When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stockings, sweet and simple

Every Christmas, Matt, the boys and I look forward to the tradition of hanging our stockings along the fireplace mantel in our family room. For all of us, the stockings themselves hold as much meaning as the special little gifts that will be spilling from their tops on Christmas morning. They are a familiar, heartwarming sight that remind us of all the joyful moments we've shared together in Christmas seasons past.

I have always had a fondness for homemade Christmas stockings. My mom sewed ones for my brothers and I, my dad, and herself when we three kids were young, and I can still remember how happy I felt seeing those lovingly made socks hanging all together in a row over the holidays. I am definitely not gifted in the sewing department myself, however when Noah was very small I was able to take some plain red pre-made stockings from a craft store and turn them into something more special and personal with some simple craft supplies and techniques.

Our four stockings are cheerily embellished with Christmas-y shapes that I cut out freehand from craft store felt squares, plus mini pom-poms, glittery fabric paint, and a felt-tipped marker. If you aren't comfortable cutting out your own shapes, you can trace simple Christmas pictures from cards, puzzles or colouring books onto paper and use those as templates for cutting out your felt. Fasten all embellishments to the stocking with hot glue to make sure they will stay securely. For me, making stockings was a fun craft project that has been much appreciated by my favourite boys.

I hope that your stockings and your holidays are filled with whatever makes your heart happy. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gifts from the heart

Christmas is just over a week away, and everywhere I go the excitement of the season is palpable in the air. I'm not sure who is more anxious for Christmas to arrive in our house: the boys, who are eagerly waiting to see what Santa will bring them this year, or I, who will love to see the looks on their faces when they discover their Christmas morning surprises! For many of us, this season is a joyful, magical time of year, a time for sharing gifts and special moments with loved ones, a time for lighting up the darkness of winter with laughter and celebration. It's also a time to remember that there are many people around us for whom Christmas is not so joyful, and that in the midst of all of our giving to those we love, we must also give to those who truly need us.

It's difficult for children who are growing up in a very comfortable life to have any real understanding of what it feels like to go without, either physically or emotionally. Matt and I think it's important, however, to try to give the boys some sense of this, especially at this time of year when it is more easily obvious to them how abundant their own blessings are. We look for opportunities to give to people or creatures in need and make sure, now that the boys are older, that they play an active role in that giving. They may be still too young to make a profound difference in the world, but there are many things that they can do: shopping for new books (some of their own favourites) to bring to a local Christmas book drive, donating a part of their allowance to a charity, making catnip toys and bringing them to the local animal shelter (thanks, Mom, for this wonderful idea!), or being a good friend to someone who is sad at holiday time due to a difficult family situation. With each chance they have to help someone, we talk with the boys about what their "gift" means and how happy it will make the recipient. I think their part in helping others makes the boys feel happy too.

The other day when Will was bringing some canned and boxed goods to school for the holiday food drive, he wondered aloud to me whether the hungry children in a distant poverty-stricken country would even like the kind of cereal we have here. He thought the school was sending the food to a far-off land where there are many people in need, and was shocked to know that there are people right in our own community who don't have enough to eat. I absolutely didn't fault him for his understanding of the situation, but it made me realize that we still have some more work to do to help open up the boys' eyes to the fact that there is hardship and sadness right around us, if we take the time to look. I hope someday they will realize that while it is wonderful to have a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree, the most meaningful gifts of all are the ones that we give from the heart.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The first big snow

I was out and about running errands today, and everywhere I went, adults were commenting glumly about the snow and the cold that the weekend had brought us. When I arrived at the boys' school to pick them up at the end of the day, I saw groups of parents huddled up miserably against the school wall to try and avoid the bone-chilling winds, looking uncomfortably cold despite their warm winter attire. It was a rather dreary sight, and I was anxious for the boys to come out of the building so we could go hibernate for the rest of the day in our warm, cozy house.

The mood suddenly changed when the bell rang and scores of children came running out of the school doors. There was no way a little (okay, a lot of) cold was going to stop them from enjoying themselves fully in the fascinating world of white they had watched through the classroom windows all afternoon. Children in multi-coloured snowsuits rolled everywhere and chased each other, laughing, through the drifts. It was impossible not to smile watching them.

Noah and Will begged me to let them stay out and play when we got home, and I had a chance to see the snow differently than I had all day. Instead of it being an obstacle to getting around town, or a mountain that required shovelling, the snow became something lovely that transformed our yard into a new and exciting playground. The boys spent an hour out there, completely oblivious to the frigid temperature; they were sliding gleefully down the incline at the back of our yard, laying in laughing heaps when they tumbled off of their sleds, and playing in the frosty flakes with complete abandon like children do. I think we adults would do well to remember the pure and simple joy of the first real snow days of our childhood winters, and make an effort to get out and play more often. The beaming faces of my two boys outside today made it seem impossible that snow could ever make anyone feel grumpy.

When Noah and Will came inside late this afternoon, they were still giddy, and their cheeks and noses were a shocking bright red from the biting, chilly air. However, all three of our hearts were filled with a happy warmth, one I want to hold on to throughout the long, cold winter ahead.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gingerbread cookies times two

When I was little, my mom used to make the most wonderful gingerbread cookies at Christmas time. She must have spent hours rolling dough, cutting out boys and girls, baking them, and painstakingly decorating them better than any gingerbread people I have ever seen since -- they all had unique faces, hair, and intricately striped and polka-dotted clothes made from different coloured icings. It was truly a labour of love on her part, and one she continued unfailingly, even after my brother Frank, before leaving for school, once secretly ate a good part of the batch she had made for his class, and even after our dog ate all the gingerbreads she could reach from the bottom half of the Christmas tree. (Many years later, Frank has confessed that he and our brother Jamie may have helped the dog eat those gingerbreads too!) Obviously, the cookies were a real favourite with my brothers and I, and when I think about the happy Christmases of my childhood, I will always remember that very special treat.

It was important to me to continue the gingerbread cookie tradition once I had children of my own. However, after one Christmas of attempting to decorate the sweet boys and girls with icing details, I decided from then on I would find other ways to show my boys I love them! I had neither the talent nor the patience of my mom for the intricate icing work. We decorate our cookies more simply now, and they're not as fantastic as my mom's were, but Noah and Will love their job of adding the embellishments to each ginger person's outfit. This is the traditional recipe I've used for many years; it always yields yummy, kid-friendly results.

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup molasses
1 or 2 eggs

In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add in butter, molasses and egg(s) and mix until completely blended. Cover and refrigerate dough for 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll dough to 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into boy and girl shapes with cookie cutters. Decorate cutouts with mini m&ms or other goodies.
Place cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 2" apart. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and serve.

I was thrilled last year to discover a recipe for gluten-free gingerbread cookies made from almond flour over at Elana's Pantry. This meant that Will could still enjoy a version of his favourite holiday treat in spite of his newly discovered food sensitivities. These gingerbreads are absolutely delicious -- sweet and chewy and full of spicy goodness. I made a few modifications to Elana's recipe to accommodate our needs and tastes.

5 cups blanched almond flour
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup yacon syrup (I couldn't find this ingredient, so I substituted another 1/2 cup of agave nectar instead and the cookies turned out beautifully.)
2 eggs (If egg allergies are a concern, you can substitute 2 tbsp of arrowroot powder in the dry ingredients and 6 tbsp water in the wet ingredients instead.)
1 tsp lemon zest (optional)

In a large bowl, combine almond flour, spices, salt and baking soda. In a smaller bowl, mix together grapeseed oil, agave, vanilla, yacon, eggs, and lemon zest. Stir wet ingredients into dry. Chill dough in freezer for 1 to 2 hours.
Roll out dough between two pieces of parchment paper to 1/4" thick. Remove top sheet of parchment paper and cut out cookies using cookie cutters. Decorate cut-outs with nuts and dried fruit.
Transfer cutouts with a spatula to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 F for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool and serve.

We used fruit juice sweetened dried cranberries to decorate our cookies, but you could also use raisins, almond slivers, or pieces of dried citrus rind to add faces and fashions to your gingerbread people.

With some helping hands yesterday, I finished baking all of our gingerbread cookies for this season. We're looking forward to the upcoming days when we'll enjoy them with a cup of hot cocoa after an afternoon of skating, or share them with family and friends who come to visit over the holidays. I know the little gingerbread people will continue to be part of happy holiday memories in our family for many Christmases to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Peas on Earth

One of my favourite things about decorating our home for the holidays is reliving fond memories of Christmas seasons past. Within each Christmas storage box I unpack is a treasure trove of special ornaments, CDs, and sweet little crafts handmade by the boys over the years, all of which remind me of people and stories I love. This week, when I came across the red berries I use for our dining room table centrepiece, I burst into laughter remembering a Will moment from last December. It's a cheerful little holiday tale I think is worth sharing.

Will has lots of priorities and important things to do in a day; eating is not one of them. After spending most of the family dinner time talking, singing, or asking questions most nights, he is often the very last one at the table. He sits and eventually works slowly away at his full plate of food while the rest of us clean up and are too occupied to pay much attention to him. One evening last December, we were living out this exact scenario, and Matt, Noah and I had already left the kitchen. Will was unusually quiet and we figured he had finally got down to the business of eating. When he decided he had had enough dinner, I glanced at his plate and noticed that surprisingly, he had eaten a very respectable amount of peas. I smiled at him, sent him off to play, and thought nothing more about it.

The next day I was working on a project at the dining room table when something strange caught my eye. There, in the midst of all the red berries in the table centrepiece, was a small but conspicuous green berry. Curious, I investigated further and discovered several clusters of the hard, shrivelled little green orbs. It suddenly dawned on me what had become of Will's peas the previous evening. It wasn't like he had just thrown spoonfuls of peas into the branches, either, hoping that they would never be noticed; he had actually taken the time to painstakingly thread each pea onto a wire in true Martha Stewart-esque fashion. I'm sure not even Martha ever thought of using peas as a festive decorating embellishment!

I wanted to have a serious talk with Will about what he had done with his peas, but I simply couldn't keep a straight face. (I also secretly admired his ingenuity in the absence of any dog he could feed his vegetables to.) Will was a little sheepish when I made him fess up, and I felt more than a little foolish for believing that he had actually eaten his peas. But it was Christmastime, and it was darn funny, and the story is now one we will remember and chuckle about every time the holiday season rolls around.

For all of you reading this, I hope this month is full of moments of laughter and joy shared with loved ones. Happy December!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Counting down to Christmas

Snow arrived in our corner of the world this weekend, and as the four of us watched the pretty little flakes swirling outside the window, our thoughts turned happily to Christmas. We spent most of yesterday decorating our home for the holiday season, and while Noah and Will are the ones who show their excitement the most, we're all looking forward to weeks filled with family and friends, surprises, delicious foods and cherished traditions.

One of our favourite ways of making the wait until Christmas Day a little easier on the boys is keeping a special calendar with them. About five years ago, I was inspired to create a calendar of our own after seeing some photos of beautiful and unique ones in a decorating magazine. I took an old bulletin board I had lying around, painted it red with white trim, attached ribbon to twenty-four little white baby socks, added numbers on them with silver glitter fabric paint, and used clear pushpins to attach the socks in rows on the board. While my calendar certainly didn't compare to the ones that had inspired me, I was pleased with the end result and the boys were thrilled to know that there were little treasures tucked in the socks for them, one for each day leading up to when Santa would arrive.

This year I noticed that the little white socks were growing tired looking, and I went out in search of a new idea for a Christmas countdown calendar, since both Noah and Will still eagerly anticipate its appearance every holiday season. I came across this charming little cottage calendar with numbered doors for each day, and decided to bring it home rather than making something new.

I have filled the space behind each door with fun surprises for the boys: Christmas shaped Silly Bandz, spinning tops, Santa card games, snowman erasers, Lego pieces, little squares of dark chocolate, peppermint candy and the like. I look forward to seeing their smiles each morning (beginning next week!) when they peek behind the day's door to discover their treasure.

When you're a child, waiting for Christmas can seem to take an eternity! Having a little calendar like this at home gives young ones something to look forward to every day while waiting for the special one when Santa will finally arrive.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food frustration

I have always had a hard time with the month of November. Call it the melancholy month, if you will; with all of its early darkness, cold winds, and wet, dreary landscapes, it's a month where I sometimes lose my normal tendency to put on a cheerful face and carry on in the face of life's difficulties, and instead start to feel mired down in them. I am not looking for pity here by any means (that's not my style), but I hope you'll forgive me for needing to get something off my chest.

I am completely fed-up with food right now. As many of you know from reading previous posts, both Will and I have had to avoid several whole groups of foods in our diets over the past couple of years, foods that wreak havoc on our digestive systems, and in Will's case, his skin and respiratory system. I usually make this food avoidance routine seem easy to others, but right now I'm feeling that it is incredibly hard.

Never one to be put off by a challenge, I have tracked down many healthy alternative foods, recipes, and cooking methods since learning of our food issues. I am very proud of what I've been able to do with so few options and have had some wonderful Eureka! moments in my kitchen in the past couple of years. Sometimes, though, I fall into a hole of fatigue and frustration that's hard to climb out of, because our restrictive diet is not something we can ever really escape. Take this morning for example: Will was a mess before going to school because today was the once-a-week pizza lunch day. Will obviously cannot eat pizza provided by the school, and no matter what sort of interesting lunch I try to pack as a substitute, he feels anxious about lunchtime and about being different. I felt like my heart was going to break in two when he cried this morning and told me when he can't eat pizza at school he feels "sad, lonely, and left out." While the fact he has to miss out in this case is certainly not my fault, I feel racked with guilt that I'm not able to fix this for him. He's such a sensitive boy and he worries so much about things already that it seems completely unfair for life to have added this burden to his little shoulders.

With food sensitivities, going on vacation is an experience fraught with stress and extra work instead of being a relaxing break, a fact that I was reminded of again on our recent trip to Florida. I spent hours before the trip reading websites of Orlando grocery stores to find out if they carried safe alternatives to milk and gluten-containing grains, and then spent more time in the stores themselves carefully reading labels of unfamiliar products. I read countless restaurant menus in advance, trying to figure out where we could safely eat so I could at least get out of cooking dinner sometimes during the week. (I will say that Disney does a fantastic job of accommodating people with special dietary needs!) I spent time every night packing snacks and lunches for the next day so we knew Will would always have food he could eat if he was hungry. Even venturing out to carefully researched restaurants sometimes turned out to be a bust. We took the boys to a really cool dinosaur-themed restaurant that we were sure they would love, and Will had a sad meltdown when he realized the only safe food he could order that he liked was a grilled chicken breast, something we often eat at home. After several days of seeing kids all around him eating exciting looking Mickey Mouse shaped concoctions that he couldn't eat, the disappointment of having a plain old chicken breast was simply too much. It's a lot to ask a child that age to just grin and bear it in these kinds of situations.

The last straw this week came with my discovery of a wonderful new kind of gluten-free bread that is actually soft and great-tasting, rather than dense and rock-hard like most gluten-free varieties Will has been eating for over a year. I was so excited to bring it home for Will to try! After a few meals of eating and really enjoying the new bread, Will's tummy troubles made it clear that he wasn't tolerating the grain it was made of, either, and we've had to return to the old bread again for now. Our weeks are frequently filled with these kinds of setbacks and letdowns, and I constantly feel like a food detective, wondering what the most recent food source of trouble has been. Sometimes it just wears me out.

Our lives as human beings are so complexly involved with food; we eat for nourishment, for comfort, to celebrate, to share a sense of community with others. When someone suddenly cannot eat many regular foods, it's a blow to that person's sense of self, of happiness, of belonging. Yes, I have managed quite well to find good substitute foods to satisfy most of these needs for Will and I, but the truth is, sometimes it's just not the same, and there are always going to be times when we feel sad, and lonely, and left out. It's a reality we both feel keenly, and one we sometimes both desperately wish we could change.

I know this post has been quite the wallow in self-pity, and I hope you've read it for what it is: a venting of sorts so that I can move on and get back to the business of dealing with this challenge the way I usually do. I know there are people out there who have it much worse than we do food-wise. I am truly thankful that neither Will nor I have life-threatening food allergies, as I can only imagine the stress and worry that must bring to families who must deal with them. I'm also grateful for the general good health that eating well has given to all four of us. I'm off now to find my gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free Christmas cookie recipes -- I have a feeling that the sweet smell of almond flour treats baking is just what I need to pick me up again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

From fantastic to fiasco

I am not a suspicious or a negative person by nature; I generally believe in the overall goodness of people and life. This week, however, I am starting to think that there is a nasty little conspiracy at work in the universe, an unwritten rule somewhere that the payback for taking a week away from normal life to enjoy a vacation is a week of complete chaos upon returning. What else would explain the jumbled mess of the past week after the unparalleled fun of the one before it?

Let's start with the fantastic. Matt, the boys and I spent the week before last enjoying excitement, laughter, and sunshine in Florida together. Our days were filled with wonderful experiences at Disney parks, relaxing afternoons by the pool, a bit of shopping, and great opportunities for family bonding. It was a week marked by many highlights: My heart pumped with exhilaration enjoying Noah's favourite high-flying Soarin' ride, melted when Will ran up to Stitch (his new best buddy) and slipped his small hand in Stitch's big furry one to get a photograph taken, and swelled with happiness watching the boys splashing, swimming, and shooting joyfully out of the water slide at the pool. I know I'll smile every time I remember Will rockin' his heart out with an inflatable guitar when a band member called him up to be part of their street show at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Noah's look of absolute shock when a garbage can at Magic Kingdom suddenly started walking around and talking to people. We all felt sad to see the end of such an amazing vacation, and the four of us are filled with fond memories that will stay with us for a long, long time.

Fast forward to this past week, where the fantastic quickly turned to fiasco. Now I expected a certain amount of busy-ness upon returning from our week's vacation. There is always unpacking and laundry to be done, work to return to, schoolwork to catch up on, and travel fatigue to recover from. I was even quite happily accepting of a few extra responsibilities on my schedule for the week of our return: a doctor's appointment, parent-teacher interviews, and volunteering to supervise on a field trip with Will's class. It was the rest of what happened this week that left me wondering if someone was trying to play a ridiculous joke on us.

There was a demented cat who stuck to me like velcro for days and spent her nights howling disconsolately to make me aware that she was not happy about my week long abandonment of her. This same cat took it upon herself to barf up hairballs in the hall in the middle of the night (out of spite, of course), which meant that Will stepped in them when he got up in the dark at 5:30am, resulting in a highly unpleasant early-morning ruckus. There was the lovely surprise left in the school yard one morning by a negligent dog owner, which Noah absentmindedly walked through and which necessitated a thorough outdoor scrubbing and hosing of his shoe. There was Will's freak accident involving a bean bag and clapping in gym class, which ended with a grotesquely swollen and purple finger, a trip to the hospital emergency department, and a poor little taped up hand. There was a crazy couple of afternoons trying to track down a specific Christmas present for Noah after finding out that one I had ordered previously was not going to be available in time. Now add to all of that the fact that three out of the four of us have come down with a miserable cold this week. Noah was so congested this morning and his throat was so tight that he was convinced he was going to barf, which triggered gagging, the shakes, hyperventilating, and him telling me that he was going to have a nervous breakdown if he had to go to school. (Yes, we have a flair for the dramatic in our family!) I felt sorry for him and kept him home to calm him down, but he turned out to be fine, and went back to school after lunch. It has been a very long week, and universe, if you're listening, I think we've repaid whatever debt we owed for the fun we had while we were away!

My aunt Christina just returned home yesterday from a Florida vacation with her sweet little girl, Madeleine. Twenty minutes into their flight, Madeleine started exhibiting the symptoms of a bad ear infection and they had a challenging, tiring trip home. Coincidence? I think not. Beware the next time you go away on vacation, and brace yourself for the fallout upon your return! Personally, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a quieter week ahead....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Good old-fashioned oatmeal

Frost has painted a pretty picture in white all over the roofs and cars and lawns in our neighbourhood each morning this week, and the walks to school have been mighty chilly ones. The boys and I have donned toques and mittens and have moved at a brisk pace to keep warm, our noses tingling and our breath swirling out in icy puffs as we've chatted about the day ahead. On these kinds of mornings, I'm always glad for the nourishing bowl of steaming hot oatmeal I've had for breakfast. Somehow having a belly full of warm goodness makes the cold fall air seem less intimidating.

I prefer to make oatmeal from scratch rather than using the little instant packets. It really doesn't take much more time and I think the end result has a nicer texture and flavour. It's also easier to control the amount of sugar in your breakfast, and to experiment with different variations by adding your own fruits, spices, and nuts.

If you have to avoid gluten in your diet, like I do, it's still possible to enjoy oatmeal by using certified pure oats, available at health food stores. These kinds of oats have been tested to ensure that they contain no traces of wheat, barley or rye.

My favourite version of oatmeal is this one, which I make many fall and winter mornings:

1 cup water
1/2 cup regular oat flakes
chopped almonds
1/2 an apple, grated
almond milk

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil over high heat. Stir in oats, reduce heat, and cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove oatmeal from heat, cover, and let stand for a few minutes before serving.
Place half of the oatmeal in a cereal bowl. Sprinkle with chopped almonds, grated apple, and cinnamon, then stir gently. Add a splash of almond milk and serve. Delicious!

There are many other ways to serve up a bowl of oatmeal: instead of almonds, apples, and cinnamon, try walnuts, bananas, and a drizzle of maple syrup, or mixed berries with almonds and a bit of honey. Your imagination is the only limit! If time is in short supply at your house in the mornings, make a large batch of oatmeal on a day when you do have time, and refrigerate any unused portions. A wholesome breakfast will then only be a few moments of reheating away when you're in a rush.

Matt, the boys and I will be warming up another way soon; we're heading to Florida for a family vacation. I'll share a bit of sunshine and some stories with you when we return. Hopefully a nice bowl of oatmeal in the morning will bring you warmth and happiness wherever you are this week!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Laughter in the leaves

This weekend marked the arrival of a fall event that the boys always look forward to at our house: the day of The Giant Leaf Pile. We live on a lot with many mature trees, and we spend one weekend day every year raking millions of fallen leaves into a monstrous heap on a tarp to eventually drag out to the front lawn edge for pick-up (once the boys have tired of playing in them, of course!). Matt and I usually rake at a furious pace while Noah and Will stand on the sidelines shouting, "More leaves! Make it higher!" before finally deciding that the pile is jump-worthy. I never mind this kind of work, though; the time spent in the refreshingly cool fall air with my little family makes a chore seem much more like fun.

There is a pure, simple, timeless joy to playing in a pile of newly fallen leaves; it's an activity that is good for your heart both literally and figuratively. I can still vividly remember hours I spent doing this as a child, first running and jumping wildy in the heaps that crunched and swished beneath my feet, and then lying perfectly still on my back in the centre of a mound, breathing in the woodsy, sweetly comforting smell while looking up at a brilliant sky and realizing that life was full of indescribable beauty. I enjoyed playing in the leaves yesterday with Noah and Will every bit as much as I did years ago. I loved laughing with them as they flew off the backyard slide to a soft, safe landing in the leaf pile below it, and as we all threw ourselves face down on top of the heap to stop the leaves from blowing away whenever a wind gust rushed by. When we all finally wore ourselves out, we emerged rosy-cheeked from the pile, wearing crumpled leaf bits on our clothes and grins that would last us all the rest of the day. It was a truly wonderful few hours.

As we watched Matt drag the last of the leaf pile out to the front yard yesterday, Will wistfully remarked that he wished we could keep the leaves forever. I felt the same way. Like the fall leaves, the boys' childhoods are bright and beautiful and fleeting; by the time the spring buds burst forth on our trees, Noah and Will will have grown and changed, too, and will somehow be more men, less boys. I am so glad to have been able to share those moments with them on a beautiful fall day. Our huge pile of leaves may be gone, but the memory of the fun we had will stay safely with me like a lovely autumn leaf pressed between the pages of a cherished book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

School morning circus

I have just figured out how to make my fortune: I'm going to sell tickets to people to come and watch the circus that happens at our house most school mornings while I try to get the boys out the door on time. The shenanigans would surely be highly entertaining to outsiders!

Now, I am an uber-organized person by nature. The night before every school day, I make the boys' lunches, iron their clothes and lay them out neatly so that all they have to do is put them on in the morning, and make sure that their books, papers, and supplies for the next day are neatly stacked in their backpacks by the door. One would think that the morning should be a very smooth operation then, a process that runs as well as a precision time instrument. The reality is more like an attempt at herding cats.

Take this morning for example: Will, having been up since before 6am as usual, had every craft supply known to humankind scattered across the family room floor by the time I got out of the shower, and was attempting to construct a working rocket out of toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners. It took multiple attempts to drag Noah out from under the dark blanket cocoon he wraps himself in when he's sleeping, and several more rounds of calling his name before he actually appeared groggily downstairs. Breakfast was a long, drawn-out affair, because apparently it's impossible to eat when you are contemplating out loud how to calculate the number of seconds in a year and who Jesus's mother is in heaven.

I thought we were in the clear when the boys headed upstairs to get dressed with what should have been enough time to spare. However, moments later, I heard Noah's muffled voice calling, "Wow, this shirt is hard to get over my head.... Could I get some help here, please?" I looked upstairs to see Noah, looking like a deranged octupus with arms and sleeves and head and hood waggling everywhere, and realized that he was trying to stuff himself into his brother's two-size-too-small clothes. Really? How is it possible that he wouldn't recognize his own clothes two months into the season?

The boys' teeth-brushing process was another side-show, with electric toothbrush dance moves in the mirror and toothpaste flying everywhere. We might still have made it out the door on time had Noah not been so absorbed in a book that he didn't hear me call him the first three times, and we might not have had to run the last bit to school if Will hadn't been so intent on finding the perfect stick for a snow fort he's designing in his head two months in advance.

Incredibly, we made it to school on time today, and we have yet to be late any day, despite the inadvertent attempts by the boys to sabotage my carefully laid morning plans. It is nothing short of a miracle.

Someday, though it may be awhile away yet, I'm sure the boys will figure out how to get themselves out the door on time and without incident. Oddly enough, when that happens, I'll probably wish the circus was still in town....

Monday, October 25, 2010

Homemade pasta sauce (inspired by Papa)

When you grow up in a family with Italian roots, pasta with a really good homemade sauce is a frequent, favourite meal, one that everyone looks forward to and enjoys. Some of my fondest food memories involve dinners at my Grandma D's house, where the kitchen always fills with the incredible aroma of her tomato and meat sauce as it simmers away all day on the stove. (These memories also include pasta, gnocchi, and ravioli my grandma makes by hand that are far and away the best any of us have ever had!) At my parents' house these days, my dad is the sauce-making chef, and he works a kind of magic when he makes it. I love arriving at their place after an eight-hour drive to get there, and being greeted by the familiar tomato-garlic-basil smells that mean a delicious dinner will soon be on the table for all of us to share together.

I learned to make pasta sauce in general from both my dad and my mom, and started honing my own sauce-making skills in university. (You can imagine this was a strange concept in the land of living on packaged food, but the idea of jarred sauce was highly unappealing to me after the homemade sauces I had enjoyed all my life!) Just as my grandma's, dad's, and mom's sauces are all different from one another, mine has evolved over the years to include slightly different ingredients and methods. This is my current version of tomato-meat sauce for pasta of any kind.

2 lbs lean ground beef, or stewing beef pieces, or Italian sausage cut into chunks
olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
1 large onion, diced
2 sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange), diced
2 796ml cans of crushed tomatoes
1 796ml can of diced tomatoes
1 156ml can of tomato paste
1 large sized can of tomato juice
sea salt, pepper to taste
finely chopped fresh basil, parsley, and oregano to taste

In a large pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until fragrant. Add meat to the pot and brown it, stirring often. Add sea salt and pepper to the pot while the meat is browning.
Once meat is browned, add diced sweet peppers and stir. Cook for a couple of minutes, until peppers are softened.
Add diced tomatoes and tomato paste to the pot and stir to blend ingredients. Add crushed tomatoes and tomato juice and stir all ingredients well.
Bring sauce mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add herbs to the pot, stir, place lid on the pot and simmer.
Sauce should simmer for at least several hours. (All day is even better!) The sauce will start to smell wonderful after only a short time, and you'll wish it was dinnertime already! Be sure to stir the sauce occasionally while it cooks.
After dinner, extra sauce can be placed in airtight glass jars and then frozen for later meals.

There are other ingredients that I have added to my sauce at various times, before we had to consider picky child eaters and food sensitivities in our meal plans. Try experimenting with a splash of red wine, parmesan cheese, a bit of sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, and chili pepper flakes to your liking. If you have family members who prefer a smooth sauce rather than a chunky one (like my boys, who are highly suspicious of anything lumpy in their food!), make the sauce according to the directions above, but omit the meat at first. After the tomato sauce has simmered for a few hours, use a hand blender to puree it. Once your sauce is smooth, then you can brown your meat and add it to the sauce to simmer for the remaining few hours.

I still think my dad's sauce is better than mine (and I don't think that's just because food always tastes better when someone else makes it!) If I ever figure out his secret, I'll be sure to pass it on! In the meantime, "Mangia!" -- I hope you enjoy your pasta!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The desk of many colours

Call it creativity, boredom, a drive for perfection, or maybe just call it ridiculous, but whatever it is, I frequently find myself with a sudden urge to repaint rooms in our home. Matt is so used to me saying I think we "need" to do a room over that he simply says "okay" whenever I bring up the subject. (Bless his patient heart!) I'm pretty sure that I'm on a first-name basis with the paint-counter people at Home Depot....

My latest painting bonanza was triggered by a trip to HomeSense (a dangerous place, apparently) where I found a solar system quilt set that I knew Will would go over the moon for. Of course, upon me bringing the quilt home, it became obvious that the room would look much better with a different shade of blue on the walls, and that the desk in his room would also need a makeover. This snowball effect was how I found myself spending several of the boys' school hours yesterday emptying Will's desk drawers and smoothing a few new coats of paint on his work station's well-worn surfaces.

I actually enjoy painting when I have the time to do it in peace; it forces me to stop running at my usual frantic pace and take some time alone with my favourite music and my thoughts. While I was glossing the paintbrush back and forth over the wood, I rode warm waves of nostalgia remembering the desk's long family history. This is the same desk that my mom bought for my dad many years ago, when they were really still just kids, and my dad was studying to become a teacher. It is the desk that lived for years in my family's playroom when my brothers and I were growing up, holding the sewing machine and supplies my mom used to make us doll clothes and costumes for Hallowe'en and school plays. It is the desk that my dad repainted with love for me to take away to university, and at which I spent hours learning to think and write and feel like an adult. It is the desk that I have now painted twice for my boys to enjoy, a place where they have drawn me colourful pictures full of smiling faces and written stories in wobbly, newly-learned printing. This desk has known the hopes and dreams, successes and frustrations, tears and jubilant discoveries of three generations. If I were to peel back all of its many layers of paint, it would read like the pages of a well-loved book, one that reveals wonderful details about the lives that have left their mark on its wood.

By the end of the week, Will's room will have a completely new look; it will provide a boy whose mind is bright like the stars a perfect place to play, rest and dream. His desk may look young again, but it will remain in its old place, a longtime loyal friend whose surface will provide a sturdy support for all of the stories that have yet to be written.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Three cheers for free time

It was very quiet around our house for a few hours this morning, and if you know anything about our family (which includes one boy who thinks getting up-and-at'em before 6am every morning is a good life philosophy, and two boys who talk non-stop from the moment their feet hit the ground), then you'll know that in our world, this is a strange phenomenon for a weekend morning. Thankfully the boys have never really been the type where a long period of quiet means that they're up to something devious! When I went down to the basement rec room to see what they were doing, I was treated to the sight of the two of them playing happily together, building an elaborate race car track system out of miscellaneous supplies they had gathered from their toy storage boxes. The boys were fiercely proud of what they had accomplished all on their own, and begged me to stay awhile to watch a demonstration of cars zooming every which way, assisted by motors and elastic-powered launchers. There the three of us sat, in our pjs, cheering enthusiastically for the cars that made it through the challenging run safely, and revelling in the boys' wonderful creativity.

The boys show off their race track masterpiece with pride. Notice Will's goggles and work gloves; apparently this kind of building project is serious work!

There is something glorious about a leisurely weekend morning where kids are free to just play using their imaginations as their guide, without having to rush off to go anywhere else. Sadly, I think this kind of pleasure is becoming rarer for families today. It seems many parents feel a desire or a pressure to sign their children up for every kind of activity possible, believing that they shouldn't miss out on any available opportunity. I am all for extra-curricular activities -- our boys participate in them, too -- but we've made a conscious choice not to fill up all of their free time with structured lessons, sports, and clubs, because we want them to have the chance to find their own way, too. As a family, we cherish having hours set aside for nothing in particular, so that there can be impromptu adventures and experiences that go off on unexpected tangents. I believe there are incredibly valuable lessons to be learned when children are given ample opportunities to rely on themselves for discovery and fun.

In building their race car world this morning, Noah and Will thought, planned, designed, built, experimented, problem-solved, discussed, shared, laughed, and felt good about themselves, all without anyone telling them how. While I am glad for the many excellent lessons and skills they will learn at school and in their extra-curricular activities over the years, in my eyes, what they teach themselves through play in their free time will be every bit as important to them in life. As the boys grow up, I plan to guard healthy amounts of that time for them like the treasure that it is; I look forward to seeing both the fascinating projects they come up with next and the creative, clever, self-confident young men I feel certain they will become.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A is for apple... again (apple crisp -- gluten-free, vegan)

I know I just recently wrote a post about what to do with an abundance of apples this time of year, but I couldn't resist sharing one more recipe after the delicious apple crisp we had for dessert yesterday!  The crispy, chewy, cinnamony crust combined with the natural sweetness of fresh-picked apples was a perfect finish to our festive fall meal. (Yes, we did eat pumpkin pie, too, but who's counting desserts when it's a holiday, right?)

Apple Crisp (gluten-free, vegan) 
(inspired by a recipe for pear crisp in Elana Amsterdam's Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook)

1/2 cup apple juice
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp arrowroot powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
5 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4 inch thick

1 cup blanched almond flour
1 cup pure, gluten-free oats
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp pure maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

To make the filling, whisk together the apple juice, lemon juice, arrowroot powder, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Place the sliced apples into the bowl, toss them with the apple juice mixture, and then transfer them to an 8-inch square baking dish.

To make the topping, combine the almond flour, oats, sea salt, and cinnamon in another mixing bowl.  Melt the coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat, then remove the oil from the heat and whisk in the maple syrup and vanilla extract.  Add the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until well-combined and crumbly.

Sprinkle the topping over the fruit. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.

Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 20 to 30 minutes, until the top of the crisp is golden brown and the juices are bubbling. Let the crisp cool for 30 minutes, then serve warm.

This dessert is absolutely scrumptious served with a scoop of vanilla coconut milk ice cream on top. Matt, the boys and I can't wait to have the leftover apple crisp again tonight after dinner.... if we can wait that long! I hope you and your family enjoy this treat as much as we did.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Favourite Thanksgiving treats

We are all really looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner at our house this weekend: juicy turkey with all the trimmings, favourite fall vegetable sides, and tasty pumpkin and apple treats for dessert. The feeling of happiness at holiday times always seems to be tied in part to special foods that we share together year after year, often from recipes passed down through the generations. When our family learned that Will and I have food sensitivities, I was determined not to let that stand in the way of us enjoying our treasured holiday food traditions. With some reading, thinking, and experimenting, I have re-created Thanksgiving dinner in a way that is safe for all of us to eat, and we all agree that the results are every bit as delicious as the originals.

For years, my mom has been practically world famous for an amazing sweet potato casserole that she makes for every holiday turkey dinner. Even the pickiest child at the table (usually one of my boys!) gobbles up his or her orange veggies when they are prepared this way. Because we need to avoid milk, eggs, and cane sugar at our house, I have had to modify the recipe quite a bit, but I am happy to report that it's still a favourite with old and young alike.

Sweet Potato Casserole

For the casserole:

6 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/4 cup real maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla

Stir these four ingredients together until well combined and place in a casserole dish that has been lightly greased with grapeseed oil.

For the topping:

1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp allspice

In a small bowl, toss pecans with spices and then sprinkle them evenly on top of the sweet potato mixture.

Bake sweet potato casserole in a 350 F oven for 30 minutes.

This dish can be made ahead and then reheated in time for Thanksgiving dinner, thus saving you from having too many things to do on the day of your big meal. (Warning: You may have to restrain yourself if you hope to have any sweet potato leftovers for the day after Thanksgiving!)

Ever since I was a child, I have loved having homemade cranberry sauce alongside turkey on special occasions. This recipe was inspired by the delicious sauce my grandma and my mom have made for years, but it is made with maple syrup (in a much smaller quantity) instead of white and brown sugars.

Cranberry Sauce

2  12oz (340g) packages of fresh cranberries
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp allspice
1/4 cup pure maple syrup

Wash and drain the cranberries. Place them in a pot with the water, orange juice, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. 
Bring pot contents to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries pop and break down a little. Remove cranberry mixture from heat.
While the sauce is still hot, stir in the maple syrup.
Allow cranberry sauce to cool, then store in an airtight glass jar in the fridge.

This homemade cranberry sauce is a lovely addition to any turkey dinner, and the added bonus of making it yourself is that your house will smell delicious for hours afterwards!

Whether or not your family needs to consider food sensitivities, these Thanksgiving dishes are sure to bring a smile to all the faces around your holiday table. I wish all of you a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving!