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!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Tiny Tale (Tail?) of Horror

It started out as a perfectly ordinary Wednesday morning.  Noah and Will and I were shuffling around the kitchen table in the early hours, setting out breakfast and rustling through the day's newspaper to find our favourite sections to read.  Beyond the windowpanes, the sky was still cloaked in darkness, and the room was hushed in the way that kitchens are when its inhabitants are still partially asleep. I fed the cat while I was waiting for the oatmeal to finish cooking, noticing for the second morning in a row that she had eaten an unusually large amount of dry food overnight. I then walked over to a drawer to take out some fresh kitchen towels to use.

The towel drawer looked as it always does; it was neatly stacked with colourful rows of soft, folded drying cloths.  I closed my fingers around the towel closest to the top and was pulling it towards me when a loud storm of tiny, hard objects suddenly rained down on the drawer's wooden bottom. Gasping, I jumped back from the drawer, which startled the boys and had them both hopping up from the table to see what was wrong.

The three of us cautiously peered over the drawer's edge and saw that where the towel had been, there was now a vast collection of cat kibble and a sad, half-eaten jellybean (a remnant resurfaced from a long-forgotten trail left by the Easter Bunny many months ago).  We all looked at each other in silent bewilderment for a second. I broke the stillness with a quiet question, my mind daring to hope for a different answer than the one I was already pretty certain of.



"Did one of you maybe do this as a prank?  An early Hallowe'en trick, perhaps?"

Their wide eyes and solemn, shaking heads told me this was no joke.  And then all hell broke loose in our kitchen.

I was blurting out frantic phrases about mice(!!!) and taking quick, panicked pokes at the remaining towels in the drawer, afraid that the tiny cat food burglar(s) might still be lurking within the folds. Will was shrieking periodically in horror, his mind already having conjured up giant-sized rats with red eyes and rabies and a taste for old purple jellybeans living within our walls.  Noah was plotting an elaborate covert mouse-catching mission, involving the mounting of his Go-Pro camera in a strategic location so we could live-stream the culprit's every move and then use this information to lure it into a little cage.  It was a miracle that anyone ended up at school on time this morning.

I have now spent the day Googling "how to humanely deal with mice in your house", because it is obvious that having a cat does not guarantee a rodent-free living situation.


Does this look like a cat who is bothered by the fact that a mouse (mice?) is stealing all of her food at night and socking it away in a towel drawer?  No, I didn't think so either.

I suppose there are worse stories about rodents living in people's houses.  (Like the time when a black squirrel chewed through the walls of the Toronto house Matt lived in with friends years ago, and we found the furry critter sleeping among the towels in the linen closet one day!)  Still, this is definitely a situation where SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!! If you have any tips for helping little mice pack up and move out in a way that won't upset boys (and a mom) with sensitive, animal loving hearts, I'm all ears.








Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Opportunity

The afternoon sun streams through the front windows, making the space where I usually sit and write feel bright, warm, inviting.  There is silence in the room, save for the sound of the letter keys clicking in irregular rhythms and the persistent, almost palpable hum of mental activity happening behind three sets of eyes.  I have company today; the boys' fingers have joined mine in the act of tapping out strings of words.  Noah is putting the finishing touches on a piece of fiction he's decided to write for a contest, and Will is working on an article for his school newspaper.  I'm thrilled that the two of them are already finding their own voices and have the confidence to let them be heard.

Back in September, I was feeling disappointed when I was unable to find a teacher willing to help coach a First Lego League team at Noah and Will's school this year.  Although I understood and respected the teachers' reasons for declining (the role of coach for this activity requires an enormous amount of time and energy), it seemed a shame for the boys and their team not to be able to build on the excellent learning opportunities that the FLL project had provided for them last season. I wondered if Noah and Will's enthusiasm for school might lag this year without the challenge of robotics to keep them motivated and engaged.

I'm glad to say that I'm not worried any longer.  It seems both boys have considered the lack of a school robotics team not as a barrier to their growth, but as an opportunity to see what else is out there (and inside themselves) to explore.  Will has come home with a beaming face and stories of how he has been taken under the wing of the senior boy at school who runs the tech team; he is learning the ins and outs of setting up and managing the sound and light and video systems for school assemblies and special events, and he now gets to sit at the tech table in the gym, behind the controls. He is taking his strong interest in politics to his new job as a school newspaper reporter, and has come up with an earnest plan to interview the new Waterloo mayor so he can craft an impressive article for the next issue.  He's also writing an international math contest next month, a challenge he gleefully accepted when he was recently approached by his teachers about participating. Will's mind is so full of compelling ideas and intentions these days that he sometimes finds it hard to fall asleep at night.

Noah has mapped out lofty goals for his future this year in grade eight, and he seems to have a new spark and confidence in seeking out what he needs to reach them.  I think his academic success and positive social interactions in his high school class so far this fall have shown him that following an uncommon path can bring him a great deal of happiness. It's wonderful to see him working together with his teachers to create the unique and rewarding educational experience he craves. At home, he spends weekend afternoons dismantling all of the intricate components of my old netbook computer with a tiny screwdriver, and chatting with his electrical engineer uncle about how he could use these parts in an interesting new project. The boy who used to doodle in the margins of his math notebooks out of frustrated boredom now tackles the optional extra challenge questions his high school math teacher assigns with a positive, inquisitive mind in the evenings, and he has hopes of attending a four day enrichment studies unit at Queen's University next spring. When I compliment Noah on his excellent attitude and hard work, he looks at me and says knowingly, "I have plans, Mom." We both understand, without any further words, that he is going to do everything in his power to see what he's dreaming of come to life.


It has been challenging sometimes to find the kinds of educational experiences the boys have needed over the years to keep their curious, always moving minds happy.  Sometimes opportunity knocks, but sometimes you have to go out and find it, or even create it yourself.   I see Noah and Will doing all of these wonderful things this year that animate them and fill their hearts with joy, and I realize that my efforts in advocating for and encouraging them have helped them learn how to recognize and seize opportunity for themselves.  That's a pretty amazing feeling for all of us.




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Worth Keeping in Your Pockets -- October 2014

Around our house, fall feels all about staying warm and cozy, well-fed, well-read, and close to the ones we love.  That seems to be a fitting theme for today's edition of Worth Keeping in Your Pockets -- pull up a comfy chair and take a peek at some things my family and I have been enjoying lately!

Merino Wool Socks:  Cool, wet weather won this week; I gave up on the easy style of bare feet in ballet flats and switched to wearing socks and fall boots whenever I leave the house.  My feet have a tendency to feel cold almost always in late autumn and winter, so I'm often on a mission this time of year to find socks that are warm and comfortable, but also not ridiculously thick, for everyday wear. These merino wool socks are my new favourites -- they are super soft (not itchy like wool can be) and lightweight, have no bumpy seams at the toes, and they fit really well, with just the right amount of snugness.  I found them at Costco, where they're sold in four-packs in a variety of colours.  (Look Dad -- more stripes!!  ;)  )


Rainbow Carrots:  I went out to check on the remains of our vegetable garden last weekend and was happy to find that the last of the carrots were all ready to be picked.  We planted a rainbow variety this year, mostly just for the fun of pulling each carrot up by its green top and being surprised by what colour it turned out to be.  We got a lovely variety of white, yellow, orange, pink, and purple carrots in our harvest, and it's been so nice to enjoy the taste of homegrown vegetables just at a time when we're really starting to miss freshly picked food from the backyard.  I used some of our carrots to roast along with potatoes for dinner on Sunday; I drizzled the vegetables with olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and pepper, tossed in some crushed garlic cloves, fresh rosemary, and orange zest and baked them in a 400 F oven for about an hour.  It's a pretty and delicious side dish that you can try, too -- just look for rainbow carrots in your grocery store.



Canadian Lit:  I learned recently that a fellow swim club mom I had met through Noah's group last year is an accomplished author with a new novel that was published this fall.  Excited to enjoy the hard work of a local writer to whom I actually had a connection, I bought Carrie Snyder's book, Girl Runner, and I've been completely drawn into her beautifully written story since I started reading it yesterday. The narrative weaves gracefully between the present, where 104 year old Aganetha Smart, a former famed Olympic runner and now a lonely nursing home resident, is taken on a mysterious excursion by two young strangers, and the past, which Aggie reveals to the reader through her vivid, tender memories of her personal and family history.  The novel is an excellent read so far; it's powerful and deeply touching.  (I also discovered that Carrie Snyder writes a blog, and it too is lovely to read.  If you're interested in the thoughtful, sincere musings of a writer, a mom to four children, a teacher, and a runner, visit Obscure CanLit Mama.)



Handy Apple Slicer:  This is one of those kitchen gadgets that I should have acquired years ago, considering that my two boys have eaten tons of apples every year since they were small, and I've likely spent too many hours of my life coring and slicing fruit!  We've seen this slicer in action at the local farmers' market, where the vendors use them to offer samples of the different apple varieties to visitors. All you have to do is center this little metal contraption over the top of an apple, press down, and voila!  The apple is instantly cored and divided into ten neat little sections, ready for eating plain, or dipped in some natural peanut, almond, or cashew butter as Noah and Will like to do for a snack.  I ordered my apple slicer from a virtual Pampered Chef party that I attended recently and I'm really happy with its quality.  It's a great little time saver.



Fall Family Getaway:  When we can, Matt and the boys and I like to plan a little trip somewhere in November, a reprieve from the busyness of fall schedules and the usual routines that become somewhat tiresome during a long, gray, chilly month.  One of our favourite weekend getaways involves driving up to Frankenmuth, Michigan, where we stay at a family-friendly hotel with a waterpark and do some winter clothes shopping at the outlets in Birch Run.  Everyone is always happy on this trip -- the hotel is cheerful, comfortable and well-equipped, and located right next door to the world's largest Christmas store, whose twinkling lights smile at us through the window in the dark evenings.  The boys love the water slides and the hotel arcade filled with games of all kinds, and Matt and I love the deals we find in the stores.  We'll be heading up there again one weekend this November for some family fun; if you live within reasonable driving distance from Frankenmuth/Birch Run, it's a place well worth visiting.

Have you discovered something useful, beautiful, or interesting lately that you'd like to share?  I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.


***

I started writing this post lightheartedly this morning, before I heard the sad and shocking news of the tragedy that occurred in Ottawa today. The above descriptions of everyday things seem so insignificant in light of how our country is feeling right now that it seems almost ridiculous to post them. We are all shaken tonight, but I think it's important to remind ourselves that we still live in a place that is beautiful, and peaceful, and free, and that the violent actions of a few cannot destroy what is at the heart of our nation. We must continue to see the good that exists all around us, remembering more than ever to love and take good care of one another. My heart is with all those who were touched closely by today's awful events.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Individual Turkey Pot Pies (gluten-free, dairy-free)

"What should I do with the leftover turkey?"

If you're still looking for an answer to this question after Monday's Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations, I have a delicious recipe for you today. This is one of my family's favourite ways to use up the leftovers once we've grown tired of the usual plate filled with carved turkey, cranberries, sweet potato casserole, and vegetables: individual pot pies nestled in a rich almond flour crust.  These warm, filling pies really hit the spot at the end of a busy fall day, and have won over even my two very particular eaters.

Turkey Pot Pies 
(adapted from a Chicken Pot Pie recipe in Elana Amsterdam's Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook)


For the crust:

1 1/2 cups firmly packed blanched almond flour
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp dried parsley
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tbsp water

For the filling:

1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 large stalk of celery, halved lengthwise then chopped
2 carrots, halved lengthwise then chopped
2 cups of cooked turkey, cut into one-inch pieces
3/4 cup frozen peas
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
sea salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup stock (homemade turkey stock is great if you have it; you could also use a gluten-free chicken or vegetable stock from a carton)
2 tbsp arrowroot flour

Preheat the oven to 350 F. To make the crust, combine the almond flour, sea salt, baking soda, and parsley in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the grapeseed oil and water, and add them to the dry ingredients.  Stir until a uniform mixture forms.

Set aside approximately two tablespoons of the almond flour dough, then divide the remaining dough between four ramekins.  (You could use a 9-inch pie plate instead if you prefer to make one larger pie rather than four individual ones.) Press the dough firmly into the bottom and up the sides of each ramekin to form a crust. Flatten out the dough you set aside to half-inch thickness, and cut out four decorative shapes using a small cookie cutter.  Place the ramekins and the cut-outs on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.  Remove the crusts from the oven and let them cool. 

To make the filling, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, celery, carrots and sea salt and stir.  Reduce the heat to medium; cover the skillet and cook the vegetables for approximately 10 minutes, or until they are soft, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the cooked turkey, peas, and parsley and heat until the turkey and peas are warmed through. Season the mixture with pepper, to taste.

In a small bowl, whisk the arrowroot flour into the stock until it dissolves.  Turn the heat under the skillet up to high and add the stock mixture to the turkey and vegetables, stirring constantly for about a minute, until it thickens to a gravy-like consistency.

Spoon the filling into the ramekins, and place a baked decorative cut-out on top of each one.  Garnish with a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh parsley and serve hot.

If your turkey leftovers are already long gone, these pot pies are just as delicious when they are made with leftover roast chicken instead.  Either version makes for very satisfying comfort food when the weather is chilly.






Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Finding the Sunbeams

She's an old girl now; it's evident in the gray that runs through her fur and the age spots dotting her soft pink nose. Her walk is slower and more laboured than it once was; often times she chooses just to lie down in a favourite spot and sleep. These days she cannot hear much at all, and she howls in confusion in the early morning hours because she doesn't remember where her people are. But she has never forgotten the radiant warmth and joy found in a morning sunbeam as it peeks through the front windows of our home. Each day she seeks out its welcoming presence and stretches her limbs to bask in its relaxing glow. I don't think I've ever seen her happier than she is in those perfect moments of light.




I've not been good at taking time to enjoy the sunshine recently. There have been many to-do lists staring me in the face each morning, and I seem to have become a little too caught up in the ever-moving machine of busy family life. Routine and structure and organization are good things, to a point, but I find myself resenting them lately, for making me feel as if I can't ever stop and enjoy where I am right now, that I need to always be thinking ahead to what needs to be done next.

This morning, perhaps because I was still feeling the calming effects of a long weekend of family and turkey, I decided to ignore the notepads full of lists and to take a long walk down one of my favourite local trails. It was unseasonably warm in the early sun-streaked daylight hours, and I knew I only had a short window of time to enjoy this rare autumn weather before a forecasted week of rain rolled in.

The trail was quiet and soothing in a way that felt different from the times I had walked it in the spring and summer. There was no sense of urgency anywhere; it was as if Mother Nature herself was whispering the wise words I needed to hear as my feet strode lightly along the paved path. I sensed it in the insects that hummed a low tune in the tall grasses beside me, and in the birds of prey whose powerful wings held them aloft, seemingly without any effort at all, as they hovered on the gentle breeze in the blue sky above. I noticed it in the woolly black and russet caterpillars who meandered across the trail, pausing every now and then to change direction, and in the golden leaves that fluttered gently towards the ground as they left their branches, their faces reflecting a last glimmer of beauty in the sunlight. As I breathed in the sweet earthy scent of the forest in fall, I heard the spent leaves rustling and crunching pleasantly underfoot, and the water in the stream trickling gently over smooth stones. It seemed so clear to me in those peaceful moments that really living is about being open to seeing and feeling the light.

The truth is that as living, breathing creatures we are all travelling a path whose end is both mysterious and certain. This season of falling leaves and suddenly bare branches reminds us that our time here is finite, that we do not ever really know what's around the next bend as we bustle about our day-to-day business. Let's all remind each other to slow down and take the time to be warmed and made happy by light in its many forms. It's waiting patiently for us to discover it in all kinds of lovely places.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Pancakes (healthy, gluten-free, vegan)

It's pumpkin season, and the fall-themed, cheerfully orange vegetable is making a delicious appearance paired with cinnamon in all kinds of foods and drinks everywhere we turn.  Our family has already enjoyed some pumpkin cranberry bread earlier this month, and we're looking forward to savouring our best-loved Thanksgiving dessert this upcoming weekend: mini pumpkin pies with whipped coconut cream.  Yum!  Today I was feeling inspired to do some experimenting with pumpkin in a breakfast food (because encouraging the family to eat pumpkin in healthy recipes any time of day is a good thing, right?). These pumpkin chocolate pancakes are a variation of our standard Saturday morning oatmeal pancakes; they are a hearty and scrumptious way to start off any fall day!

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Pancakes


1 1/2 cups certified pure oats
2 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
1 cup of ground certified pure oats (I use a Magic Bullet to grind the oats into oat flour)
1/3 cup blanched almond flour
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp gluten-free baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 tbsp ground chia seeds mixed with 3 tbsp water (stir and let stand for a couple of minutes)
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
3 squares of a plain dark chocolate bar (minimum 70% cocoa), finely chopped

Place the whole oats in a large mixing bowl and pour the almond milk over them; stir and then let this mixture stand for about ten minutes.  Stir together the almond flour, ground oats, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice in another mixing bowl, then add the dry ingredients to the oat/almond milk mixture and stir until well-combined.  Stir in the pumpkin puree, then add the chia seed gel, grapeseed oil, maple syrup, and vanilla and mix well.  Fold in the chopped dark chocolate.

Ladle the batter in 1/3 cup portions onto a hot griddle coated in grapeseed oil.  Flip the pancakes when the edges begin to set and the first side is golden, then cook the pancakes on other side until they are completely cooked through.  Serve with a sprinkling of chopped pecans, cinnamon, and a drizzle of real maple syrup.  Makes approximately 14 pancakes.

These pancakes would be perfect for breakfast one morning on Thanksgiving weekend, especially if you have visitors who are gluten, dairy, or egg-sensitive.  I hope you and your family enjoy them!

If you're looking for ideas for a gluten, dairy, and egg-free Thanksgiving dinner, you can find a full menu of delicious recipes here


This post is linked to Gluten-Free Wednesdays. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

On flying ants and fear


A strange thing happens here sometime every autumn.  Invariably, we arrive home one afternoon to find a massive colony of flying ants clustered on our front steps, except that they are not flying when we first see them; they are wandering about in every direction on the ground, and there are so many of them that it looks like the very steps themselves are crawling.  At first glance, this ant situation is about as horrifying as you're probably imagining right now. Will flat out refused to go in the front door when he discovered this year's winged ant explosion and instead burst breathlessly through the less-convenient back kitchen door to tell me what he had found.

I was as startled by the ants as Will was, but I did not want to spook him further by freaking out over them, so I remained calm and encouraged him to come and watch them through the window with me from a safe spot inside the house. (Really, I didn't know what I could do about the swarm anyway, because as much as Will is afraid of ants, he is also a tender-hearted keeper of all creatures, and it would have upset him if I had exterminated even one of the creepy-crawling things.)  We both stood quietly for a while, our eyes following the tiny, determined insects as they slowly spread out in droves over the entire front walkway.  And then suddenly, one by one, the ants began to spread their delicate wings and rise above the earth.

It was a completely different story once those unnerving creatures began to fly.  The ants floated off one after the other like bubbles dancing in a gentle breeze, each small speck eventually disappearing on the bright blue horizon against the late afternoon sun, until finally there was not a single ant remaining. Will and I both experienced a moment of wonder witnessing them take this important flight to begin the next phase of their lives; the anticipation and possibility contained in that migration was palpable. And it hit me just then that often what we are most afraid of need only to be looked at in a different light to become something beautiful and inspiring instead.


***

This past weekend I attended BlissDom Canada, an exciting three-day blogging and social media conference packed with engaging sessions and powerful speakers, including Derreck Kayongo, whose lively telling of his Global Soap Project filled me with hope. I was thrilled to be there, and came away from the conference with a sense of connection and my brain buzzing with new and interesting ideas.  I was also confronted by some nagging anxieties over those three days. Despite the fact that it was my third year in attendance and many of the faces I saw there looked familiar, I still felt nervous and lacking in confidence. I couldn't muster up the courage to introduce myself to the some of the people I wanted to, and I felt self-conscious and tongue-tied sometimes when opportunities for conversations presented themselves.  I was reminded of the goals I had set for myself after the conference last year, and while I am pleased to say I accomplished some of them, I will also admit that fear has kept me from chasing some of my biggest dreams.  

This year's conference has ignited a spark in my mind and my heart and inspired me to look at what scares me from a new perspective. I will stop worrying about possible failure or disapproval should I venture into the unknown, and start imagining instead the possibility for success and deep personal satisfaction.  I want to spread my own wings in the warm sunshine and believe wholeheartedly that I have it in me to fly.  I'm excited to see where my new-found bravery might take me....