humorous and heartfelt stories ~ healthy recipes made without gluten, dairy, or eggs ~ ideas for living well

My youngest son Will has an endearing little habit of filling his pockets with the many "treasures" he encounters in his daily adventures. I don't always understand the value he sees in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks can one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one is beautiful and important. His habit got me thinking about how life is just like that on a larger scale; we gather up the precious bits of our many experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you will find a little something among the stories and ideas here that you'd like to keep in your own pocket. Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Rustic Peach Pie (gluten-free, vegan)

Ahh, the last weekend of summer holidays -- how is it possible that we're here already?  Those feelings of wistfulness associated with the realization that our leisurely days together are coming to an end keep creeping into all of our hearts today; it's hard to say goodbye to what has been a wonderful summer. But there is some excitement and an eagerness to discover the new adventures September will bring all of us, too, as we fill backpacks with school supplies, organize new schedules, and imagine what we will learn and become through our upcoming experiences.  I find these transitional times of year always seem to hum with promise.

We've been enjoying these last few official days of  freedom with shenanigans in the yard and pool and family barbecues together featuring some of our favourite summertime foods.  Yesterday we spent a really nice afternoon and evening here at home with Matt's brother Nick and his wife Krista, whose lovely (and fun!) wedding we attended just a couple of weeks ago.  Because I had a basket of beautiful, ripe peaches sitting on the counter in the morning, I decided to make rustic peach pie for everyone for dessert, and it was a perfect finish to the dinner Matt cooked on the grill.  This sweet treat is quite easy to make, but impressive in flavour!

Rustic Peach Pie

For the crust:

2 cups blanched almond flour
1 tbsp arrowroot flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
2 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp water

For the filling:

6 good-sized peaches, peeled and thinly sliced*
1 tbsp arrowroot flour (you may need a little more if your peaches are especially juicy)

+ 1 tsp coconut sugar for sprinkling on the crust

*To easily remove the skin from the peaches, plunge them into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, then remove them and plunge them immediately into a bowl of ice cold water.  The skins will then simply peel away as you rub them under your thumbs.

In a large bowl, combine the almond flour, arrowroot flour, cinnamon, sea salt, and baking soda.  

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, vanilla extract, and water until well combined.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until you achieve a uniform ball of dough.  Place the dough in the freezer to chill for approximately 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 F.  Prepare the filling by placing the sliced peaches in a mixing bowl and sprinkling them with the arrowroot flour.  Stir the peaches gently until the arrowroot flour is well incorporated.

Place a piece of parchment paper on a flat work surface.  Place the chilled dough on the paper, then place another piece of parchment paper over top and roll out the dough.  You should end up with a circle about 12 inches wide; the pastry will be thin and the edges will be uneven.  Remove the top piece of parchment paper and then transfer the bottom piece and the rolled out pastry to a baking sheet.

Tumble the peach mixture into the centre of the pastry, leaving about a one and a half inch border of crust all the way around.  Gently lift the parchment paper all the way around the circle to fold the edges of the crust over, just to cover the edge of the fruit.  (The centre of the pie should not be covered.)  If the pastry breaks at all, simply smooth it back together with your fingers, as the dough will be quite sticky and easy to repair.

Sprinkle the edges of the pastry and the peach filled centre with coconut sugar, then place the pie in the preheated oven.  Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.  

This peach pie is delicious served slightly warm with a scoop of vanilla coconut milk ice cream on top.  We all agreed it was just the thing to help us bid a fond farewell to those wonderful, relaxed summer evenings for now.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Worth Keeping In Your Pockets -- August 2014

Hello there!  Things have been all crickets around here lately, I know....  I hadn't really intended on taking a mid-summer break from writing, but the draw of the sunshine and the pool and the very enjoyable company of two funny, interesting boys has been too much to resist lately.  I've become a little brain-lazy over the past few weeks, which admittedly has actually been a nice change from my usual status of brain-overdrive!  But just to let you know that I haven't completely disappeared, I thought I'd pop in today and share some summery things with you in an August edition of Worth Keeping In Your Pockets.  I hope you've all been enjoying a wonderful summer just as we have been.

Grilled Corn on the Cob:  We are loving the bounty of fresh summer produce available this time of year, both from our own backyard garden and from the local farmers' market.  Everything just tastes so good! We've been lugging home bags full of ears of corn in recent weeks and preparing them in the most delicious way:  by grilling them on the barbecue.  If you've never grilled corn before, it's very simple:  husk the corn, brush it all over with a little olive oil and sprinkle it with sea salt and pepper to taste, then place it on a grill that's been preheated to medium-high heat.  Grill it for ten minutes, turning the corn every two minutes or so to cook it evenly on all sides.  There will be no pots to wash afterwards, and the corn is tender-crisp and bursting with flavour when it's cooked this way!

Boyhood:  Matt and I saw the touching and true-to-life film Boyhood at a local theatre this weekend and we were both so glad we did.  It chronicles the everyday yet significant moments in the life of a boy and his family as he grows from a six year old to a high school graduate. The really remarkable aspect of the movie is that it was actually filmed over a twelve year period, so viewers are watching the same boy grow up for real before their eyes.  Boyhood really drives home just how quickly childhood passes; I left the theatre feeling wistful and wishing that I could slow the passage of time and the growing up of my own boys, one of whom turns thirteen this week.  (Thirteen!!!)  If this film is playing in a theatre near you this summer, it is well worth seeing.

Lavender:  We have lavender plants all over the place in our gardens; Matt and I both love breathing in its pretty and calming scent as we walk by.  I'd like to have a reminder of this simple summer pleasure during the cold, snowy months, so I've cut fresh stalks of lavender to hang in the house to dry. I plan to use the dried flowers to make lavender sachets to tuck into clothes drawers or under pillows this fall, and to mix with oats or epsom salts for a soothing soak in the tub.  Maybe you might like to remember to do this with your lavender, too!

Wind Chimes:  I've got my eye on this whimsical set of spoon fish wind chimes from Etsy as a lovely late-summer addition to our backyard garden.  The artist has made such clever use of old spoons in this piece, and the smiling faces and sweet sounds of the little fish are sure to brighten up a quiet corner of the yard. I've been finding many unique and useful things while browsing Etsy lately; if you're interested, you can find my favourites list here.

Stationary Bottle Opener:  It's always nice to enjoy cold beverages outdoors during the months of summer relaxing and entertaining, and this great little gadget makes it easy to find a bottle opener whenever you need one.  If you mount this cast iron stationary bottle opener on your deck or on a convenient wall indoors or out, you can open bottles effortlessly.  I gave one of these to my dad and we now have one of our own as well -- it's such a simple thing but a really great idea!

A Handwritten Note:  We're still in full-on summer mode here, but we can't deny that a new school year will be here in only a few more weeks.  We've been reading through a large package of information that arrived from the high school for Noah, and we soon need to go and purchase his school uniform for the first time. The idea of starting high school courses has Noah feeling excited and a little nervous, too, so it was a really nice surprise for him last week when he received a handwritten postcard from the principal of his high school telling him they were looking forward to seeing him in September.  The personal note made him feel noticed and welcomed.  In an age where electronic communication is faster, easier, and almost always the preferred method, I think it's good for all of us to remember that sometimes a good old-fashioned handwritten note can really make someone's day.

That's all for now!  I'll be back again soon...  Enjoy these last few weeks of August and the beautiful summer weather while it lasts.  :)

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's "Sir William" Now (A Trip to Medieval Times)

This past school year, Will spent several weeks learning about the Medieval Period as part of the grade four social studies program.  It was a subject matter he must have found interesting, because I heard many details about knights and kingdoms from him after school during those weeks.  One day I got to watch a lively demonstration of a working catapult he had fashioned out of popsicle sticks, a plastic spoon, and masking tape, and at the end of the unit, Will went to school dressed in a silvery cape and helmet for a medieval feast his teachers had planned.  I was excited when Medieval Times in Toronto contacted me recently to invite me and my family to enjoy an afternoon of Middle Ages themed food and entertainment; it seemed a great opportunity to bring a little bit of what Will had learned to life for him.

We arrived at the Medieval Times "Castle" (at Exhibition Place) yesterday afternoon, and from the moment we stepped inside, we were made to feel that we had been transported to another time.  The helpful staff members were dressed in period costumes, and they addressed Matt and I as "My lord" and "My lady". The interior of the castle provided appropriate atmosphere with its dim lighting, its colourful crests and flags, its horse stables and its dungeon. Our family was assigned a colour of knight that we were to cheer for during the tournament; we were given red and yellow striped paper crowns to wear, and we had our photos taken with the falconer and his beautiful live royal bird.

The boys were given the option to participate in a free knight training session before the dinner and tournament, and while Noah declined, Will eagerly accepted this challenge.  He lined up behind a wooden sword in the sand in the centre of the arena with a group of other young trainees and was then taught how to perform various sword manoeuvres by the knights who would later participate in the tournament.  It was fun to watch Will practise his swordsmanship with a very intent look on his face, and to see the grin he flashed up at us on the sidelines when he was "knighted" by King Carlos in a group ceremony afterwards.

When it came time for the show, we were directed to our seats at a long table with a great view of the action to come.  Our "wench" welcomed us and provided us with excellent service throughout the afternoon as we enjoyed a tasty royal feast of tomato bisque soup, garlic bread, roasted chicken, spare rib, roasted potato, and dessert.  The food was all served on heavy iron dishes and we ate everything with our hands, as they did in the Medieval Period.  (Will thought this was fantastic, as we couldn't tell him to use his utensils the way we often remind him to do at home!)  We were very pleased to see how knowledgeable the staff members were about food sensitivities; they were very easily able to accommodate all of our family's special dietary needs. While we ate, we were entertained continuously by the high-energy performance of the skilled knights and brave, gorgeous horses as they completed various challenges.  The knight battles near the end of the tournament, which involved swords, shields, battle axes, and spiked metal balls, were so exciting that a wide-eyed Will could barely stay in his seat as he repeatedly yelled out words of encouragement to his favourite knights.  I appreciated that the battles were done tastefully -- there was a lot of contact between the knights, but there was no blood or gore.

Our whole family had a wonderful experience at Medieval Times.  We loved how interactive the entire performance was -- spectators were encouraged to cheer and boo and wave coloured flags and truly become a part of the show, which increased everyone's enjoyment of it.  Matt, Noah, Will and I all thought it was a very fun way to catch a glimpse of another time in history.

There is only one drawback to our family having had this Medieval Times experience:  Will is now insisting we call him "Sir William".

Disclosure:  Medieval Times provided me and my family with our dinner and tournament experience, as well as some souvenirs to take home with us. (Thanks for the great afternoon, Medieval Times!) The opinions expressed here are my own.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Week (and a bit) on the Water

"Ahhhh, breathe that fresh northern air!" a jubilant Will exclaimed as he tumbled out onto the rocky driveway after an eight hour drive that had felt, to him, like an eternity.  This was the beginning of what was to be a truly wonderful ten days spent on scenic St. Joseph Island near Sault Ste. Marie, in a beautiful cottage Matt and the boys and I rented from our friends. No matter how long I've been away or what has changed since my last visit to the north, returning to the familiar landscape of enormous lakes, jumbled rocks and thick forests, and to the family who welcomes me so warmly, always feels like coming home.

Our time on the Island was filled with a perfect mix of noisy fun had with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and quieter days where just Matt and the boys and I enjoyed each other's company and the peaceful surroundings.  Kids shrieked with exhilaration as they leapt off the end of the dock into the rolling, chilly waves and swam for the raft, which became for them a giant surf board to ride the rise and fall of the water.  We played tennis and basketball, went kayaking, and played board games together when it rained. The shores and forest revealed a host of wild creatures for us to admire when we looked carefully for them: toads, frogs, crayfish, a deer, a snake (!), little fish jumping out of the water, fireflies, and birds galore.  We looked for pretty rocks in the shallow water (especially puddingstones), skipped flat stones across the water, and built Inukshuk on the sand.  We enjoyed simple, delicious meals out in the fresh air with a view of the lake, and spent evenings sitting around a glowing campfire, sharing stories, music, and marshmallows roasted over the flickering flames.  It was a lovely opportunity for all of us to reconnect with each other in a picture perfect setting.

While we were away I was reading the novel The Humans, in which author Matt Haig quotes astronomer/astrophysicist Carl Sagan:  "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."  The truth of this statement struck me with absolute clarity in the moment that I read it from a chair overlooking Lake Huron.  Standing alone facing a powerful body of water that stretches beyond the scope of the imagination over the horizon, seeing the brilliant sun rise and set in its enduring cycle, it is easy for a person to feel very small and insignificant, even afraid.  When we are joined by the heart to others who make us laugh, who share our hurts, and who give us a sense of being firmly rooted, the enormity of it all becomes breathtakingly beautiful.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Settling Into Summer

Now that we're well into the second week of summer holidays, I'm remembering that there's always a bit of an adjustment period involved in having the kids at home all day.  In an instant, I've gone from having regular hours of organized quiet during which I can get things done each day, to having regular hours of chaotic, noisy incidents that range from someone dropping peanut butter toast face down on the kitchen floor and making peanut butter soup in his attempt to mop it up with a sopping wet shred of paper towel, to someone picking arguments with me over nothing every three minutes as a way of keeping his mental activity at a comfortably intense level.  It takes something of a brain shift to settle into the real rhythm of summer once the giddy euphoria of the first few days of freedom wears off.

I really do love having Noah and Will home with me for the summer months, though.  Their conversations, interesting observations, and crazy antics keep me laughing when I'm not tearing my hair out.

Here's a little snapshot of the kinds of things that have been happening around here recently:

A fridge note from Will, just in case I hadn't heard him say it 6,327,904 times already since school got out. (This, despite the fact that the boy has already had a ridiculously full social calendar this summer -- the phone rings a dozen times a day for him!)

Just a few feet from the fridge, I found all of my bulletin board pushpins painstakingly arranged in the shape of Will's hand.  (Hey, look at that -- he found a way to alleviate his boredom!)

One day last week, Noah was using this net to skim the leaves and stuff out of the pool, and he absentmindedly left it right in front of the gate when he was finished.

The thing toppled over when someone arrived in our yard to visit, so Matt asked Noah to move the net away from the entrance to a better spot.  This is where we found it a little while later:

Because in front of the garage door is obviously a much better spot than in front of the gate.

A conversation I overheard between the boys, when Noah was complaining that Will follows him/imitates him/bothers him too much:

Noah:  "It's like I'm your superstar or something."

Will:  "You should be glad about that.  You should enjoy it while it lasts, before I change my mind."

This afternoon, I was moving from room to room upstairs gathering clothes and things to pack for a trip, and suddenly I heard a cat meow faintly.  A few seconds later I heard it again, and then another meow that didn't sound anything like our cat.  Worried that the neighbourhood roaming cat was terrorizing Maggie through the open kitchen window, I came downstairs but found no trace of any cats anywhere.  Suddenly the cat noises started up again, and this time it was a frantic yeowling.  I started panicking that Maggie had gone into an open closet or drawer somewhere during my packing efforts and was trapped, and I was looking everywhere for her until I heard Noah laughing hysterically in his room.  I peeked in and there was Maggie, sleeping in peaceful oblivion on his bed.  The noises were an app Noah was using to translate his own words into catspeak. (This is how twelve year old boys entertain themselves in the summer.  I try not to ask too many questions.)

There will likely not be many dull moments around here in the next two months (and as a result, you may not hear from me as often as usual), but honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.  I'll gladly take the chaos, since it gives me the chance to have a good long look at the truly interesting people my boys are at ages ten and almost-thirteen. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Grilled Flank Steak Salad and Crispy Potatoes

I think summer is the absolute easiest season in which to enjoy simply delicious meals. There is such an abundance of good, fresh food available to choose from, and most of it doesn't require much cooking. Our family has settled into our warm weather habit of visiting the local farmers' market a couple of times a week, and the baskets of beautiful vegetables and fruit we come home with each time become the centrepiece of every breakfast, lunch, and dinner we make.   Salads often feature prominently as we turn our farmers' market finds into a feast.

The salad recipe I'm sharing with you today is one of our new easy summer favourites.  It combines fresh greens with grilled sweet peppers, zucchini, and flank steak and is drizzled with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. The potatoes we often pair with it are parboiled, then pan fried in a little olive oil and tossed with fresh parsley and chives.  The whole thing comes together in about 30 minutes and makes a really lovely dinner to enjoy out on the deck or patio.

Grilled Flank Steak Salad (serves 4)

Several handfuls of mixed salad greens and/or arugula
2 - 3 sweet bell peppers, in various colours (red, yellow, orange)
2 zucchini (I like to use one green and one yellow)
1 1/4 pounds of flank steak
olive oil
sea salt and pepper, to taste

For the dressing:

3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1 tsp raw honey
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the grill to medium-high.  Prepare the peppers by coring them and slicing them into 2 inch pieces, and slice the zucchini into rounds on a diagonal.  Toss the vegetables with a little olive oil and sea salt in a mixing bowl.

Prepare the salad dressing by combining the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, sea salt and pepper in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and shaking vigorously to mix all ingredients.

Season both sides of the flank steak with sea salt and pepper to taste. Once the grill is hot, place an empty grill basket on the grate to preheat and at the same time, place the flank steak on the grate, close the lid, and grill the steak for about 6 minutes.  Turn the grill down to low, flip the flank steak, and add the prepared peppers and zucchini to the hot grill basket.  Grill with the lid closed for another 6 minutes, stirring the vegetables every couple of minutes.

Remove the flank steak from the grill to a plate, and continue to grill the vegetables for another 4 to 5 minutes while the steak rests.  Remove the vegetables from the grill, and slice the flank steak into thin strips diagonally across the grain.

To assemble the salad, place a handful of mixed greens on a plate and arrange some grilled peppers, zucchini and steak strips on top.  Drizzle the salad with the balsamic vinaigrette.

Crispy Potatoes

6 to 8 new potatoes, scrubbed (leave the skins on) and cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 to 2 tbsp each chopped fresh parsley and chives
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Place the potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover them, and set them over high heat on the stove. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly and cook the potatoes for about 10 minutes. (During the last few minutes that the potatoes are cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.)

Drain the potatoes well once they've cooked for 10 minutes, then toss them into the hot frying pan with the oil.  Season them with sea salt and pepper to taste.  Fry the potatoes for about 10 minutes, stirring often and scraping up the crispy brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  During the last 2 minutes of frying, add the fresh parsley and chives and stir.

Serve the potatoes alongside the steak salad for a satisfying meal.

It's best if you have two people working to prepare this dinner, so that one person can manage the grill while the other is cooking the potatoes.  If you'd like to avoid turning the stove on at all, you can also enjoy this salad with a nice crusty roll instead of the potatoes.  (Organic Works Bakery makes a delicious roll that is free of gluten, dairy, egg, soy, and nuts.)

Here's to fresh, fantastic summer food!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Free as a Bird

I always love how easy it is to shift into summer gear once school and activities end for the boys.  All of the carefully orchestrated schedules we've known for the past ten months just end suddenly:  we have no more early mornings, no more lunches to pack in the evenings, no more homework or meetings or dropping people off here and picking them up there.  There is a noticeable change in everyone's mood at home; we do everything at a more leisurely pace, have more time to enjoy together, and laughter comes often and easily. This is definitely one of my very favourite times of the year.

Our first weekend of summer has been hot, sunny, and perfectly fun.  We've adopted full-time outdoor living, spending time in the pool and playing games in the backyard from morning until evening.  I went ahead and purchased a slackline kit after my sister-in-law Meg told me how much she and her family love the activity, and it has generated a huge amount of enthusiasm here so far!  We found a perfect spot to suspend the line between two shady trees in our yard, and Noah and Will have already spent many happy hours over the past two days balancing skillfully back and forth across it -- they think it's awesome. Matt and I have also tried it, and we agree; it's such a fun activity for everyone!

We've also made a tiny new friend since summer holidays began.  On Friday evening, Will was swinging quietly in the hammock chair, reading his new jumbo book of Archie comics, when he suddenly whisper-shouted to me that there was a little bird really close to his feet. I looked, and sure enough, a little grayish-brown bird was hopping right under his dangling toes, eating bugs.  Will carefully got up from the hammock to investigate the bird a little more closely, and surprisingly, the bird was not at all alarmed by Will's movements.  For almost half an hour afterwards, Will gently followed the little bird all around the yard, often coming close enough that he could have touched her, and the bird was not bothered by this at all -- she actually seemed to enjoy Will's company.  At first I was a little worried that the bird was young or injured and maybe physically unable to fly away, but she seemed perfectly healthy as she continued hopping around.  At one point she did fly over to the fence, and then she came back right close to Will again, as if she were specifically looking for her new buddy.  Will and I both marvelled at the strange but sweet friendliness of this wild little creature.

We have seen the bird in our yard every morning, afternoon, and evening since Will first discovered her on Friday.  She comes close to all of us, and when we walk off to somewhere else in the yard, we often find her following us so she can stay nearby.  When we crouch down low to the ground to talk to her (yes, we've started talking to her!), she hops right over to our faces and looks up at us with curiosity. This afternoon I was holding our bird book down low to the ground so that the boys and I could try to identify exactly what kind of bird she is, and the three of us cracked up when she hopped right over to the book as if to read it, and then flew at my hand and pecked at the diamond in my ring!  Our whole family is now completely fascinated by her.

We're pretty sure she's a young brown-headed cowbird, and the boys have discovered some really interesting details about her species online (including the fact that this little bird's mother, like all female cowbirds, did not build her own nest or raise her own young -- she laid her egg in the nest of another bird species and left that bird mother to feed and look out for her baby.)  It's amazing the lessons that can come at a time when you're least expecting to learn something....

We hope our new little "pet" will stay with us over these next glorious months of summer holidays, as we all savour the feeling of being as free as the birds.