In the Back Yard

This Sunday was Father’s Day, and our family had the chance to spend the day primarily out on the new back deck. You see, as of two weeks ago our back yard looked like this:

You see, we had a deck when we first moved in, but the previous owners had done everything wrong. They’d tied it into the house, they’d painted it with interior paint, they’d lined the ground underneath with plastic causing water to pool there… So much poor construction. There are all kinds of pictures of the original in my post about building a garden, when I took the old deck out to make room for my vegetable garden. But when that deck was gone, we didn’t have the funds to build a new one right away, so that section just became a mud pit for a few years (the ground here is mostly clay and is slick when wet). My husband used a few salvaged paving stones to keep the barbecues from sinking too badly, but that’s all we were able to do for a while.

Last week, though, my brother-in-law built us a deck. The actual work only took a couple of days, and with all of his experience in the trade he made it look so easy! (It would have taken me a month, and much frustration and swearing.) Not only did he build the deck, but he re-leveled the ground underneath so that now it drains away from the house instead of toward. He also put in gravel with a layer of landscape fabric underneath, creating better drainage and resisting weeds at the same time. (You would think that the lack of sun underneath would keep plants from growing at all, but I have been waging war against an ivy vine since I moved into this house.)

So no more mud pit, proper drainage, and a lovely deck upon which to spend the summer! We’re just waiting on the delivery of some new boards for the stairs so that they match, since I’d salvaged old stair brackets we wanted to use. But for now it’s totally functional, and still beautiful. I am so happy!

Having a brand new lovely deck encouraged me to get off my butt and plant my main vegetable garden, too. My tomatoes actually self-seeded this year — not in those nice straight lines, I picked the best ones and arranged them how I liked. Now we’ll have to see how well they fruit. I also planted white radishes, eggplants, onions, beets, and potatoes. The potatoes are where nothing has sprouted above-ground yet, but I find they can be slow starters.

The weather was so lovely this weekend that we ended up spending most of our time in the back yard. Sunday was especially warm, and I didn’t want to cook indoors, so my husband did the stereotypical thing of grilling up some hamburgers on Father’s Day. It was so nice to be able to just sit outside and enjoy the summer — although there was a fair amount of goofing around too, and my hubby playing soccer with the kids. All in all, it was a lovely, low-key Father’s Day.

Now to plan a nice barbecue for next week so that I can have my BIL over for a thank-you meal!

Easter Celebrations

Our family’s Easter celebrations can happen any time over the long weekend, to coordinate with peoples’ schedules. Barring illness (we’ve had a couple of spring bugs work their way through our family over Easter, so those years nobody much cared about chocolate), though, the Easter Bunny visits after the kids go to bed on Easter Eve, so that there are gifts for the children to find first thing on Easter Sunday.

In our family, the Easter Bunny hides chocolate eggs around the main level of the house, but Easter baskets are put together by Mom and Dad. Although it may look like a lot of stuff, it’s generally dollar-store or thrift-store finds (except for the Skip-It-like toys this year). The downside is that sometimes the gifts aren’t of the highest quality, like the Crazy Eggs (Eights) deck from the dollar store that was entirely spades… Hmm, manufacturer’s flaw much? The toy I thought was the coolest was the Sew Science kits, which provided the materials and instructions for the kids to make their own sewn circuits that really light up. Super cool! I think the kids were most enthused about the K’Nex kits, though.

This year Hubby and I got little Easter baskets as well, although this isn’t always the case. Hubby’s basket was filled with his favourites: Farm Boy fresh jujubes, Twizzlers Nibs, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and Sweet Tarts. I got a big bag of Whopper Robin Eggs, sock yarn, and a cute Peeps lunch box.

Easter afternoon is basically time for everyone to eat chocolate, the kids to play with their new toys, and the adults to prep for dinner. I baked an apple pie using the crust from page 73 of The All-New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001), as usual, and the filling from page 678 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition).

I was actually excited to be able to use my new-to-me Tupperware 12″ Pie Taker for the first time in order to bring the pie to my parents’ place. I was so happy to find this because I usually transport my pies in Ziploc bags, but the top of the bags have a bad habit of getting stuck to the top of the pie. The Tupperware worked much better!

I made hot cross buns again this year (page 37, Baking Bread: Recipes From Around the World for the Complete Home Baker by Audrey Ellison (1995)). I think they turned out much better than last year’s, but I’d forgotten that last year I burned the first batch cooking them at the recommended temperature for the recommended time. I almost made the same mistake again! Luckily, I got them out just in time. I think they should take 12 minutes to bake, max (instead of the recommended 15 to 20 minutes in the book). This year I also used the glaze after baking, and boy was it sweet and sticky! The kids seemed to like it, though.

Mom put on her traditional turkey spread for our family of four, my parents, and their good friends Mrs. and Mr. B. (I guess the more traditional roast would be lamb, but Mom doesn’t like it and since she’s the cook, what she says goes. Mom gave us all the choice between pork and turkey, and we chose turkey.) It was delicious! It included roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash casserole with walnuts, Brussels sprouts, gravy, and… Oh, what am I missing?

That’s right, everybody’s favourite part: Dad’s famous Yorkshire pudding! Dad only used to make this for roast beef meals, and then he’d only make a single batch. In the last few years we’ve managed to persuade him that any roast meat with gravy needs to be paired with Yorkshire pudding, and that a double batch in the bare minimum quantity. They never, ever go to waste.

Of course, my mom set the table with seasonally-appropriate cloth napkins and adorable napkin rings.

I wanted to say thanks again to Mom and Dad for hosting such a delicious meal! And I hope that you all had a lovely Easter — or, for those who don’t celebrate the holiday, a fantastic long weekend!

Happy Easter!

I hope that everyone is having a safe and happy Easter long weekend. It hasn’t been terribly spring-like here yet, with lots of snow still on the ground, but a least we have had lots of chocolate to compensate!

(Those are Whopper Robin Eggs, by the way. The most addictive Easter chocolates known to man, in my personal opinion.)

Happy Easter!

Seasonal School Snacks

I mentioned in my last post that since it’s in season, I wanted to do more cooking with maple syrup over the next little while. Well, after reading a book about kids learning to cook, Thing 1 has been bugging me to make fruit leather with her. Since fruit leather is just pureed fruit that has been dried, I figured why not? Also, it’s a great way to use up an overabundance of fresh fruit (not really a problem here in the spring) or the fruit that you’d forgotten about in the freezer (more of an issue of mine right now).

My parents actually used to make fruit leather and dried fruit for my brother and I when we were kids. This was the era of the Fruit Roll-Up, but my brother’s sensitivity to corn (and hence corn syrup) made most versions of this store-bought snack inadvisable. Actually, the dehydrator that I’m using now is exactly the same one we used when I was a kid; my parents let me have it when they realized they hadn’t used it since my brother and I moved out.

The instructions for the dehydrator recommend that if you’re going to use a sweetener when making fruit leather, you should “use corn syrup, honey or fruit juice instead of granulated sugar which tends to crystallize”. We’ve discovered that maple syrup actually makes a great, all-natural sweetener for fruit leather that does not crystallize — and it adds a lovely flavour as well.

As an aside, if you don’t have a dehydrator, you can make fruit leather in the oven by drying it out at 200°F (93°C) for eight hours or so… But a dehydrator is a much smaller machine and uses a lot less electricity, so if you’re going to make fruit leather often, I’d recommend buying a purpose-built machine.

This is also the week leading up to Easter, which in our family means at the very minimum it’s time to dye some eggs! The kids like to take hard-boiled eggs to school in their lunches, so I made up a dozen for the week.

I used food colouring to dye the eggs vibrant, food-safe colours. There are all kinds of kits out there for dyeing and decorating Easter eggs, but a lot of them aren’t intended for consumption afterwards, so I like to stick with food colouring. The kids may decorate more eggs over the long weekend, though, and those will probably be with paint and glitter. They might be old enough to blow out the eggs to create permanent ornaments this year. Well, I know that Thing 1 is, but Thing 2 is not always as gentle as her big sister… And empty eggshells are mighty easy to smash.

The nice thing about blowing out eggs for decorating is that you can save the yolks and whites and make lovely scrambled eggs, or breakfast burritos, or tamagoyaki (either by itself or in sushi), or egg drop soup. This way, no part of the egg would be wasted. I have to admit, wasting food is a pet peeve of mine. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but all efforts should be made not to, you know?

Tie Dyed Pillow Cases

Tie dyeing with the kids is really something that I prefer to do in the summer when I can throw the kids outside in their bathing suits (which are synthetic and don’t absorb dye) to minimize the mess indoors. This time of year, with temperatures hovering around freezing and snow still covering the ground, that’s not exactly an option. Instead, the girls worked in their bathing suits and socks (warm feet are important) in the kitchen, over the metal sink, and we hoped for the best.

In the spirit of keeping things as cheap as possible, we used fabric we already had — four old, plain cotton pillow cases. We also bought the dye at the dollar store. So far, this are the cheapest kits I’ve found locally, with even Walmart’s selection starting at about $11.00 for a two-colour Tulip-brand kit that only makes three items. For six colours, you’re looking at upwards of $25.00. At Dollarama, they sell their own Crafts brand three-colour kits for $4.00 apiece, and we bought two in different colours. But would these kits work as well as the more expensive ones we’d tried?

When it comes to the supplies included in the kit, I found that they were more or less the same as other brands. They contained everything we needed except the water and the plastic to wrap the fabric as it sat, which is standard. Slightly higher quality gloves would have been appreciated, since they did leak and now the kids have splotches on their hands in places, but that seems to be standard too (just like the ones that come with hair dye). The instructions were clear and concise, and even had a brief photo tutorial for how to make different kinds of designs. We used the spiral (left) and bullseye (center and right) techniques on the kids’ pillowcases. (If you need more information about how to tie dye there are a million sites out there, but the Tulip site has some great tutorials that will work with any brand of dye.)

The kit did contain soda ash, which is necessary to pre-treat the fabric to retain vibrant colours. However, the directions did say that the dyes could be used without pre-treatment, but they would come out more pastel. I let the kids choose between waiting a bit longer to dye so they could have bright colours, or to do it right away and have lighter colours, and not surprisingly they chose to go with the route that required the least amount of patience. Despite the dire warnings of the packaging and articles online, after the first rinse the colours remained vibrant (above).

After a run through the washer and dryer, the colours did fade a bit, and I expect that they will continue to do so throughout their lifetime, but I remain happy with the final product. The kids are thrilled (according to Thing 1, the pillow cases are “Awesome!”), and since the project was for them, I say it was a success. (Bottom left and top right were done in the spiral techniques, top left and bottom right were done using bullseye — more techniques here.)

I will say one thing, though: each package of three colours claims that it contains enough dye for up to eight T-shirts. I guess that could technically be true, if you were to use very small shirts, and if you didn’t want a lot of colour saturation or variation in your design. Two packs, for us, did four very saturated single-bed-sized pillow cases (which I would say are about the same size as a small adult T-shirt), with enough left over to do maybe one more. That’s five items out of two packs of dye, when it claims we could make sixteen items. So keep that in mind when you decide how many items to prep. Even so, that’s five items in six colours for $8.00, compared to Walmart’s three items in two colours for $11.00, so Dollarama remains the cheapest place in town to buy supplies for tie dye crafts.

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.

Pancake Tuesday

Mardi Gras isn’t really a thing around here, although I’d love to head down to New Orleans some day to celebrate it. However, my family does have British history, and hence strong cultural ties to the Anglican church. As such, when I was growing up we honoured Shrove Tuesday, which immediately precedes Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) — although perhaps “honoured” is stretching things a bit. We never sought out the church in order to obtain absolution for our sins on Shrove Tuesday, and we didn’t give up certain foods for Lent. What we did do was make a point of serving pancakes on Pancake Tuesday. As you can see, the celebration for us, such as it is, was much more secular than religious. It’s kind of like how many people celebrate Christmas without ever going to church.

I’ve decided to keep the tradition alive with my children by cooking pancakes for dinner every year on this day (when I remember). It’s not like this is the only time we have pancakes, after all. This year I served it covered in a mound of freshly-prepared fruit salad that included green grapes, blueberries, honeycrisp apples, oranges, bananas, and strawberries. As winter drags on, these pops of colour and flavour are welcome additions to our diet. That being said, every single one of these items is an import (except maybe the apples, which store well), so the fruit commands a premium price.

I used my Spiced Pancake Recipe for the pancakes themselves, since they’ve become quite a hit in my household of late. There were all kinds of sweet toppings available: whipped cream and non-dairy whipped cream substitute, black currant syrup, elderberry syrup, maple syrup, caramel syrup, and icing sugar. I had mine with elderberry syrup and non-dairy whipped cream substitute. It was delicious! I made a bit extra for the kids to reheat in the morning for breakfast, too, which makes our morning that much easier — and tastier.