Family Day Chicken Dinner

Yesterday was Family Day, which is neither a religious nor a festival holiday. Rather, it is mostly an excuse to have a day off in February (a month with no other statutory holidays in Ontario) when you are nominally supposed to spend doing fun things with your family. This year I didn’t even get to spend it with my entire household, since my husband was off to Sweden on business, the lucky duck. I’ve never had a job where they flew me halfway around the world to attend meetings, I’ll tell you that right now. So while he was visiting the Arctic Circle…

And driving on ice roads…

And eating smoked moose and visiting fortresses, I am here at home with the kids. I might just be a little bit jealous.

(From his photos, Sweden during the winter looks a heck of a lot like it does here in Canada, so I’m not as jealous as I might be if he were in the Bahamas or something. And to be fair, the only time he had to go explore was the weekend, since he is working. I’m trying to talk my way out of jealousy here, and it’s not working very well.)

I’d hoped to take the kids to Winterlude and possibly skating on the canal, but it’s been unseasonably warm since Sunday and it started pissing down rain about halfway through Monday. So instead we went to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum for the afternoon. The highlight was all of the baby animals — most of whom, like the calf above, didn’t want to stay still long enough for a good picture. But the kids were thrilled to be able to pet the sheep and the goats and the calves, so it was a win. The calves were big favourites, since they were very sociable and leaned right into a good scratch. A few of them made my kids laugh by licking their hands and arms; I’m not sure whether they were looking for food, or tasting salt, or just investigating, but by the time we were out of the cow barn all of our winter coats needed a wash. After raising children and small animals, cow slobber doesn’t bother me that much, but that doesn’t mean I want to be wearing it any longer than I have to!

Given that we were out and about well after I’d usually be starting dinner, I needed something easy to feed the family when we got home. In the oven, I reheated the Costco rotisserie chicken that I’d bought the day before. I pricked a few potatoes with a fork and microwaved them until they were soft for easy “baked” potatoes. And then I steamed some spinach. Not the fanciest meal in my repertoire, but we had all worked up an appetite from our adventures, so it went down well.

Ice Storms

Freezing rain happens every winter here in Ottawa. The temperature will be steadily below freezing for a while, freezing the ground and all exterior surfaces, and then we’ll get a day or two of warmer weather that brings rain. The rain freezes when it comes into contact with those cold surfaces, turning immediately to ice. This encases everything outdoors in a slick coating that can make driving or even walking extremely dangerous. Most of the time, the ice doesn’t end up being very thick, and it can be dealt with by a generous coating of road salt and sand. Often, it’ll bring on a snow day (the schools stay open, but the buses are cancelled). Then the weather will shift again and either melt the ice or snow over it.


Photo taken by one of my parents.

Twice in my life I can remember the weather going from “freezing rain” to “ice storm”. The difference is really a matter of scale; we don’t call it an ice storm until the coating of ice is thick enough to damage trees and power lines. The first one I remember was in 1986, pictured above. That’s my little brother and I taking a slow and careful walk around the neighborhood we lived in at the time. It wouldn’t have been a snow day, since the storm occurred over the Christmas break (not that my brother was old enough yet to be in school anyway). I even found an old news broadcast in the CBC Digital Archives.


My parents’ Neon after the 1998 ice storm.

The second ice storm that I remember happened in from January 4th to 10th, 1998. I’m vastly understating the case when I state that this was a much bigger deal. The ice coating was so thick that the weight crumpled enormous hydro pylons, in addition to downing power lines, trees, and tree branches (which then took down power lines, smashed cars, and wrecked roofs of homes and outbuildings). Roads were shut down, over one and a half million people were without power; 945 people were injured and 35 lost their lives (Source: Historica Canada). The storm damage cost billions of dollars to repair. It is considered one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.


This birch was bent almost double by the weight of the ice, then the ice froze the branches to the ground.

We were very, very lucky because of where we were living at the time. First of all, we didn’t get as much precipitation as some other areas, which received up to 100mm. That alone saved much of our area. We were on a relatively-new residential street, so the power lines were buried underground. Because we were in a city, even though the power cut out often, it never went out for long. Also because the neighborhood was relatively new, we didn’t have any massive trees that, when downed, could do much damage. Sure, many people lost their trees (or had to trim them back severely), and some fell across the roads and had to be cleared, but nothing was growing tall enough to fall on peoples’ roofs, for example.


An ice-coated park near where we lived at the time.

We were also very lucky that we had a well-stocked freezer and pantry, so we didn’t have to travel until the roads were safe again. We went for a walk on Day 2, which is when I took the photographs, but we only made it to the end of our street before we turned back, worried that we might slip and fall and be injured. Emergency vehicles were having just as tough of a time with the roads as everyone else, so you were in real trouble if you got hurt.


My mom looking through frozen branches.

It was something like two weeks that the schools were closed — and I mean fully closed, not just “snow day closed”. Nobody was going anywhere. Some of my friends, who lived outside of town, stayed out of school longer because their roads were not yet safe, they had no power, and they had to feed the fireplace to keep their houses from freezing.


Branches and berries under the ice. I think this photo is right-side-up.

The reason I am writing about these ice storms is twofold. Firstly, it’s almost exactly twenty years since the 1998 ice storm, an event which had great repercussions along an west-east path of something like 500km. If you lived in the area that the storm affected, and were old enough to have memories of that year at all, you remember the Ice Storm of 1998.


This bush collapsed almost entirely over the fence, weighed down by the ice stuck to its branches and leaves.

Secondly, we had freezing rain yesterday morning, although it was warm enough for most of it to melt later in the day. Overnight it rained, and then this afternoon it is supposed to go below freezing again so that everything will freeze up. The temperature is supposed to drop until it’s back to more seasonal norms, falling over 20 degrees Celsius in twenty-four hours. We’re supposed to get a combination of rain, freezing rain, and snow. I really hope that this doesn’t end up being a proper ice storm. I wouldn’t be at all surprise if we get frost quakes, though.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

I finally started to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit this weekend, probably because on Friday afternoon my yard looked like this:

And by Sunday it looked like this:

Many of my friends and family bemoaned the precipitation and freezing temperatures, but I always like a bit of snow before Christmas. A green Christmas just isn’t very Christmas-y to me. That being said, it’s supposed to go up to 9°C (48.2°F) on Tuesday, so it’s not like this is going to last.

It really put me in the mood for Christmas shopping, though. Unlike in the States, where the holiday buying season appears to officially start as soon as the clocks strike midnight the day after American Thanksgiving, we don’t really have a traditional time to begin. Some people shop all year ’round. Some companies put out their Christmas merchandise at the same time as they’re building their Halloween displays (which is a little early to me, but oh well). For me, all of the Halloween debris has to be cleared away and there has to be some snow on the ground for me to feel like shopping for gifts — although I have been known to pick things up six months in advance if the opportunity arises at a great price.

I went with my mother, Thing 1, and Thing 2 to a number of craft fairs on Saturday, but one of my perennial favourites was the one held at Cairine Wilson High School. It’s a huge fair; it packs full the big gym, the little gym, the hallways, and the cafeteria. Given the number of booths, I’m bound to find something that I know someone will like.

But even if I don’t find the perfect gift for someone, it’s a lot of fun to check out the wares of local craftspeople. This is one of the few times of year that a lot of these people make their work available to the public; many craftspeople work all year by themselves to make enough stock for one or two holiday shows.

After hitting a few craft fairs, we rushed home so that the kids could get changed into their uniforms and we could drive out to Epiphany Anglican Church where the Girl Guides’ Holiday Tea is held every year. Since I’d gone to all of the effort of baking brownies for the tea, I pretty much had to attend. It’s always a lovely time, with such cheerful little servers and so many delicious treats on which to nosh.

I may have kind of taken a picture of some of the sweets for our table after I’d already nabbed the chocolate ones. Just maybe. I think that the next to go was that shortbread on the bottom right, since I’m a sucker for those too.

Cumberland Farmers’ Market — Harvest Market

Not this past Sunday but the Sunday before (October 1st), I headed out to the Cumberland Village Heritage Museum for the Harvest Market. This farmers’ market is usually held on Saturdays from mid-June to mid-September in front of the R.J. Kennedy Community Centre. This was a special, end-of-season event, though, so it was held at a larger, more interesting venue. As a bonus, admission to the museum was free! My kids were thrilled, especially Thing 1, who had visited the museum with her class and was excited to show it all to her little sister. My husband headed with the children toward the heritage and reproduction buildings from the 1920’s and 30’s (with special attention paid by the girls to the farm animals). I, on the other hand, got a chance to enjoy the beautiful weather and peruse the market for a short time on my own, which was lovely.

The aisles were teeming with shoppers:

The stalls, as always, featured interesting locally-made seasonal items, arts, crafts, and food:

In the top right background of the photo above, there was a vendor with really fantastic bibbed kitchen aprons made from vintage patterns. Honestly, they looked more like dresses than most of my actual dresses! I really wish I’d picked one up, or at least taken their card so I could find out where they’re going to be for the Christmas season. I’ve actually started using aprons lately to save my clothes, and it would be nice to have a pretty one.

Of course, then there was the produce:


I like the use of an old wicker papasan chair frame as a giant display basket.

I came home with one of the pumpkins from the above display, as well as an ambidextrous bow bread knife for easier slicing of my homemade bread. The pumpkin was turned into pumpkin pie, pumpkin tarts, and pumpkin bread for Thanksgiving this past weekend. I can’t think of a better end for local produce.

The Cumberland Farmers’ Market season is now over, but still to come is the annual Christmas Market on Saturday, December 2nd from 9:00am to 4:00pm. This market will be held at four locations in Cumberland (I’m guessing so that all of the vendors can set up indoors): 1115 Dunning Road, 2620 Market Street, 2557 Old Montreal Road, and 2655 Old Montreal Road. If I’m lucky, maybe the vendor with the lovely vintage-style aprons will be there!

Milkweed

When I was a kid, one of the big things we did as a family was go for nature walks. In the woods, in the wetlands or fields, it didn’t matter, so long as we went and explored. Sometimes my parents would drive us quite some distance to check out the local scenery. Sometimes we stayed within minutes of home. As I grew older, I was allowed to roam with other children or on my own.


Me carrying Bud, my friends’ rescued pigeon, through the woods on a walk near the friends’ parents’ cottage. I was about 11 in this photo.

In retrospect, I never went all that far from wherever my parents were, but I reveled in the freedom of exploring on my own. My favourite time to explore was in the fall when the milkweed pods were dried out and bursting. I loved picking the pods and freeing all of the seeds and the silk. Flinging handfuls of silk into the air was akin to blowing on a giant dandelion.


Milkweed flowers; I’m pretty sure the kind commonly found around here is either common milkweed or prairie milkweed.

I’ve only discovered recently that parts of milkweed are also edible. From page 183-184 of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat Ellen Zachos, 2013):

There are a lot of misconceptions about milkweed passed around in books and online. Some people claim it’s bitter; others say it’s downright poisonous. Correctly harvested and prepared, it is neither. […] Here’s what you need to know. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. The shoots, flower buds, and pods of milkweed should be boiled, or blanched and then cooked to completion in a second way. It’s not necessary to boil in three changes of water, as some people believe. However, cooking in water takes away the milky latex (not pleasant to eat), which is why I recommend blanching, even if you choose to cook the milkweed in a different way. […] Also, mature milkweed foliage can indeed be bitter and should be stripped from the young shoots before cooking. If cooked, the large leaves will impart their bitterness and obscure the taste of the milkweed stems, which would be a crying shame.

This book goes on to identify the best practices for collecting and preparing shoots, flower buds, flowers, and young seedpods. There is also a tempting recipe for milkweed flower syrup on page 212.


Immature milkweed seed pods.


Immature milkweed seed pods opened.


Immature milkweed seed pods interior. This pod was over 1.5″ long, so probably too old to eat, but it was still fully white inside.

My copy of The Edible Wild: A complete cookbook and guide to edible wild plants in Canada and North America (Berndt Berglund & Clare E. Bolsby, 1971) also has a section on milkweed starting on page 53:

The young shoots of milkweed may be boiled in the spring. The older stems are too acid and milky for use, but the very young seed pods are excellent when cooked. […] The young seed pods, no larger than a walnut, I usually fry in fat of any kind. If I have a little flour, I mix this into the fat and make a stew of the pods.


Mature milkweed pod, much too old for eating.


Milkweed silk.

The Edible Wild has recipes for:

– milkweed pods soup
– cream of milkweed pods soup
– young milkweed pods, blanched and buttered
– milkweed stalks and wild onions in sour cream
– milkweed stalks with ham and cheese
– steamed and buttered milkweed stalks
– young milkweed stalks braised with wild onions
– glazed milkweed stalks
– stewed milkweed pods with frogs’ legs
– baked milkweed stalks omelet
– steamed milkweed stalks with brandy butter
– milkweed pods and chicken pie

Obviously, the authors have had to have eaten a lot of milkweed to come up with these recipes, which gives me confidence to try it out myself. I am often a little bit wary of foraging plants without an expert in the subject showing me what to do. Perhaps I can find someone local who is willing to teach me, and then I will try out the milkweed pods and chicken pie, which looks delicious. I may skip out on the frogs’ legs, though.

Despite all of the culinary potential of milkweed, I still find this plant at its most appealing when it’s at its least edible. I love it when there are fields so thickly coated with bursts of silk that it looks like the first snow of the season.

Milkweed is such a part of my childhood that I was very surprised when I started talking about it to a relative from the Sudbury area, and they’d never heard of it. While it’s thick on the ground around Ottawa, apparently the conditions aren’t right for it to grow further north. I guess it was silly of me to assume that every Ontarian’s childhood included milkweed. I hope that they at least had cattails! (Parts of which are also edible, by the way.) In the fall, once the plants have started to dry out, a cattail’s flower head explodes wonderfully into a mess of seeds and fluff when rubbed on a hard surface. It’s not quite as satisfying as cracking open milkweed pods, but it’s close.

MosaïCanada 150

This past week I took the kids to MosaïCanada 150, which is a massive garden installation in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. The exhibition is being held in Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau, Québec (right across the river from Ottawa) from June 30th to October 15th, from 10:00am to 7:00pm. And it’s free! Well, the garden is, but parking isn’t.

The girls and I took a picnic lunch and stayed for a couple of hours, much to their delight. As a family we really do enjoy playing tourist, even in our own city. We ended up with perfect weather! I took what seems like a million pictures, but I’ve narrowed it down to my favourite pieces and the ones that resonate the most with my heritage.


Canada 150: A Powerful Symbol


Engine CPR 374

I’ve always loved trains.


Anne of Green Gables (waiting at for the train at the station)

I loved the Anne of Green Gables books as a child, and I faithfully watched the televised version with Megan Follows with my parents. I haven’t had a chance to check out the new version; although I’ve heard good things, I don’t know if it can compare in my mind with the nostalgia that the old version induces.


The Lobster Fisherman

I don’t know that any of my ancestors were lobster fishermen, but they’re iconic to the East Coast, where my family is definitely from.


The Canadian Horse

My girls loved this sculpture the most. They pointed out to me that it greatly resembles the scene at the end of The Last Unicorn where the unicorns emerge en masse from the sea. I particularly liked the use of grasses for the mane, which flowed in the breeze.


The Prospector (panning for gold)

We spent a lot of time in elementary school learning about the Klondike Gold Rush. I especially liked how the fountain in this piece added motion as the prospector “washed” his pan.


The Voyageur

Similarly, I remember many lessons on the French-Canadian Voyageurs.


Mother Earth: The Legend of Aataentsic

I have to admit, I’m not familiar with The Legend of Aataentsic, but Mother Earth and Mother Nature are stories told all over the world in different forms. I was especially impressed by this sculpture, which was the crowning glory of the exhibition. No other display was done on such a grand scale, or with such flow and attention to detail.


Mother Earth: The Legend of Aataentsic


Mother Earth: The Legend of Aataentsic

If you’re in the Ottawa/Gatineau region before October 15th, I highly recommend visiting the MosaïCanada 150 garden. I hope to be able to go back again in the fall once the leaves have started to change colour; I expect it will be gorgeous.

A Walk in the Woods

A few days ago at the cottage, the rain started at something like 6:00am and didn’t let up for another twelve hours. This wasn’t a warm, soft, summer rain that invites you to go puddle stomping. No, it was a cold, drenching downpour complete with thunder and lightning; it was a preview of fall. There were a few short breaks throughout the day, but the storm didn’t let up entirely until just before sunset. After a long day inside, my parents, my kids and I couldn’t wait to get out for a walk.

Small streams and even miniature waterfalls had sprung up in the aftermath of the storm, draining all of the water that the ground couldn’t absorb towards the lake. It’s been such a wet summer that the ground became saturated extremely quickly. The girls couldn’t have been happier, though, because this meant puddles and rivulets to splash in. Frogs were out in force, coming out into the damp after the rain to catch the evening mosquitoes.

Of course, monkey see, monkey do. Thing 1 and Thing 2 insisted on bringing along some of my old cameras so that they could take pictures on our walk as well. I can think of worse things about me to imitate.

Note that the girls are covered as much as physically possible by clothing. The bugs were really bad on that walk, what with a combination of the sun going down and the rain letting up.

As so many of our nature walks do, this turned into an educational session. We identified as many birds as we could, even though I’m no birder. The bluejays, chickadees, and wrens flitted from tree to tree in front of us, and a flock of wild turkeys crossed the lawn in front of someone else’s cottage. We identified as many plants as we could as well, in my case focusing on the edible wild plants that I recognized. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, but I am eager to learn. We did find a whole bunch of what I had always been taught were a variety of wild raspberry along the side of the road, and we picked a few ripe ones to eat. I’ve learned that these are actually called thimbleberries. I mean, I knew that they were edible, but for years I had been giving them the wrong name.

We also found a small blackberry thicket, and of course we had to pick every ripe berry we could reach. It ended up being only a couple of handfuls, but I wasn’t wearing the right gear to venture into the center of the patch. I was pricked enough by the thorns just reaching in past the edge. It was totally worth it, though, and I have mentally marked the area for future pilfering.

As we walked back to the cottage, a mist began to rise from the clearings and low-lying areas as the temperature rose very briefly before sunset.