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.

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!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Home is where the heart is

I was travelling along the highway this past weekend, enjoying the sight of the trees displaying their brilliant fall hues of yellow, orange and red, when I was struck by a sudden wave of homesickness. It's funny how that works; I have considered our current city "home" for many years now, and I really love the life we've made here. Something about the changing leaves, though, always draws my heart to the home of my childhood, the place where my mom and dad and other very loved family members still live. I grew up in Northern Ontario, land of beautiful rocky landcapes, immense lakes, and bountiful trees, and the fall colours up there are magnificent and breathtaking. I think I will always be a northern girl at heart.

With Thanksgiving weekend approaching, I am reminded of the many wonderful holiday traditions I knew growing up, surrounded by so many relatives living close by. Special occasions were celebrated with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathering together to share a meal; they were noisy, happy times filled with favourite foods and great stories and lots and lots of laughter. Raising our boys in a place so far from most of our extended family means that these kinds of large holiday celebrations are rarer, and that fact saddens me. Holidays are still fun and special times for them, of course, as we follow many of our family's traditions in our home now, but I feel like something important is often missing. In a life where we have been able to provide the boys with so many things, I find it difficult to accept that they haven't known the joys of having a whole network of people who love them living near them, and being with them in all of those important growing up moments. It's a gift that has immeasurable value.

I have many, many things to be thankful for this holiday weekend, and when our little family gathers around the Thanksgiving table, I will smile, feeling blessed with the wonderful memories I have of my childhood up north, and with the chance to make new memories with our boys. Our loved ones who live far away may not be here to share the favourite foods and great stories and laughter, and I will miss them, but they will most definitely be here, as always, in my heart.

Thanks to my mom for the lovely photos of Hiawatha Park and of family gatherings in years gone by.