Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Lord's My Shepherd

Recently you may have noticed our family is on a home made kick. Baby girl is 6 months old now, and I'm back to my characteristic level of energy and enthusiasm. We've been spending more at our local farmer's market than at the grocery store, which is a good sign that I've been doing more from scratch. With the exception of one loaf this week, I've made all our bread, pizza dough, and rolls entirely from scratch. Today, with the help of the three big kids (if you can call a 22 month old, a 3 year old and a 4 year old big), we made some beef stock from scratch. With the exception of a little bit of rice or pasta here and there, everything is made fresh from food we're picking up at the market. I don't want any of the busy and harried folks out there to think that I'm badgering you about it, or that I think you absolutely have to do it. First of all, it's not my business what you all do in your kitchens. It's a lot of work, it takes a lot of planning, and really forces a change of diet pretty much immediately if you go all in.

I'm not bragging, trust me. My dedication to our new meal plan really would have waivered and probably failed by now if it weren't for a few circumstances that have forced me to dig in my heels and make it work. First of all, we've gradually emptied our pantry and freezer of processed or ready-to-make foods. It's hard to reach for frozen pizza when there isn't one. With 4 kids and 2 adults, it's not exactly cheap to hit the fast food chains either. With that, I'm left with whatever is fresh that we bought. It's forcing me to follow my meal plan and I must admit I love not having to think about what's on the menu. There's no last minute running to the store for a missing ingredient, which is another bonus. Secondly, baby girl has started on solids, and I absolutely refuse to use bottled or packaged foods for her. Ignoring all the recalls on that stuff lately, I can't get behind all the added preservatives and things. What's wrong with a few sweet potatoes and an ice cube tray?

The biggest reason we haven't been stocking up on frozen pizza, canned goods, and questionable grocery store meats, stems from recent instructions from the dietition trying to help my husband through his stomach issues. He's a type 1 diabetic and has recently been blighted by paralysis of the stomach. It's not a highly common complication, but once the doctor's figured it out, it was like the puzzle pieces of the past 6 or 7 years fell into place. When I met my husband he wasn't well, and was having problems understanding random low and high blood sugars unrelated to meal times. It turns out his stomach has been holding food, and most of the time only allowing it into his intestinal track as much as a week later, which was causing random jumps in his blood sugar. He's been losing weight lately and in terrible pain. Luckily, the doctors have been able to prescribe him a cocktail of drugs that are working together to make his stomach contract so that it can empty. The medications are only one side of his treatment. The other side, the side that is the long lasting treatment, is a drastic change in diet. First on the list was to eat smaller, more nutritious quantities of protein. The second was to reduce the quantity of fiber he was ingesting (these days even most white bread is fortified to have higher fiber content, thus our homemade variety is safer). He also has to stay away from anything with a high fat content. They also suggested he eat more soft cooked veggies, particularly in the blended form in soups, and to avoid processed foods whenever possible. I could be wrong, but to me that sounds a lot like the meal plan my husband and I worked on together. With baby girl well on her way with solids, a lot of these foods were on our list for her too.

Once again I sit in the face of what should have been a sudden and scary situation that would have changed our lives drastically in a matter or days, but instead of fear I'm left with the deep convictions of God's providence. God has once again led us, so gently, so slowly, to exactly where we needed to be, having armed us with the knowledge we need to do what's right. When we first got the phone call about this major dietary change we were scared and upset, but as the days went on we realised we were already there. If I needed any more proof of God's abiding love and faithfulness to us in a time when all else is falling apart, here it is. In every hour, I find God holding me, carrying me through the rough times.

For our wedding mass, we chose the psalm "The Lord's My Shepherd". I feel like we have made that psalm the motto of our marriage. Thank you, God, for leading us gently, and for loving us in times of fear and struggle. Perhaps instead of 40 days and nights in the desert, God is choosing 40 days and night of rain for our lives. Either way I know at the end God's promise stands firm, as a rainbow in the sky and the Cross on a hill faraway.

I will trust in you alone. I will trust in you alone. For your endless mercy follows me. Your goodness will lead me home.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lenten Journey

Last night we had our reveleries. We enjoyed good company and good food (pancakes with Nutella! Yum!!), came home and collapse in post Fat Tuesday joy. I have always enjoyed the idea of a good feast before a fast. We need strength for the road as we take our long journey through the desert to the lonely hill of Calvary.

For the first time in weeks, my husband was feeling better. Our friend even remarked upon how relaxed he was. I feel in so many ways last night was a preparation for our own dry patch. Today we went to the doctor for baby girl's 6 month check up and also a follow up about everything going on with my husband. Baby girl is doing great! After a dip in her weight she's jumped back up to her old curve, thanks to breastfeeding, some supplemental formula, and most recently some solids I'm preparing for her. Besides all that she's crawling, rolling, cooing, standing and being generally amazing. The report back on my husband's health was not so positive. After an upbeat appointment with the specialist yesterday, our family doctor basically said she couldn't believe he'd been going to work, and gave him a note telling him to stay off work for two weeks. She prescribed him a new medication that has a two week adjustment period that will make it dangerous for him to be at work. To help him feel better, things will have to get worse. Suffice it to say he's following doctor's orders, but we're all stressed. 

I guess this year for Lent, God is trying to give our family a special lessons and gifts. The gifts are easy to see: the gift of time together, the chance for Hubby to heal, the chance to be home for the oldest boy's birthday, and most of all, the chance to learn once again to trust in God's enduring love and providence. God will provide. I know we'll have to work hard to make things work, but I trust He'll guide us through it all. As for the lessons, they are not so far from the gifts. I feel God wants us to learn to let go. To let go of our stress, fear, and the idea that work is more important than my dear husband's health.

This Lent, we will give up our expectations for what life "should" look like, and try to embrace the gifts God gives us in our adversity. I pray by the time we come to stand at the foot of the cross to weep with Mary for our loving Saviour, we will do it with hearts overflowing with gratitude and trust. We will see God's daily providence for us alongside the eternal providence of His Cross. We will come and mourn with deeper faith, and rejoice that God can roll any stone away. But first the desert. First the journey. And in this journey we walk with Christ always by our side, teaching us the everyday path of His Cross. God, let our hearts stay grateful. 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Perks of 4 Kids

It's easy to talk about the challenges of having a lot of kids all at once. There's the expense, the diapers, the noise, the odd smells in every corner of our house, the crying, the arguing, the terrible twos coming one after another for 4 years, the business of never having personal space, either on a piece of furniture or in the bathroom, the fact that once one kid cries at night, suddenly everyone is crying (Mommy too), and the list goes on. All of this and more is part of the daily struggle of having a family full to the brim with a baby, a few toddlers, and a preschooler. Intense drama, though momentary, is par for the course in our house.

I'm not sure that I would have it any other way. Sure, I'd love to take my bathroom breaks solo. Let me correct that, I'd love time to actually take regular bathroom breaks well before I'm doing the potty dance, running through a crowd of children to the nearest bathroom. All that being said, there are a lot of perks to having four little kids. Here's a list of my 5 favourite perks:

1. I rarely need a blanket as the body heat from four kids keeps me cozy even on the frostiest of winter mornings. These same little hot water bottles I call children are always ready to warm up my heart with genuine outburts of "I love you, Mommy!" and "You're so pretty, Mommy!", a light in the darkest of times.

2. I don't need to wake up to a loud beeping alarm clock. Most mornings I get to wake up to the sound of our boys playing in their bedroom or our girl singing loudly to the music on her radio. Even the soft whimpers of a hungry baby is music to my ears compared to the angry siren of our alarm.

3. I'm never lacking in helpers. If big sister isn't in the mood to help Mommy pick up the diaper wipes when I'm busy with baby girl, I have my two little boys on hand, begging to get involved. I'm also never without a helper in the kitchen, which makes every attempt to cook an adventure.

4. My house can look like a bomb hit it, and no one would dare to question my housekeeping skills. They know as well as I do that I could have scrubbed every inch of it, and within 5 minutes my own squad of aspiring tasmanian devils could have it back in its normal post-apocalyptic splendor. If, by chance or design, my house looks even halfway clean, I suddenly appear to be some kind of Martha Stewart-styled domestic goddess. Equally, if I manage a successful meal for guests, I am a modern day Julia Child, ignoring of course that I just dumped a pile of ingredients in the crockpot. Lastly, along the same train of thought, my personal hygiene and attire are never questioned. As long as I'm not in a robe, people seem to think I've gone out of my way for them. Fair enough. Pajamas and sweatshirts are my usual uniform when we don't have guests around. So long as the kids are dressed and clean, I've won my victory for the day.

5. This one may be my favourite. I love watching my kids becoming best friends. Sure they fight, just like any other kids, but they also take care of each other. There's nothing in the world better than coming into the livingroom to see the three older kids huddled around baby girl's exersaucer, doing everything they can to make her smile and giggle. If our youngest boy trips, the first one by his side is his big brother, giving him a hug and telling him he's okay. Our oldest girl can often be seen teaching her 3 year old brother, his letters. They do everything together by choice. I feel so blessed to witness their evolutions from roommates to friends, and from friends to best friends.

Having what is rapidly approaching a bus full of kids has its downs, but those are nothing compared to the ups. It's hard to ignore how blessed I am each day. As we finished off our long, busy, exhausting day I was so very ready to see their little heads dissappear behind closed doors. At the same time, I couldn't help but be reminded of my four little blessings when I heard them wishing each other goodnight through their joining wall. No matter how rough the day, or how rough the night ahead, that little ritual is a moment of peace and perspective that centers my day. I wouldn't trade that for all the coffee, peace, silence or sleep in the world.

Family Life, Unplugged

We decided this week to cancel our cable. In our area if you don't have digital cable or a converter box you don't even get basic channels. We struggled to make this choice, but after weeks of not watching any television with the kids (okay, okay, they've been watching movies instead) and basically only watching reruns and one or two new shows ourselves after the kids are in bed, we decided to re-evaluate whether or not we really needed cable.

I'll be the first one to admit I watch a lot of TV. Easily too much. When the kids are napping I turn on TLC and watch all the baby, bridal, and family shows I can muster. Looking at my regular consumption of visual trash, cutting off our cable is really no real sacrifice for me. I can honestly say it's good for me. My husband isn't a big television watcher these days because by the time he gets home from work, he'd rather spend time with the kids and I, and has lots of woodworking projects he'd rather get started on. For him, television is dull background noise at best, and a useless distraction at worst. Even the sports that he and I both enjoy can be watched online these days. When we used to watch cable together at night we'd click from show to mindless show just to fill the time. Half of it we weren't even enjoying or it was a repeat of an old favourite we'd seen a hundred times. Our lives were running by the cable schedule most nights with very little variety in between. We already have Netflix, so instead of investing in expensive box sets of shows we might like, we've been enjoying trying out new shows, one or two episodes per night. I know I'll miss a few regular favourites that haven't made the leap to Netflix, like Glee or The Big Bang Theory, but we can watch most of those online if we really want.

Already not having cable has been freeing. We're talking more, playing with the kids more, and simply enjoying each other more. This week, instead of turning on the TV to distract the kids, I brought them into the kitchen with me and we made bread together. They've also been helping me prepare all of our meals, which has made them more likely to try some of the new foods on our menu. They're also talking more for themselves, and spending less time mimicking their favourite characters on their morning shows (not that singing the alphabet song like Alpha Pig from SuperWhy was all bad). When we do watch a show or movie with the kids, we try to pick one good show instead of whatever's on, and then turn it off when we're done. We've also taken up bowling with them on our game system. It's pretty hilarious watching the two oldest kids jumping around with joy even when they get a gutterball. I can't imagine a better way to beat the winter blahs right in our living room.

So, while we're not entirely "unplugged", we're well on our way. Instead of tuning into the television, we're trying to tune in more to each other. I'm thankful my husband was keen on the idea too and am enjoying reconnecting with him by warm candlelight instead of the blue glow of our TV. The world is too beautiful to be seen through a box. It's time to start making plans that don't revolve around the cable schedule. It's time to work on us.

Calm After the Storm

I love Saturdays. Always have. This particular Saturday, I must say, might be in my all time top ten list. We've had a rough couple of weeks in our family. Besides Hubby's persistent, painful stomach issues (which are oh so gradually getting better), my father has been struggling with his own health concerns for a few weeks. He's had kidney stones, and after weeks of fruitless attempts to pass them, he finally had to have surgery. My father is a larger man, and I must confess I was more than a little concerned about the fact that they had to give him a general anesthetic for his surgery. By God's grace he came through in great shape and is recovering at home under the care of my mother, who happens to be a nurse. Besides all the health drama, I've been cheering on the sidelines as my mother interviewed for 3 jobs as a teacher this week. I don't know why, but I think I get more nervous and excited about it than she does. I want her to be happy and doing something she enjoys, so I find myself getting wrapped up in it all. I've also been busy having playdates and organising playgroups, which has been so rewarding for the kids and myself, but leaves me exhausted by week's end.

Suffice it to say, it's been busy, and even a little stressful around here. So as I sit lazily on my couch while the kids have their snacks, watching the snow drift down from the sky in fluffy clumps, I'm at peace. This is the gift of Saturday. This is the calm after the storm. There's nothing to do in this moment but enjoy my children and husband without worrying about the rest of the week. Our oldest girl is doing cute pirouettes to her favourite song, Cinderella by Stephen Curtis Chapman, as her Daddy watches on with a wistful smile, our oldest son is making up a story to go along with a book he can't yet read, our youngest son is snuggled next to me, eating a whole apple with a level of dedication and seriousness only he could muster, and our baby girl is on the floor getting good practice for crawling, which she seems only days away from doing (AHHHH!). My coffee is still warm and sweet. Life is enfolding before my eyes, and I'm just happy to sit back and enjoy it.

Thank God for today. A Saturday like this is just the right remedy for 100 Mondays.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

How We Met

One of the stories I tell the most to new friends is that of how my husband and I met. I like to think it's one of the more fascinating things about us these days, that and our 4 amazing little ones. We're a pretty normal couple, except that our rapid courtship led to an incredibly strong foundation that has seen us through our fair share of rocky times in our 5 years of marriage.

When we met, my husband was home from the seminary, where he had been studying for the priesthood. As for myself, I was going into my final year of my Bachelor of Arts, and had been seeking out a religious community where I could pursue the vocation to religious life. There was a community of Dominican Sisters in the southern United States that fascinated me. It appealed to my desire to teach and share my experience. I was even planning on going to meet the community to take my discernment to the next level. Around the time I was in talks with their Vocations Director, word was getting around that a new community of Franciscans brothers and sisters (monks and nuns) was forming here in our city. I felt drawn to the idea of staying home and doing good work here in the city where I had been given so much. When I was invited to join as one of the founding members of the community I agreed. Around the same time, my future husband was invited to be one of the two founding members of the men's side of the community.

Everything was going well and I was very excited that the next stage of my life was going forward. On August 21st, 2005, we had our first group meeting to discuss the charism, dress and plans for our new community. That was the first time I met my husband. Although I was still focused on the religious life, I couldn't help but notice him. He was quiet, kind, but also seemed very self-assured. I was so frazzled by him, which is unlike me at the best of times, I recall offering him my plate, and possibly my fork, when he showed up late to our casual dinner. I did my best to push back whatever strange thoughts were floating around my mind. I wasn't the type to go boy crazy, so I figured that this was some kind of temptation at the gates of my vocations, and tried to let it go.

Our community formally started the next month and we each moved into our brothers and sisters convent homes. Every day we would join the brothers at their house for mass and formation. As a former cantor, I was chosen to lead our community choir, and took great joy in this small responsibility. I wanted to dive into this duty whole heartedly. Things were going very well. I would stand at the front of our tiny chapel and teach our community new songs, pacing down the aisle to listen to the voices of my new brothers and sisters. All except one. He sat tight lipped at the back of the room, not even pretending to mouth along the words. I hadn't realised it, but my future husband wasn't comfortable with singing and didn't enjoy me standing next to him pretty much singing in his ear. I thought he didn't know the tune and was trying to help, but my excitment came off as a little judgemental. Once this came to light we had a great long chat, which developped into an amazing friendship.

Meanwhile I really wasn't happy in the community. I love the life: the prayer, the habit, the rhythm of the day that gave a perpetual sense of meaning to every detail great and small. The poverty of the Franciscan life still appeals to me now. It is a poverty of spirit that trusts completely in the Providence of God even through the storms of life. With everything I loved about the life, I couldn't find any spiritual peace. I feel dogged by the feeling that I didn't belong in the community. Even though I felt suited to the life, and I enjoyed it, I couldn't let go of the nagging feeling that God had a different plan for my life. If it hadn't been for the friendship of one of the brothers, I wouldn't have weathered the spiritual storm that stole away what peace I could find from the beautiful rhythm and deep spirituality of the Franciscan life. As it turns out, this same brother was being rocked by the same doubts and persistent feeling that God was calling him to something outside our beautiful little community. For many weeks, we innocently built a friendship that helped us to each support the other. We both stayed in the community, knowing that life outside the community would be meaningless without this friendship that we had no doubt was a gift from God. I knew the moment I took off my habit, I would be required to stay away from the community for a time, which meant I wouldn't have the support of my new friend who understood me in a way no other person ever had.

Even with the draw of his friendship, I knew I couldn't stay. It was clear my fellow brother was in the same position. His prayers and discernment had led him to the knowledge that this community was no longer for him. When we tried to explain to each other our intention to leave the community, we ended up telling each other that we had fallen in love each with the other. I'm not sure who said it first. I think it was him. Or was it me? However it came out, in that moment I felt excitment, peace, joy, fear, and a nervous shaking from the inside out. That was the scariest and most rewarding moment of my life. We both layed our hearts on the line and were given a gift for trusting so completely that God had great things planned for us.

The days after we left our community were difficult ones. We felt alienated by our former brothers and sisters, villified by those who didn't understand that we entered into our relationship in complete innocence and trust, and under intense scrutiny by those who simply didn't understand how hard we had fought to get where we were over a such as short period of time. It took a few months for us to get back on speaking terms with our superior and the rest of the community. I'm happy to say we are now very close with them. As we were leaving one of our brothers said that "If it is from God, it will bear fruit". Since then, he often reminds us of that saying, pointing to our flourishing little family.

Even though our relationship starting in an unusual way, I can look back and say that that beginning has formed a firm foundation on which we continue to build our life together. Our faith is so much a part of our daily life. We know that we can bare our souls to each other without fear of judgement. If we could sit, facing each other in our religious habits, and confess love to one another, every other conversation is easy. If we could handle the drama of leaving a religious community hand in hand (and my being called a "chalice chipper" by a random old woman, like I should be wearing the scarlet letter), we can handle anything.

Every day that I wake up next to my husband, I thank God that he led me to the Franciscans so that I could meet a true friend, a brother in Christ, and a man who I can trust in my heart of hearts. Although the path we took to marriage was different than most, I know that God's plan for both of us is good. He made us for each other, and continues to remake us every day as we face our future, still hand in hand.

3 Years and Counting

3 years ago I was anxiously awaiting the birth of our second child. Based on the old wives tale that second babies come early, I had my bag packed and waiting by the door. I was marvelling over my impossibly large stomach and doing my best to take every moment I could to enjoy my baby girl who was about to become a big sister. Whenever I slept I dreamed of who this little person would be. Probably active, I would think, as baby kicked the daylights out of me. For such tiny feet, baby could really move. I was still trying to guess if this baby was a boy or a girl. I had a feeling I knew that part. But what else about this active little person? Big? Small? Quiet? Noisy?

On February 28th, 2009, we found out. About a week and a half overdue, our first son was born. A healthy 8lbs 7oz little man. All chub and rolls and sweetness. He was, as I recall, a very calm baby. His big sister adored him from the moment she layed eyes on him. The little mother in her was born that day too. I remember his delivery really well. Our doctor, who later became our family doctor, came in with a mood of patience and humour, exactly what I needed. By the time I was pushing I was grinning like a fool (oh epidural, you have your up side!) and making jokes between pushes. I had a mirror set up so I could watch him come out. I had said during our older daughter's birth that the last thing I wanted to do was see to the way everything looked when a baby came out, but braved it for our son. I'm so grateful I did. (Mind you, I didn't use the mirror for the next two, I had seen all I needed to see.)  I even touched the top of his head as he started to come out. His birth was empowering, beautiful, and exciting. I had a feeling he was a boy, so when my husband announced him by name after he was born I wasn't surprised, but still deeply overjoyed to see our first son. Named for his Granddad, his Daddy, and St. Francis, he has lived up to the potential of three such wonderful names.

In the years since then our boy has surprised me, scared me, and taught me so much. He is a tender hearted soul and very sensitive, but he's also so bold and particular. He likes things his way, but is also so sweet and considerate with everyone he meets (after he's finished saying 'no'). We've had two more children since his birth and he has become a wonderful big brother. He's very protective of his baby brother and sister, and loves to give them hugs and get them their toys. It's not all roses, mind you. Besides the fact that for a year he has been 2 years old (I know, I know. Of course!), he has also put us through the ringer with some health scares. I remember so clearly the long day when I had to sit with him in the hospital while nurses and doctors fussed over him, an IV sticking out of his tiny arm. He was so little and pale. I wanted so badly to scoop him up and take all his pain away. My husband and I poured out a sea of desperate prayers in those days for answers and healing. We thank God every day that his health improved and he's back to his button-pushing, heart-melting ways.

It's hard to believe that in 3 short years our little man has become a person that I cannot live without. From the moment that the test showed two lines I loved him with my whole heart. I am so grateful to have him in my life every day, even though I'm pretty sure he might be personally responsible for my growing patch of white hair. I can't imagine my life or my family without him. So, as we approach his third birthday, I'll keep saying my daily prayers of thanksgiving for him, and who he is for me and for our family. Happy Birthday, little man. Mommy loves you. Always and forever.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Battle Scars

After writing a post about teaching our daughters to always believe in their own beauty, I couldn't help but reflect that my reaction to the idea of my own beauty was not quite the same as that of my 4 year old daughter. When we tell her she's beautiful, she truly believes us and skips off joyfully, undoubtedly pleased with herself. My reaction isn't so cut and dry. I'm sure most of you can predict the mental hoops I jump through every time someone calls me beautiful, pretty or even cute. Unlike my daughter, I don't automatically agree and say thank you. And I certainly don't skip away. I may skulk though.

I go through my mental list of what I consider to be flaws at lightning speed. Yes, I'm beautiful except for my greasy hair, my possibly dirty clothes, the big bags under my eyes, not to mention my flabby middle section covered with long stretch marks. Given time, I'm sure I could easily fill this whole blog with descriptions about every part of my body that I don't like. I'm only 29 but my body has been ravaged by four pregnancies clustered over four years. I'm pretty sure that if I were on display in public the quiet whispers in the crowd would center around the idea of a woman who has let herself go. That's part of the human condition for both men and women. We self judge and the theme is rarely positive. Unlike my 4 year old daughter, the first thing on my mind isn't how pretty my hair is, or how much I like the dress I'm wearing (if I was wearing a dress instead of pajamas anyway).

I think in this instance I need to follow my daughter's lead. I need to learn to embrace her innocence. The other day when I was helping her get dressed, I noticed a jagged little scar on her knees. She saw me looking and smiled. She then proceeded to proudly tell me how she got the scar with great pride. She had simply tripped and scraped it at her grandparents' house, but told me the story like it was a great adventure. She recalled every detail about the special attention she'd received and that she got to wear a bandaid. She didn't remark upon the fact that her skin was no longer perfect. She has no problem wearing shorts or dresses even though her little scar is visible. For her that scar is a badge of honour, a battle scar earned during a grand adventure.

Why can't I try to look at myself that way? I may not look my best now. I am worn out and my body tells the tale with every glance. But, rather than judge the appearance, maybe I need to remember the hows and the whys of how I came to look this way. My eyes have bags under them because I was up very early feeding my baby girl. I may be a little greasy, but that's because I was working hard making bread with the kids. My clothes are dirty, but only because I spilled jelly on them while making lunch and haven't stopped moving long enough to change them (let alone take a shower yet). And as for my wiggly midsection and long stretch marks, maybe I should look at those battle scars too. I earned every inch of belly fat and every one of those stretch marks over my four pregnancies. I can't have my four kids without four pregnancies worth of affect to my appearance. I have to say, looking at it this way, it was all worth it. Sure, I'd love to be thin, unblemished, clean and awake, but not if it means I don't get to be Mom. Not if it means I don't get to be the Mom of these four children. Everything about me sings the battle song of my life, and I need to learn to be proud of it, just like my daughter is proud of her little scar on her knee.

That's the face of true beauty. Not the airbrushed and photoshopped "women" (most of them are still girls) we see in the media. True beauty is a life lived and enjoy, not Snow White trapped in her glass coffin. So let's agree to love what's truly beautiful about us.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Disorder and Order

After over six months of living here, my husband and I have finally unpacked our basement. Excluding a weekend when we first moved here, the entire bottom floor of our home has looked something like a shanty town. Dishevelled piles of boxes, random articles of clothing, and mismatched furniture were strewn in mighty stacks wherever we tossed them while moving in. We didn't care so much about how it looked. We had no real plans for it. It was too humid to make much use of safely with the children and with a baby on the way neither of us had the time or the energy to make any real headway in the large room that takes up most of that floor.

What really convinced us to make the time to sort things out was that we finally, truly decided we were staying here for more than a year. We had the opportunity to look into buying a home in the country at what looked to be a fair price. This house, that of my maternal grandfather, was nothing less than my dream house. A six bedroom house on a fairly large piece of land, that has the kitchen of my dreams, a layout I adore for our young family, and plenty of room for my husband to ply his trade as a cabinetmaker and finish carpenter. We could have our own garden, a shed for any animals we'd want to raise, and, perhaps best of all, we would be surrounded by my extended family, whom I have seen far too little of in the past years. In spite of this very overwhelmingly positive prospect, we took it to prayer and found our thoughts turned to staying in the city, in our current home. It wasn't without a twinge of sadness that I let go of the idea of the big country home in which I spent so many summers and holidays. I had to let go of the cheerful front door with a hummingbird captured beautifully in its stained glass window, the true sign that we were at our second home, a place where my grandparents would be waiting for us with expectant smiles and the smell of fresh bread.

So, we decided to stay here. In our cute city townhouse. Four bedrooms, big living area and lots of ugly shag carpet and wacky paint (sorry Dad, but I'm so over the pumpkin orange with green trim in the livingroom. Tuscan villa this ain't). We couldn't help but see so much potential within these four walls. A little paint here, some new flooring there, perhaps a workshop in our basement... And that's when it hit us. If we were really staying here, we couldn't live in complete order upstairs while the downstairs was in complete disorder. To be fair, a lot of items are in the wrong room or even the wrong floor because we had been hesitant to fully unpack. So at last we decided to give in, and in a few short days things started to come together. Suddenly, our basement has furniture that is there with intention. The small room is set up artfully with all of my husband's tools. The main room is starting to take on a very nice atmosphere as either a games room or even a second playroom for these winter days when going outside isn't an option, but a mere change of scenery dispells our cabin fever.

With no regrets, we unpacked our last box this weekend. If this can be home, even just for now, let it be so. No more holding back. If this is where we're meant to be, we will be, living wholly in this moment and, hopefully, enjoying it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Crockpot Leek and Potato Soup

This should be the last in the series of recipes for our 3 week meal plan. I wanted to wait until I made it to put up the recipe. As it turns out I ended up making it up as I went along so the quantities are something you can play with. The soup was creamy, rich, and had layers of flavour!

5 or 6 bacon ends (or as many rashers of bacon cooked and cut up)
4 leeks (cleaned and loosely chopped)
10 potatoes (chopped in cubes)
2 cloves garlic (minced)
6-7 cups broth
1 can coconut milk
Pepper to taste

Sear your bacon ends in a pan then put them in your crockpot. Add your leeks, potatoes, garlic and pepper to the pot. Add enough stock to just cover your ingredients and cook on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 6-8 hours. Your potatoes will be fork tender when it's done. Puree in batches in your blender and then return it all to your crockpot. Whisk in your coconut milk and serve!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Mixed Veggie Egg Drop Soup

When baby girl was born hubby and I practically lived off soup. I would pop the ingredients in the crockpot and know we had a good nutritious meal waiting. Again, this one isn't so much as recipe as a guideline with a few suggestions.

Chop up whatever veggies are in season and fill up your crockpot about 3/4 of the way full. Add any spices you want or if you like, some pre-cooked sausage or bacon. If you want to have a starch, potatoes can go in now but things like rice or pasta will need to be in the last hour of cooking as they expand too much with extensive slow cooking. Fill up your crockpot with the stock of your choice, leaving about an inch at the top so the soup can bubble away. Cook on low for 8 hours. For the second day you can add a little more stock and cook it again for another 4-6 hours.

For the egg drop part of this soup to work it needs to be absolutely piping hot. If it's not, transfer 4 cups of broth from your crock to a pot on your stove top and bring that to a boil. Once it's bubbling away carefully stir in however many eggs you like (I'd go for 4 or even 6 for a meal to last two days). Make sure to break the yolks and lets it all spread about. Your eggs will cook right into the broth. If you've cooked them on the stovetop transfer it back into your crockpot and stir it in so it's evenly distributed. You'll notice the egg adds a really unique and delicious flavour to your soup while adding a kick of protein.

Sausage Meatballs

This isn't really a recipe, more like cooking instructions! The butcher's wife clued me into this amazing meal idea after I bemoaned the fact that I had ruined the handmade sausages I bought from Getaway Meat Mongers the previous week. Because these pre-spiced sausages are hand cased, they're so easy to use in a lot of different ways. All you have to do is gently squeeze and the sausage meat comes right out. At that point you can either shape them into patties and pan fry them, or, as I prefer, form them into several small meat balls. As I recall I got an easy five out of each sausage which was a great because it felt like less went further with each of us getting several. Portion control is in the eyes, as they say. Once I'd formed my wee army of meatballs I put them on a foil or parchment lined cookie sheet and baked them at 350F for about 15-20 minutes. The best way to check them is to make a victim of one of the meatballs and cut it in half to make sure it's cooked all the way through.

Once you've made your meatballs you can serve them on top of pasta with sauce, or with simple sides of veggies and potatoes, rice or even quinoa.

Dijon Spice Pork Tenderloin

This meal is a splurge so when we have it we really love it and savour it. For such a complex tasting dish it's surprisingly easy to prepare. In medium skillet roast 2 tablespoons each whole peppercorns and cumin. You'll know it's ready when the smell of the spices really hits you. Put them on a cutting board and crush them all with the back of your pan. When that's done cover your pork tenderloin with dijon mustard and then roll it in your crushed spices.

Place your fully coated tenderloin on a foil lined cookie sheet and bake at 400F 25 minutes, or until the juices run clear when you pierce it with a fork. Before you pick this delightful little roast up with your bare hands and eat it like a caveman make sure you let it sit for 5 minutes. By doing this you'll let the juices and flavours distribute evenly through the whole tenderloin. Slice into little tranches of meat and serve with seasonal veggies and buttered potatoes.

Shepherd's Pie

I really love Shepherd's Pie. In my opinion it is the King of the Casseroles. It has everything you want: meat, veggies and starch, all in one place with a delightful gravy tying it all together. You can use any ground meat you want, and pretty much any variety of vegetables. You can top it with any kind of potato you want (wowza it's amazing with sweet potato). It's a great way to get a lot of nutrition in one easy place!

1-2lbs ground meat (beef, lamb, chicken, pork, turkey, whatever floats your boat)
1 cup stock (again, whatever kind you like)
Chopped veggies enough to fill your casserole dish
6 cooked and mashed potatoes
Grated cheese (optional)

Brown your meat in a saucepan. Add a slurry of flour and stock to build up a gravy right there in your pan. Put your meat and gravy in an rectangular oven-safe dish. Stir in your chopped up vegetables so they get nice and coated in the gravy too. Top with mashed potatoes and cheese (if desired). Cover with tin foil and bake at 400F for about 40 minutes or until it's warm all the way through. For the kids I like to take their serving and stir it up so they can't get picky and just eat the potatoes or something!

Perfect Pancakes

On the theme of breakfast for supper comes a recipe that's now being enjoyed by the fourth generation of my husband's family. This recipe was passed down from my husband's maternal grandfather, to hubby's father, and now to me. I love this recipe as it's a snap to make and tolerates a lot of variations! My favourite is to add grated cheese (savoury pancakes!), but I also enjoy apple cinnamon nutmeg, blueberry, strawberry and chocolate chips. Let's be fair, you can put whatever you want in this sturdy yet fluffy batter! Each batch makes between 6-8 pancakes, so double as needed. We also try to make a bigger batch so we can have leftovers for the morning. You can either microwave them or, even better, pop them in your toaster!

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg (beaten)
1 1/4 cups milk
2 tablespoon salad oil

Sift together all your dry ingredients in one bowl including any spices you want to add. In a separate bowl combine your wet ingredients. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and stir just until all the flour is moistened. It should look a little lumpy. If you over stir your batter won't be as fluffy when cooked. At this point you can add any other ingredients like fruits, cheese or chocolate. Fry them up on an ungreased pan or griddle. You'll know it's time to turn them when the batter starts bubbling on top. Also, a great tip I learned from baby girl's Godfather: Don't press down on the pancakes after you've turned them. If you push out all that air they won't be so light and fluffy.

French Toast

We're big fans of breakfast for supper in our family. It's a nice way to get a break from heavy meals and a great treat for the kids. We try to do it at least once a week. A real family favourite is French Toast, which I grew up topping with confectioner's sugar, maple syrup, table syrup, molasses, jam or even fresh fruit and whipped cream. I'm drooling just thinking about it. To make this recipe you need some bread. You can use any bread you like, but I love either Homemade White Bread or even better, my Mom's Molasses Brown Bread. I like my bread cut a little thicker because then it doesn't fall apart in the batter! We have an electric frying pan but you can do it in a regular stove-top frying pan. All you'll need to do is soak each piece of bread in the batter, making sure both sides are drenched, then fry both sides in the pan over medium heat until they're golden brown. Here's the recipe for the batter:

Beat 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, and 1 tsp sugar together. I know. Crazy how easy this is! I think I'll have to make this tonight!


Pizza is an easy staple in our family. We do everything from the big round pizza, to muffin cups filled with dough then topped, to personal sized pizzas to calzones. For any one of these variations, you need a good, classic dough! This is my Mom's recipe for pizza dough with yeast. When I'm making my pizza in muffin cups I actually prefer a Yeast Free Pizza Dough that won't rise too much and can be pressed into the muffin cups. My recipe makes enough for 2 medium pizzas, which is great if you're planning on making enough for two nights. For those of you shaking your heads at all the waiting for the dough to rise, I usually do all my preparation for the toppings while the dough is rising so it actually works out nicely and you can have light, fluffy dough that's easy for kids and adults to eat.

Let stand for 10 minutes:
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon dry active yeast

Sift in large bowl:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt

Pour yeast mixture into your flour mixture. Add 1/3 cup lukewarm water and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Mix into a rough ball and then knead it on an oiled board for about 15 minutes (work those biceps!). Your dough should be nice and smooth, if not a little sticky from the oil. Let your kneaded dough rise in a covered bowl until it has doubled in size. (Here's your chance to get chopping on those veggies or pan-frying some bacon!) About now you should start your oven to preheat to 400F. Cut the risen dough in two and roll them out to fit in your pans. Let rise a little more in your pans. Bake just your dough in the pan for 5-10 minutes. This will allow the dough to set nicely without fully cooking it. (This will give you a sense of where air pockets will form too. I usually flatten them down so I can get my ingredients on evenly.) Top it however you like and bake for 10-15 minutes. Your crust should be a beautiful golden brown.

For calzones you'll want to roll them out into roughly the size you want, then fill on one side and fold over in half. Cut 2 or 3 slits on the top and cook on an oiled pan for 15-20 minutes or until your dough is golden and lovely.

Lastly for the muffin cups. I put some cooking spray over the whole pan (because it will bubble up) and then I press the yeast free dough firmly into the muffin cups and fill right into them. After that I simply fill them and cook them for 15-20 minutes until the crust gets lightly browned. These are a big hit with the kids! They just pick them up to eat them!

For those of you who are trying to dump canned goods out of your life, I have a nice alternative! I cut 2 tomatoes up into quarters and drop them in my blender with some spices (like basil, garlic and onion powder) and a little olive oil and blend it until it's just smooth enough. With pizza, less is more when it comes to sauce so whatever you don't use can go in the fridge for another meal. I use this same sauce over pasta took with some hand torn spinach thrown in. I hope you enjoy this meal!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

3 Week Meal Plan

There's been a lot of buzz about the 100 mile diet lately and our family has decided to do our own version of it wherever possible. With that in mind, we've developped a 3 week rotating meal plan for supper based on the local produce that's available this time of year. We will be changing our meal plan in spring and summer based on what's available then. We also hope to sign up for CSA starting in April and working around our weekly food boxes. For now, here's the bare bones of our plan. I will be elaborating with recipes and adding basic pricing as I can.

A basic element of our meal plan involves making most meals to last two nights. This is financially a lot cheaper than creating 7 unique meals. More importantly, I can make a more elaborate meal with a view that I won't have to cook the next night. Our meal plan is 3 weeks instead of 4 because we liked the idea of more rotation so that the first Monday of every month or whatnot isn't always the same thing.

Week 1

Monday & Tuesday: Stir fry (1lb pork or beef stir fry pieces, veggies in season, rice, soya sauce)

Wednesday & Thursday: Butternut Squash Soup

Friday & Saturday: Pizza (homemade pizza dough, hot house tomatoes, veggies in season, bacon and/or sausage)

Sunday: Bacon & eggs with toast (made out of Homemade Molasses Brown Bread)

Week 2

Monday & Tuesday: Beef Stew

Wednesday: French Toast (eggs, milk, sugar and Homemade Molasses Brown Bread)

Thursday & Friday: Shepherd's Pie(1lb-2lbs ground beef, pork or lamb, veggies in season, mashed potatoes on top, and gravy make from homemade beef broth)

Saturday & Sunday: Crockpot Leek and Potato Soup

Week 3

Monday: Pancakes (flour, eggs, milk, oil, sugar)

Tuesday & Wednesday: Sausage Meatballs (8 uncased sausages with seasonal veggies and potatoes)

Thursday: Muffin Pan leftovers (pizza dough pressed into 12 cup muffin pan with leftover meatballs spooned in, covered with sauces and topped with cheese and baked for 15-20 minutes at 400F)

Friday & Saturday: Mixed Veggie Egg Drop Soup

Sunday: Dijon Spice Pork Tenderloin with seasonal veggies and potatoes

That's the plan for now!

Just Another Wednesday

I can see the snow blowing around in whispy clouds out my back window. Oldest girl is drawing at the table. The boys are packing toys in their little ottoman style chairs. Baby girl is bouncing peacefully in her excersaucer. Light and cheerful music drifts through the air. The coffee is drunk. The dishwasher is full and running. (Relative) quiet. (Acceptable level of) peace. Supper is already made for tonight.

I realise that I could go down and start some more laundry. Or even fold the enormous pile of laundry in my bedroom that's growing faster than baby girl. But not yet. Not in this moment. There could be a million pressing tasks begging for my time in the moment, but I am not letting the voice of duty have a say in this moment. The only duty I have right now is to sit back and savour the miracle that is four children, existing in something that one could approximate as harmony. Everyone is clean, fed and occupied...

Oh wait, I see a brawl starting and baby girl is starting up her hungry cry... It was nice while it lasted.