky enough to be in Italy for three weeks this past summer. I had scheduled my usual “Wordless Wednesday” posts, plus one guest post for my blog before I left, but other than that I was internet silent. No blogging. No Twitter. No Facebook or Pinterest. I checked email a few of times in the entire three weeks, just in case there was something urgent, but I didn’t respond to one email until I returned.

And guess what happened? Nothing. And everything. The world continued on without me and I got to really live in the place my body occupied. I  got to experience all Salina, and Sicilia, and Roma had to offer me uninterrupted by the chatter of life back home. I got to play games with my kids, swim in the Mediterranean, and forge friendships with people I met. I had literally no idea what was happening in the the rest of the world for three full weeks. But my world was rich indeed.

He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.

But that can only happen if you really do leave it all behind when you go.

Take a break. Be there, not here. See what happens.

Have you tried disconnecting while traveling? Now did it go? What was the result?

Travel Tuesdays: Keep A Journal
Travel Tuesdays: The Philippines “Growing Up”
Travel Tuesdays: Exchange Students

Michelle Cusolito: Timman Jazar: Rice With Carrots

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 21, 2012 at 09:08AM

 by Lamees Ibrahim

I love cooking and eating dishes from other places. Eating foods from other cultures doesn’t mean you suddenly have insight to that culture or understand it in some deep way. But food is central to culture. People express themselves through the foods they cook and bond during meals all over the world.

I remember when we returned from India people asked, “What did your kids eat?” My answer was always, “The food.” That’s not to say they loved everything they ate or never wanted a break from the spiciness, but the flavors were not foreign to them because they had eaten Indian dishes at home and in restaurants.

I know many kids have very real food aversions. I feel for parents who need to work with difficult food needs. This post probably isn’t for you. But most children don’t have special or medical needs that prevent them from trying new foods. Why not have them try this super easy one pot dish? Even non- cooks will find this easy. If you can chop carrots and onions and brown some ground meat you’ve got this one covered!

Timman Jazar from The Iraqi Cookbook
serves 8 to 10
Total time to prepare: 40 minutes

2 cups rice (traditionally white but we use brown basmati)
1 pound ground meat (lamb, beef, or turkey can be used)
2 pounds carrots
One large onion
1 tablespoon mixed spices (Use garam masala- found in the international/Asian aisle or the “Natural Food” aisle)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and black pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for cooking


  1. Wash the rice in cold water. Drain.
  2. Chop the onion and carrots into small cubes and set aside.
  3. Cook the ground meat with the mixed spices until slightly brown.
  4. Add the chopped onion, salt, and black pepper. Continue cooking for 5 to 10 min.
  5. Add the chopped carrots and cinnamon. Cook for about 2 min. to soften the carrots slightly. Add about 1/2 cup of water to keep it soft.
  6. Put the rice in the pot and add enough water to cook the rice (about three and half cups). Cover and simmer until rice is ready.

Enjoy it with a little plain yogurt and a salad on the side.

Variation: For a vegetarian version, leave out the meat and use vegetable broth to cook the rice instead of water.
What’s your family’s favorite food from another culture? If you try this recipe, please come back and let us know what you thought.

Looking for other recipes? Try these:
Timman Queemah: Ground Meat with Chickpeas and Rice (Another Iraqi dish- a staple in our house).
Curried Pumpkin Soup (A “must have” at out Thanksgiving table).
Delicata Squash (Delicata are in season now!)
Shurit Ads: Egyptian Lentil Soup (A bit more involved than some soups- stick blender makes it easy!)

Michelle Cusolito: Wordless Wednesday: Car in Rome

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 19, 2012 at 08:26AM

Photo taken 8 July 2012

Michelle Cusolito: Travel Tuesdays: A Sense of Place

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 18, 2012 at 09:06AM

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my sense of place affects me when I travel. When I first arrived in Niamey, Niger, for a few moments, my physical surroundings overwhelmed me. I found myself searching for something familiar-anything similar to something I knew.

Within a short period of time, I found it. I noticed that the buildings had a similar shape and construction to many buildings in the Philippines (where I once lived). Most of the buildings had a cube-shaped, low profile and were made of blocks. In the Philippines, many buildings have a similar shape and are made out of cinder blocks.

We also passed several piles of burning trash along the road. As that smoldering smell reached my nose, I felt myself relax a little more. I know that may sound weird, but to anyone who’s lived or traveled in the developing world, roadside piles of burning trash are commonplace. I had lived in the Philippines long enough to make that landscape my own, so while I hated the burning trash when I first arrived in the Philippines, it had become weirdly comforting- a reminder of my second home.

Erg Zhigaga, Morocco

Certainly places that inspire awe in us can make us feel somehow more calm. But not all beautiful scenes do that for me. The giant rolling dunes of the Sahara are certainly beautiful. I know our friend who grew up there feels serene in the desert. But for me, as much as I enjoyed the beauty, I never felt the sense of serenity that I feel in landscapes that are more similar to the one where I grew up.

After leaving those giant sand dunes of Morocco, we headed toward the coast. About 30 minutes before we reached the shore I looked at my husband and said, “Ocean! Did you feel that?” We could literally feel the moisture in the air and knew the ocean wasn’t far. Until that moment, I didn’t even realize I had that ability.

When we eventually reached Essaouria, I instantly loved the place. I mean, I really loved it. And what made me love it? For starters, the ocean runs right up against the town, just steps from our hotel. The town, which is known for it’s blue doors, also employs a major fishing fleet. You can watch them come in at sunset every night.

For someone who grew up in New Bedford Massachusetts, a city that hosts one of the largest fishing fleets in our country, that’s a familiar scene. The circles of gulls overhead waiting for scraps. The slightly unpleasant odor of fish being off-loaded or cleaned. While I might call parts of that unpleasant, they’re also comfortable and familiar.

Hyderabad, India

But here’s what I’ve also learned. My most transformative travel experiences are those that happened in places where I felt the most uncomfortable, or downright uneasy. I was overwhelmed when I first arrived in the Philippines. I was living in the city of Cebu. I had grown up in the country surrounded by trees and farmland and lakes. But that experience was easily the most transformative of my life.  The city of Hyderabad, India completely overwhelmed me, too. Yet I can barely put into words all that I learned and gained from that one short trip.

For me, overcoming the barriers of culture and language are not as difficult as overcoming my own internal discomfort in places that are so physically different from where I grew up.

How about you and your kids? What kinds of travel are most transformative for you?

You Might Also Like:
Travel Tuesdays: Morocco
Travel Tuesdays: Awakening in a Strange Place
Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor
Travel Tuesdays: India

Michelle Cusolito: New Beginnings

From: Polliwog on Safari
September 14, 2012 at 08:58AM

 Swallowtail Caterpillar just before metamorphosis.

September feels like a time for new beginnings to me. From the age of 5 to 22, I was a student. September meant new teachers, new classmates, maybe even a new school. Then I became a teacher and September meant a new set of students, new parents, and maybe a new classroom. Until I became a parent, each September meant a fresh start. There were a couple of Septembers, when my son was an infant/toddler, when I didn’t experience “back to school.” But every year since he was two has continued to bring a new beginning. For a while, I was an Educational Consultant working in schools and then I became the parent of school-aged children.

I used to love that old Staples back to school add with the soundtrack that played “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I know the commercial was meant as a joke, but as a teacher, September really was my favorite time of year. I LOVED going back to school. Getting out of school in June, not so much. I hated saying good-bye to my students. Each year they became like family to me. Heck, we spent more time together on weekdays than we we spent with our actual families.

But now the tables have turned. I have to send my actual family members (in the form of my children) back to school each fall. I miss them. But you know what? I also see that same glimmer of excitement in their eyes that I had. The glimmer of new beginnings. The chance to make a whole new set of friends, meet new teachers who will take them to new places, and learn things they never knew they’d learn.

I felt all of that in my son’s classroom last night during open house as I looked at the barometers and anemometers they had built. He was excited to tell us how they worked and what the readings meant. And that was my fairly tight-lipped son who was talking. The son I call, “the man of few words.” He’s excited about the science he’s learning this year. So am I.

And, so, despite missing my kids as they venture back to school, I’m thankful for the interactions they’ll have that I can’t provide. I’m thankful for the new friends they’ll make. I’m also thankful for the new beginnings I have to look forward to. More time to write. More time to submit my manuscripts to publishers and agents. More time to focus on my career.

What new beginnings are you looking forward to this fall?

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