Kitchen Has Food

Every once in a while, generally when I’m running out of ideas or enthusiasm for what to cook, I like to take the kids out to the grocery store and let them pick what we’re going to eat. I do set a few rules, of course, or every time we do this we’d be stuffing our faces with chips or candy — or is Kraft Dinner yet again. Despite my attempts, it rarely ends up being a terribly healthy dinner, but it is always eclectic and different than any time before.

Let’s take this week’s kid-directed meal: mildly spicy grocery store chicken wings (bought frozen and thrown in the oven), garlic bread (made out of homemade bread we already had), and sliced red peppers. It’s honestly not something I would have ever thought to combine as a meal unless I was cleaning out my fridge, but it was actually pretty good!

I’m hoping that this will be a good introduction to grocery shopping, rather than just dragging them along with me when we go out to purchase a large load. While that’s also a necessary evil, I think that what each individual ingredient is for can get lost in the shuffle. I also hope that as the kids get older I’ll be able to assign at least one night every week where they’re in charge of planning and cooking the meal. Right now what they know how to cook is definitely limited, but it’s a progress. I don’t want them sent out into the world without a stable cooking foundation under their feet. As the joke goes, “Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Kitchen has food.”

Disney Princess/Star Wars Mash-Up Photos

I remain astounded by this, but I managed to finish the costumes for Thing 1 and Thing 2 in time for Ottawa Comiccon: Holiday Edition this past Sunday. The costumes were supposed to coordinate with last year’s Frozen/Star Wars Mash-Up so that my friends and I didn’t have to make new costumes. So may I present to you:

Thing 2 as Jedi Tinkerbell! I made her robe using McCall’s M6184: Children’s/Boys’/Girls’ Karate and Scrubs Costumes, but I used green broadcloth as the fabric. I also added two tabards and an obi/sash, which were basically tubes of fabric turned inside out and sewn closed at the end. The tights were Mondor dance tights that I purchased at a steep discount at the Audrey’s Costume Castle fire sale; the wings were from Value Village Halloween stock. I re-used the boots from Thing 1’s Astrid costume, and stuck pompoms on the toes with hot glue. The sparkly pink belt was from the kids’ wardrobe. Oh, and the knockoff “space swords” were cheapies from Walmart.

Thing 1 as Jedi Ariel! Her robe was made using a larger size of the same pattern as Tinkerbell, but in different colours of broadcloth; the tabards and obi were also made the same way as the first costume. I ordered the mermaid scale leggings off of Amazon since I couldn’t find any the right colour in town, and I was extremely lucky when they arrived this past Friday despite the postal strikes (the very last day they could have been in time). The half boots were from Joe on clearance, and the belt came from the kids’ closets. The wig was an inexpensive one from the Walmart Halloween section, and it was the only part of the costume that I was really disappointed with. It didn’t come out of the package looking anything like the picture on the front. Despite trying to style it to look Jedi-ish, it continued to look extremely cheap. I pinned it in about a million spots and it still wouldn’t stay looking halfway decent. I think Thing 1 only wore it for an hour before she gave up on it, and I honestly don’t blame her. Her real hair looked much better anyway.

So here was our Disney Princess Jedi group for this mini con: Tinkerbell, Anna, Ariel, and Elsa. I’m hoping that we can convince more people to join us next year for a group cosplay! It was a lot of fun and the kids especially enjoyed a very enthusiastic reception.

I also took the opportunity at the con to have one of my fave local artists, Emily Griggs of Sweet Ingenuity, do sketches of my girls in their costumes. I almost invariably buy something at her booth at every con I see her at, since her art is so much fun! I was really glad she was taking commissions at this con and had the time to draw my kids. I gotta say, they couldn’t have been more thrilled to see themselves in cartoon form. This art will take pride of place on my wall.

My only regret about this con is that we forgot to go and get pictures outside in the snow! Oh well, we’ll just have to schedule a photo shoot sometime.

Ottawa Comiccon: Holiday Edition Costumes

I was planning on going to Ottawa Comiccon: Holiday Edition this weekend, and of course since I’ll take any excuse to wear a costume, I’ll be dressing up. This year I’ll be bringing the kids along, and they have asked to dress up too! I was really hoping to get us all into coordinating costumes, but as of right now theirs kind of look like this:

Really, I only have 1.25 robes left to make and some accessories, but it still feels like so much! I was pretty lucky that I was able to find most of the elements of the costumes around Halloween — some of the parts were even highly discounted on the after sales. The plan is to work with the Anna Jedi costume that I wore last year. I think I can, I think I can…

Family Sushi Night

One thing we share as a family is that every single one of us loves sushi. However, we do differ as to which one is our favourite — the best bribe ever to use on Thing 1 is salmon nigiri, while Thing 2 is a big fan of a California roll or any maki with shrimp tempura in it, my husband prefers hand rolls (temaki), while I actually like sashimi (just the fish/seafood), possibly with a bowl of rice on the side to fill me up.

That being said, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before now to make sushi at home. I used to do it all the time in high school and as a young adult; I actually hosted a few dinner parties where we all rolled our own sushi. However, it is very time consuming for one person to make a family’s worth, and I guess I just set it aside until I thought the kids were old enough to help me out. But the kids are both old enough now to assemble their own soft tacos or burritos, and sushi uses many of roughly the same techniques, so I thought it was time to give it a go.

Last night I made up a big pot of sushi rice and cut up all kinds of toppings: smoked salmon, cooked shrimp, scrambled egg with a bit of mirin mixed in, cucumber, carrots, and avocado. Then I dug out one rolling mat per person and let everyone assemble their own sushi.

The nice thing about making sushi this way is that everyone can have it just how they like it, although probably not as pretty as they’d like it, that comes with a heck of a lot of practice. I find it surprising that a lot of people around here still assume that sushi automatically equals raw fish, when it’s really all about the vinegared rice. You can top it or roll it with just about anything you’d like. You can even avoid fish or even all animal products altogether, although the purists may take objection to that. But let’s be honest, purists aren’t going to be rolling sushi at home with their six-year-old, they’re going to be paying a very skilled professional chef to create the perfect mouthfuls.

I really liked the combination of the saltiness of the smoked salmon with the sweet egg and the crunch of cucumber.

The egg-and-shrimp roll I made could have used a little more punch; perhaps I should pick up some spicy Japanese mayo for next time?

My husband’s rolls generally turned out nicer-looking than mine, except, of course, when I went to take a picture. His egg, cucumber, and shrimp roll tasted pretty good, though.

After a couple of messy (if tasty) attempts at maki sushi rolls, the girls tried their hands at hand rolls, which are the closest in assembly to a taco, which is where there experience lies.

We had a really good time making and eating this dinner, and I’m starting to think I should have introduced homemade sushi long before now. I loved watching the kids’ faces light up when I told them that we could actually make sushi at home. Not only that, but it’s a pretty healthy meal that’s infinitely customizable. We are definitely going to do this again, and soon. It needs to become a regular thing in my house again.

Halloween Food

One of the things I try to do every year is to send some treats to school with my kids for Halloween. Some years those treats aren’t food, and instead come in the form of seasonal trinkets such as erasers and pencils (especially the stacking point kind because it brings back so many happy memories from my childhood). If I choose to send along food, I prefer for it not to be straight-up candy, since I know that the kids will be getting enough of that when it comes time for trick-or-treating. This year, Thing 2 requested that I whip up another batch of her favourite Graveyard Five-Layer Dip, which was an easy enough wish to grant. But since Thing 1’s favourite thing is, in her words, “chocolate with chocolate in it and chocolate on top,” I had to make something else for her.

I was inspired by Delish’s Pumpkin Patch Brownies for Thing 2’s dish, enough so that I even baked a second batch for her to take to her Girl Guides Halloween party as well. However, I wanted to make the brownies themselves from scratch instead of from a boxed mix. (I generally find that if a boxed mix requires additional eggs, water, and oil, you’re really just paying a lot extra per pound to have someone pre-mix your dried ingredients for you.) I used the Book Club Brownies recipe on page 762 of the Joy of Cooking (75th Anniversary Edition, Rombauer & Becker, 2006). It’s a solid recipe that is based on the Brownies Cockaigne that has appeared in Joy since the original 1931 edition. Since I knew that these brownies would be eaten in a classroom, I opted for making them slightly less messy by not adding the frosting and Oreo “dirt”. Instead, I just traced the “vines” on with green icing and made sure that every square got a pumpkin — since every kid argues about which piece is “better” based on number of toppings.

As can be surmised from my Happy Halloween! post, we also carved our pumpkins this year. In an attempt to waste as little food as possible, I had the girls separate the guts from the seeds while I cleaned out the pumpkins. Then I roasted the seeds with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, on a sheet pan in the oven for about 30 minutes at 300°F (150°C), checking every ten minutes or so. They turned out lovely and will make a wonderfully crunchy, salty snack while they last. It always surprises me how few seeds you get from a single pumpkin! This is the result of five quite large gourds, and it probably won’t last us a week.

Apple Picking

One of the things that we do as a family is go to a local orchard in the late summer or fall to go apple picking. We used to go every year, but since we moved into our current abode we’ve only gone every second year because our own apple tree in the back yard fruits in alternate years. That trend may not continue because our poor tree is quite sick, much to my chagrin, and may have to be cut down next year. It has been losing leaves progressively through the tree all summer, leaving it almost half barren at the moment. If it comes back even a little next spring, we’ll see what we can do to save it. At any rate, it wouldn’t have been an at-home apple harvest this year anyway, so we went to the orchard.

The orchard that we visit specializes in McIntosh apples, which is the most traditional Canadian apple, and Lobos, which are a McIntosh offspring. These apples are good both for eating raw and for cooking. This means that the kids will be packing the smaller ones in their lunches for weeks, while I’ll be turning the larger ones into butter, pies, crumble, and possibly even caramel apple egg rolls.

The day dawned clear and cool, which is perfect for apple picking. The kids did their best work under the low-hanging branches, some of which were so laden that they permanently touch the ground in spots, or are propped up on stakes.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 had special help from Dad to reach some of the taller branches, although most of the trees were too tall to reach the very top.

Between the four of us we ended up with almost forty pounds of apples in about fifteen minutes! You can’t beat apple picking for speed, in comparison to, say, berry picking, which seems to take forever even with plants that are chock-full of fruit. The rest of the kids’ time was spent climbing over defunct tractors, running through the barn, and playing in the park.

This is my favourite picture of the day: Thing 2 running back to us after an employee told her she could pick an apple to eat straight off the tree, no charge. If only we could all still have so much joy in a single apple!

Back to School Lunches

The Tuesday after Labour Day here in Canada means back to school for elementary school students in the public board. For my children, this comes with no little bit of anxiety, but as they get older I think it’s mostly balanced with a healthy dose of excitement. A big part of that excitement, I think, is getting to see their school friends on the regular again. Summer friends, i.e. neighbourhood friends and friends you meet at the park or wherever you’re traveling to, just don’t have the same staying power.

Of course, some of their excitement is purely material. While we don’t do a full back-to-school wardrobe in our house, each kid gets a first-day-of-school outfit (they’re usually identical, since they surprisingly still enjoy that). They also get new indoor and outdoor sneakers, as well as stacks of new school supplies in their favourite colours — mostly because they will have destroyed just about everything from the year prior by the end of June.

Although the kids are responsible for making their own lunches for the most part during the school year, for the first day I will generally do the honours. This year I’m trying to reduce the number of small containers sent to school because so few of them return (or return intact). Instead of lunch bags, this year I bought plastic, sort-of obento-style containers instead. Since everything fits in one box and the dividers don’t have to come out, I’m hoping that this means that less will be lost or left at school.

This year’s back-to-school lunch included:

– chopped pear from my pear tree
– cheese string
– slice of glazed lemon loaf
– nacho-flavoured Goldfish
– salami sandwich on bread machine beer bread

I was inspired by the lunches that I ate while in Japan on an exchange trip back in high school. I’ve seen some great videos on how school children in Japan help prepare and clean up from communal lunches, but that wasn’t a thing where I went (or possibly wasn’t for anyone in the time period I was there, I don’t know). Instead, we all “brown bagged” it, just like we do back here in Canada. The mother of the family usually woke up super early every day to make fresh obento boxes for her family. Mama-san, as she requested I call her, made some absolutely delicious food! I only too photos of two of the lunches; the one above is an assortment of little sandwiches, each one different, and a bottle of iced tea.

(And yes, I was taking pictures of my food even back in high school. Even when I had to pay to have the photos developed and printed. Some things just don’t change.)

And this one was a more stereotypical Japanese obento, with little bits of all kinds of dishes (it was so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what each one was, I just remember it was tasty), and some nori and I think a rice ball on the side.

When the weather was nice — and we were there during a particularly gorgeous spring — we all sat outside, exchange students and hosts and other Japanese students curious about the foreigners. It was a lovely way to spend a lunch hour.

Having had a school lunch in two different countries, and now being responsible for making sure my own children eat healthily at school, I do wonder about this meal in countries I haven’t visited. What do you eat for lunch? (Although I’m told that in some places you call it “dinner”…)

Bean Sprout

At the start of the month, husbeast and I took the kiddos to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. It was a hot, lazy Saturday and we had a hard time getting everyone moving, so we arrived late and didn’t get to spend too much time there before it closed for the day. However, we did get a chance to watch a presentation in the Soil Lab about bees and the role that they play in the life cycle of a plant.

The girls were enthralled as they learned about the life cycle of bees and why they are so important to agriculture. At the end of the presentation, each child was given a bean that they wrapped in a cotton ball, watered with an eyedropper, and placed in a tiny plastic bag. The bags were tied on string loosely around each child’s neck, creating a necklace of sorts.

My children, like so many, have an on-again, off-again love of gardening. They love planting, and watching things sprout, and harvest time, and even weeding, if you can believe it. What they lack is the patience and upkeep that goes between each of these steps. Over the years, they’ve forgotten about many plants which have then died, or have ended up being taken care of by me. So I didn’t have high hopes for these beans. In point of fact, Thing 2 completely forgot about hers and has no idea where it ended up; we’re not even sure it made it home. However, much to my surprise, Thing 1 fed her bean a few drops of water every day and kept it in a cool, dark place for about two weeks. Her attention was rewarded, when seemingly overnight it sprouted! (I suspect that it may have been left to its own design for a couple of days, because it grew right out of the bag before she noticed — but no harm done.)

Thing 1 triumphantly presented me with her baby plant and requested that it be given a proper pot and some soil. I am happy to report that it is doing well and is visibly growing every day. Thing 1 couldn’t be more pleased. I don’t know how much of the museum lecture she will remember in the end, but I’m very happy that she learned the lesson that a bit of work and some patience can have very positive results. If that’s the only lesson she ever learns from gardening in general, then I count it as a win.

Double Chocolate Triforce Cake

Thing 1’s birthday was over the weekend, which of course meant that we had to bake a cake. Since, in my experience, kids love baking cakes, Thing 1 and Thing 2 helped. I also believe that even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, kids really do benefit from cooking with their parents.

Thing 1 requested a “chocolate Zelda cake with chocolate icing”. Since I am not known for my beautiful cakes (my 16th birthday cake being a great example of my skills), I decided to keep it as simple as possible. We used the tried-and-true Amelia Bedelia’s Sheet Cake recipe, which is found at the back of the story book Amelia Bedelia Bakes Off (Herman Parish, 2010). (You can also find the recipe via Desktop Cookbook.) This makes a very rich, moist, dark chocolate cake — which, as a bonus, is tree-nut and peanut free, and can be made vegan (which is great when you have to make cupcakes for school, FYI).


It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.

The kids had gone to bed by the time the cake was cool enough to ice, so it was my turn. I used the Chocolate Satin Frosting recipe from page 796 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition). This recipe is ridiculously easy — since it’s mostly made in a blender or food processor, it’s only slightly more difficult than cracking open a can of pre-made frosting from the grocery store. It’s also a very dark chocolate icing, almost bitter, which is perfect for my little chocolate lover.

I made the Triforce design using a stencil. I went low-tech and drew the pattern with a pencil and ruler on a piece of card stock, then cut it out with scissors. Then I simply held the stencil very closely over the icing and sprinkled on the sugar. The result wasn’t completely perfect, but Thing 1 knew what it was supposed to be. As an added bonus, the coloured sugar added a lovely crunchy topping.

So happy birthday to my fabulous firstborn! I love you so much.

Fresh Tomato Bruschetta

My garden has definitely reached the “overgrown” stage. I sent the girls in to pick some tomatoes, and, well…

I almost lost them!

Just the other day I got what I’d consider my first real harvest of tomatoes (the first three cherry tomatoes didn’t really count, volume-wise). I thought that it was high time to bushwhack into the furrows and pick all of the ripe fruit before it rotted and fell into the dirt.

With Thing 1 and Thing 2’s help, I harvested a number of cucumbers, a bowl of tomatoes of various colours, and a lone eggplant. I did, however, forget that there are thorns on the greens of some kinds of eggplants, and I almost threw it across the room when I pricked myself. Lesson learned.

For dinner that night I wasn’t terribly inspired: just a rotisserie chicken and a pre-made Ceasar salad from the grocery store. But I did make bruschetta with the freshly-picked tomatoes! It’s honestly one of the quickest dishes in my repertoire. Throw tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a dash of olive oil, basil, and some grated parmesan into the food processor. Blitz it for a few seconds until it’s chunky, spread it on some thick slices of nice French or Parisian bread, and pop it in the oven at 350°F until heated and browned. This time, I also added a slice of lactose-free Gouda to the top of each piece of bread (any hard cheese that melts well will do). It’s lovely! As a bonus, it’s a dish that can be made in a toaster oven, i.e. outside where it won’t heat up the house in the dog days of summer.