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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A is for apple

Matt, the boys and I recently went on one of our absolute favourite fall excursions: to a local orchard to pick our own apples. For many years now, we have all loved strolling through the rows of dwarf trees under a brilliant blue sky, hearing the swish-swishing of the long green grass beneath our feet, and smelling the cool woodsy-scented fall breeze while munching on perfectly crisp, tart fruit.

The boys love apples more than any other healthy food and are very enthusiastic pickers, so it's easy to get carried away and leave with more apples than we planned on! As usual, we lugged home several large bags full this trip, and I've been looking for ways to incorporate apples into our meals this week to help use them all up.

Homemade applesauce is easy to make, and I think it has wonderful flavour and texture compared to store-bought varieties. I use this method from The All Natural Allergy Cookbook by Jeanne Marie Martin to make it:

Peel and core approximately 5 pounds of apples. (Include some Spartans or MacIntoshes.)
Chop the apples into 1 inch pieces and place them in a pot with a tight-fitting lid.
Add 2-3 tablespoons of water.
Turn the heat to high for one minute only, staying close by the pot.
Turn the heat to low and simmer the apples for approximately 30 minutes or until they are tender enough to mash.
Use a fine, small-holed hand masher and mash the apples well.
If you wish, add cinnamon to taste.

At our house, we love to eat this applesauce plain for snacks or dessert, or as an accompaniment to roasted pork. Its natural sweetness is delicious!

I also put extra apples to good use by pairing them with the squash that are so abundant this time of year. Try this simple vegetable side dish the next time you have a butternut squash on hand:

Peel one butternut squash and chop it into 1 inch cubes. Peel and core one large apple and chop it into 1 inch cubes as well. In a bowl, toss squash and apple pieces with a small amount of canola oil and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Place in a glass baking dish and roast in a 375 F oven for approximately 45 minutes, stirring once during cooking time.

Matt and I love this squash-apple recipe and I serve it often alongside roasted chicken or sausages. The boys are not big fans of squash, but when I add the apple and cinnamon to it, the odds of them eating it increase exponentially!

Spending a weekend afternoon at a fun-filled apple orchard and then enjoying the fruits of our labour is something we're likely to keep doing as a family for many fall seasons to come. If we keep eating apples at the rate we are this week, we may be back to the orchard much sooner than waiting for next fall....

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Little boy, big life

We are now into the fourth week of the school year, and every weekday morning my youngest boy still wraps his arms around me with a gentle fierceness and misty eyes, getting just one more good-bye from his mom before he enters the heavy doors at the last possible moment. He puts on a brave face at school and truly enjoys many of the activities and people there, but behind those deep brown eyes of his, he is missing his family and worrying about all of the "what ifs" he can imagine in his busy mind. This has always been my Will, a little boy with enormous feelings and an understanding of the world that is beyond his young years of life. What an honour and a challenge it is to be raising such an extraordinary boy.

From the time he was an infant, Matt and I knew that Will was going to push us to develop more parenting tools than we ever imagined existed. He was an infrequent sleeper, keeping us up for hours in the middle of the night, wanting a warm body to comfort him or someone to engage him with an interesting activity. He was also a very sensitive baby who screamed at the slightest bit of overstimulation. These traits have stayed with Will through the years. He is still up before 6 am most days, accomplishing something big before the rest of us have even opened our eyes, and new people and situations are still a challenge for him -- he prefers the comfort of sameness. The world often becomes too much for Will; extra noise, excitement, fear, disappointment, anticipation, happiness, or frustration usually leads to strong outbursts of feeling, either jubilant or despairing. On so many occasions over the years I have felt compelled to justify Will's emotions and behaviours to the people with whom he shares this part of himself, to somehow apologetically explain them away and make people see a different side of him. It has been difficult, however, to explain something I could never fully understand myself.

In the last while, Will has blossomed into quite an articulate speaker, and I have finally caught a glimpse of the deep thoughts and feelings behind his passionate outpourings. I have come to realize he has a beautiful gift, one that needs to be appreciated, gently directed, and nurtured to see its full potential.

Will might complain loudly and incessantly about perceived unfairness in day-to-day life at home, but he also kindly stands up for friends at school who are being picked on, and shows real empathy for those people and creatures who are suffering in the world at large, often wondering what he can do to help them. This boy who never lets his own or others' mistakes go unnoticed is the same boy who keenly observes the smallest details in nature, and marvels at the beauty of a pretty pattern on a rock, or the intricate, perfect construction of a fallen bird's nest. He is the boy who remarks thoughtfully on a summer's day that a spider is lucky because "it has a way bigger world than we do" as he notices it moving in so many more directions than humans are capable of moving.

Will's busy mind never rests; he wonders constantly about how things work, invents incredible stories and objects, lies in his bed at night worrying about grown-up things like people he loves dying too soon, and figures out complex math problems in his head while staring off into space at the dinner table. Sometimes Will's curiosity makes us weary, but I realize now that his endless questions come from a compelling desire to make sense of concepts most adults can't fully understand: God, natural disasters, the vastness of the universe.

Will's big feelings have led him to weep at the sight of a fly trapped in a web outside our kitchen window, but they also mean he loves his family with every fibre of his self, and there is nothing better than being wrapped in a tight embrace by his little arms; in those moments I feel certain that he will love me like that forever. In the midst of all of his crying and protesting and worrying and thinking and challenging, he is a sweet little boy who tells me his striped shirt reminds him of rainbows and me and makes him happy when he's having a sad day. He is one of the most genuine people I have ever met.

There have been many days as Will's mom that I have wanted to pull my hair out in frustration, and many others where I've been moved to tears by his sensitive thoughtfulness. What I understand now is that Will is like a finely tuned instrument, resonating beautifully inside at just the slightest touch, and pouring forth feelings that play like music, sometimes loud and jarring, sometimes soft and infinitely lovely. This must be a delightful experience for him in part, but it must also be overwhelming to be a six year old boy and have such powerful activity within. He knows himself that he is different from many others he knows, as he often asks sadly, "Why am I the only one who cares so much about this?" I believe, though, that some day Will is going to grow into his complex thoughts and feelings; he will own them proudly and use them to make a difference in the world. He's already trying so hard to do just this. In the meantime, I will continue to embrace him reassuringly every morning, searching deep within myself for the patience and the understanding he needs to get there, and being deeply grateful for the privelege of having him in my life.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pumpkin cookies, please!

Pumpkins are popping up all over the neighbourhood around here, and that reminded me of a favorite fall lunchbox treat for our family -- big, soft pumpkin raisin cookies. I baked up this recipe from the Better Food for Kids cookbook by Joanne Saab and Daina Kalnins today, and I'm sure that the scrumptious results won't last long!

1 1/2 cups raisins
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
2 tbsp applesauce
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (Note: I substituted whole wheat flour and the pint-sized food critics at our house had no complaints!)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a small bowl, soak raisins in hot water for 5 minutes, then rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add pumpkin puree, applesauce, egg, vanilla, ginger and cinnamon; beat until well mixed.

In another bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and baking powder. Gradually add to pumpkin mixture, stirring until just combined. Stir in raisins.

Drop spoonfuls of batter onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 12 minutes or until golden brown.

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and soon we'll have pumpkin pie and other wonderful autumn treats to enjoy. In the meantime, these delightful pumpkin cookies will definitely tide us over!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Knitting for little ones

I first learned how to knit when Noah was very small. It seemed the thing to do as a newly-minted mom, to figure out how to weave colourful strands of yarn together, making little sweaters and hats to keep my sweet boy warm and cozy. My sister-in-law Jess, who also had a new baby boy, signed up with me to take a knitting class at the local college. Off we would go one night a week, sharing family stories with each other while we cast on and worked rows in stocking stitch. It's something I'm really glad I did, as I have spent many a cold winter evening in the years since knitting scarves, hats, slippers and the like for the little ones in our extended family. I feel as though I'm carrying on a tradition of sorts, following my mom and my grandma who knit and my dad who crocheted for us when we were small.

A while back I was looking through yarn remnants and I remembered the fun finger puppets my grandma used to make many years ago. They were animals of all shapes and colours, with wild yarn fur and cute sewn faces, and I knew that the new generation of kids in our family would love them too.

Here are a couple of my grandma's originals that I recently found in my old toy box. I love the one black ear on the cat, and the wild pink and turquoise mouse has perfect kid appeal!

Sadly, I couldn't find any patterns like my grandma's, but I was able to knit up a basic finger puppet shape with this method:

Using 4mm knitting needles, cast on 18 stitches. Work 18 rows in stocking stitch. Cut the yarn, leaving a length for sewing the puppet together. Run the end of the yarn through all stitches with a darning needle, pulling them together tightly to form a circle. Sew up the puppet and work in the yarn end.

Once the puppet form was made, I added features using different coloured yarn and a darning needle, and embellishments using felt and a regular needle and thread. I made mostly cats (we have a lot of cat lovers in our family!) with a dog and a few dinos thrown in for good measure. With a little imagination, though, it would be easy to create a whole zoo of different creatures.

In the past year I helped my grandma pack up her home to move, and I was very touched when she told me she could no longer knit and wanted me to have all of her knitting needles, wool, and patterns. As the nights grow cooler and darker, I look forward to rummaging through my grandma's canvas knitting bag to find inspiration for new winter projects. I will use her needles proudly and knit with love, just as I know she did all those years. I hope that when the young ones in the family are wrapped up in knitted warmth, they will somehow feel several generations of affection surrounding them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Soup for supper

Cool, crisp fall weather means the return of comfort food at our house, and one of my favourites is homemade chicken noodle soup. I love the smell of stock simmering away on the stove all afternoon, and the delicious warmth of a hearty soup does a good job of filling everyone's bellies after a busy day. This week I had a chicken carcass left over from a recent roast dinner, so I used that as my starting point and added lots of veggies, beans, and pasta to make a very satisfying meal.

Chicken Noodle Soup with Tomatoes, Spinach and Beans

To make the chicken stock, you will need:

1 chicken carcass, left over from a roast chicken
approximately 8 cups of water (like my mom, I never measure these things!)
2 whole carrots
2 stalks of celery
1 whole onion
a few sprigs each of fresh thyme and parsley
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for several hours.

Approximately one hour before dinner, strain the stock through a colander into a large bowl. (*Note: Do not forget the bowl!!! I heard a story once about my grandma making soup and pouring all of the lovely stock down the drain by accident. It could happen to anyone!) Pour strained stock back into the pot and return the pot to the stove. Remove all of the chicken from the bones in the colander and return the meat to the pot as well. Discard the bones and the cooked vegetables and herbs.

To make the soup, you will need:

1 can (796 ml) diced tomatoes
2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 can (540 ml) white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
approximately 1 1/2 - 2 cups small sized pasta (again, I didn't measure!)
salt and pepper to taste

Once you have returned the stock and the chicken pieces to the stove, add the tomatoes and the sliced carrots. Bring it all to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for another 30 minutes or so. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a separate pot just until it is still slightly firm. Drain and rinse pasta.

Just before you plan to eat, add the beans, spinach, parsley, and cooked pasta to the soup pot, and simmer until heated through. (This will take about five minutes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

A big pot of soup like this goes a long way, making a super supper one night and delicious hot lunches packed in thermoses the next day. Mirroring the vibrant hues of fall leaves outdoors with this colourful soup in bowls at the table is a great way to celebrate the season!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Birthday reflections

I'm turning 38 today, and I had one of those moments of clarity last night when I caught a peek at my hubby and two boys baking cupcakes for me: I really like the age I'm at right now. I've been married 13 years and my boys are six and nine now, so I'm feeling very happily comfortable in my roles as wife and mom. Matt and I still truly love each other and really enjoy being partners. Noah and Will are old enough that I'm not sleep deprived anymore, and my life with them is full of energy and adventure. My wonderful parents are young enough that we can all have fun together when we see each other. I have a great extended family who supports me and whom I love dearly.

Enough time has passed since I left my career as a teacher to be a stay-at-home mom that I don't feel I have to justify my choice to people anymore. I've had sufficient life experience to make me confident about who I am; I don't believe I have anything to prove to anyone. At the same time, I realize I still have so much to learn and feel like the world is still full of opportunities for me to explore. I love where I live and feel rooted and involved in my community. I am vibrant and healthy. My life is certainly not perfect, but I've realized that I'm truly happy with it in its current state of imperfection.

Life is good today, and I'm so very thankful.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Life lessons in Legoland

After an exciting but tiring first week back at school, the boys were happy to have a quiet, leisurely Saturday morning today with time for one of their favourite activities: building with Lego. Noah and Will are both seriously obsessed with the stuff. I have often found myself amazed by how long they can remain intently focused on their construction projects, and by the immensely creative results of their efforts. We have had "Towers of Power" as tall as the boys themselves, movie theatres with stadium seating, a state-of-the-art school, and a 5-star hotel with previously unthought-of amenities overtaking our family room at various times throughout the past few months. Each multi-coloured brick building has a story, as do the little Lego characters within the walls. By watching the boys and talking to them about their creations, I catch a fascinating glimpse of what goes on inside their interesting young minds.

I was pleasantly surprised by one of the boys' recent Lego structures, called "Marcus's Market". (Yes, they name all of their projects, too.) I could tell right away that it was a restaurant by the neatly organized groupings of tables and chairs, the tiny Lego "sandwiches" and "drinks", and the collection of Lego guys sitting around looking like they were having a good time. The diner also boasted a large green patch in the centre, though, and the boys' enthusiastically explained to me that their market served only healthy food that the owners grew themselves. They demonstrated to me a "robot healthy salad maker", and described how their sandwiches were made with fresh veggies and locally produced meats, eggs, and cheese. Both Noah and Will were very proud of the fact that their restaurant presented the little Lego customers with such nutritious offerings.

I often think that when I ask the boys to eat their veggies and explain to them the benefits of healthy food choices that it all goes in one ear and out the other. (The disgusted looks on their faces when they see there is broccoli for dinner certainly makes me think that we don't see eye-to-eye in these matters!) Their choice to carefully craft a healthy restaurant in their play showed me, however, that my messages are not going unheeded. Now, their market restaurant may have had some unconventional embellishments that only imaginative boys would dream up -- apparently it was guarded by a Lego dragon and its chairs and tables had anti-gravity capabilities (!) -- but the idea behind it confirmed for me that it's worth it to keep teaching our kids what we think is important, even when it's challenging. What starts as wholesome Lego lunches today will hopefully turn to good eating when the boys are grown and responsible for making their own food choices.

I will continue to watch with fascination as the boys build their Lego creations in the coming years, realizing that they're not just building structures out of plastic bricks; they're building a foundation of ideas and skills for their future. Now that I know they're on the right track food-wise, maybe I can work on teaching them to negotiate better with each other for the coolest Lego parts....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meat, naturally

I am organizing my freezer this morning in anticipation of a delivery later today -- 75 pounds of meat from an organic farm. It's an exciting day, as I'm looking forward to once again having a freezer full of beef, pork, and chicken that was raised naturally and will taste heavenly.

Matt and I decided last summer that we wanted to be more aware of where our meat was coming from and to reap the health benefits of eating meat from pasture-raised animals. We were fortunate to come across an organic farmer in our area through a family member, and were completely thrilled with our choice as we enjoyed wonderful roasts, steaks, chops, sausages, and much more throughout the fall and winter months.

There are many physical benefits to eating meat from animals that lived healthy and happy lives. Pasture-raised beef is lower in total fat as well as saturated fats than grain-fed beef; the animals are leaner because of their high-fibre, low-starch diet and their continuous movement while grazing. Cattle who are naturally raised eat a wide variety of plants in the field, which makes their meat high in folic acid, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids. By contrast, animals who are fed corn gain weight quickly and have higher levels of saturated fat and omega-6 fats in their meat. While both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for human wellness, too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s results in disease. People concerned about their heart health will be pleased to know that grass-fed beef can have the same amount of fat as a chicken breast, which means it can be enjoyed more often.

In our house, the decision to go with meat from naturally-raised animals was solidified by other matters of the heart that concern us. Will, who is a sensitive old soul in a little boy's body, has been very bothered lately by the fact that we eat meat at all; the idea of killing animals for food seems very cruel to him. It is somewhat reassuring for all of us to be able to talk about how the animals we eat were raised kindly, being given the freedom to live as they liked to and eat what they were meant to before they became food for our table. We get email updates from the farm throughout the season, and we enjoy reading about the chickens out scratching and pecking and the cattle roaming in the fields. We feel that by supporting the farming practices we do, we are saying thanks to the animals for giving their lives to sustain ours.

We will continue to order meat from our organic farmer every fall and spring season now that we know how wonderful it is in so many ways. Maybe I've left you with some food for thought for today. I'll also leave you with this recipe for a delicious slowcooker beef pot roast, courtesy of Tony and Fran McQuail of Meeting Place Organic Farm:

1 blade or cross rib roast
one small onion
1 small carrot
olive oil
salt and pepper
white wine

Finely chop onion, garlic, celery and carrot. On medium heat, in a deep, heavy pan, fry these ingredients with some oil for a short period. Transfer to slowcooker.
Put the beef roast, sprinkled with salt and pepper, in the pan and sear the meat. (To sear is to brown the meat briefly on all sides, which keeps the juices in while the rest cooks more slowly.) Transfer beef to slowcooker.
Add a half a cup of white wine. (Lisa's note: I used more than this.)

Cover and slow cook on low all day.
Remove roast from slowcooker and let cool. Slice beef when cool. Serve with juices from slowcooker and an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bittersweet back-to-school

I laughed out loud when I saw this season's back-to-school commercial for Zellers on television a few weeks ago. It shows a loving mom, proudly sending her young son off on the school bus sporting brand-new clothes and a sparkling clean backpack full of all the supplies he'll need to do his best in school. When the bus drops the boy back off at home at the end of the day, he is dishevelled, muddy, and missing half of his stuff (including one leg of his pants!). He looks happy, but his shocked mom realizes she's got some more work ahead of her. I think this ad probably rings true for many moms of boys; I know I've often said that my two would lose their heads if they weren't attached to their bodies. (I like to think that they're too busy thinking about more meaningful things than where their socks, books, or other items have disappeared to!)

I will be sending my boys back to school with mixed feelings this year. As I watch them being jostled along into their new classrooms, surrounded by their buddies, I will be thrilled for the shiny promise that a new year brings them: chances to discover exciting ideas and develop new skills, to grow in leaps and bounds as their understanding of the world expands, to nurture friendships, and to build confidence in themselves. But my baby, Will, is now entering his first year of full-time schooling, and I feel somehow sad and apprehensive as well. The main focus of my life for the past nine years has been being a mom, being there for my little boys to guide and to teach them, to help them, to spend time with them, and most of all, to love them like no one else can. Of course, this relationship does not end now, but we have reached a stage where both of my boys will spend half of their weekday waking hours out in the big wide world without me, and sometimes that world is not a kind place. It's a huge act of trust to let go of your children's hands knowing that in life, people around them will not always play fairly, and they are bound to lose some things along the way.

I realize that trying to protect our kids from difficult experiences is not reasonable or desirable. Obstacles, heartache, and loss are all necessary parts of human life; we become stronger, better people through dealing with adversity. I will send my boys off to school well-equipped with supplies like the boy in the television ad, but more importantly, I hope that in being home with them all these years, I have helped develop in them the self-esteem, thinking skills, and good-heartedness to triumph in the face of life's challenges when they arise. If they come home from school missing their pride, or their trust in someone, or other things more significant than a pant leg, I hope that they will be able to find strength within to keep believing in and staying true to themselves. I will be there for them in these rough times and in happy ones; I realize I still have work ahead of me too. I have faith, though, that at the end of the day, my boys will come out of it all smiling, just like the boy in the commercial. As their proud mom, so will I.