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.

Monday, July 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Week (and a bit) on the Water

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Settling Into Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Grilled Flank Steak Salad and Crispy Potatoes

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

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

Grilled Flank Steak Salad (serves 4)

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

For the dressing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crispy Potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

Here's to fresh, fantastic summer food!