Friday, February 24, 2012

My Thomas the Tank Engine Dilemma

By guest blogger Daniella Fast 

It was not an all-star mom moment: holding my nine month old while dragging my screaming two-and-a-half year old out of a friend's house.  A month later my friend's little boy still remembers when "Thaniel" didn’t want to go home.  Nathaniel had been having way too much fun with the Thomas the Tank Engine train set table; it even had Cranky the crane. Maybe my timing for making an exit was off, maybe he was extremely exhausted, or maybe my little boy was experiencing the first stages of toy obsession.

Before having children, my husband and I spent a year abroad experiencing the world. One of our stops was in Northern Kenya in a small village called Gatab. My husband made a trip with a German doctor to Nolpilipili, a neighbouring village a day's hike away. Their task was to complete a water line that would eliminate the village mamas' burden of walking an entire day to fetch water. Knowing that there was a schoolhouse in the village, my husband and the doctor decided to bring a new soccer ball for the children. Immediately after the ball was handed over a full blown soccer match ensued. That one ball brought a day of laughter and enjoyment to those children.

After Kenya we flew to Ethiopia, landing in the capital, Addis Ababa. As if this wasn't far enough from home already, we proceeded to travel north for two weeks to the village of Debark. From here we took a day’s drive to a tiny village near the Simien Mountains and trekked 10 hours into the mountains on foot to find ourselves right in the middle of nowhere. Here, our group was greeted by children playing a simple game of "Bao". Their game board was two parallel lines of holes dug into the ground and their game pieces were rocks. I won’t get into how the game was played, the point is that it kept the children entertained for hours: a simple game played with a handful of rocks.

Getting back to my screaming little boy…. He didn't want to leave that day because he was excited by the toys that his friend’s house had to offer. Making matters worse in my mind, he often requests to go to his friends' houses because he loves their array of trucks, ride-on toys, and train sets. It saddens me that he isn’t content with what he has, especially after seeing how little other children have. I realize that we live where we live and I also, as a teacher, understand that toys develop physical, cognitive, and emotional processes. However, one still needs to stop and think about where the line is between materialism and encouraging developmental skills via toys. On one hand, I want my child to learn and develop; on the other hand, I don’t want to foster selfishness and discontent with what he has. 

I hope that over time I can help my little guy leave someone’s house content with the time he had playing with their toys. I want him to know that it’s not the toys that he takes with him that will give him joy. I want him to know that he has a creative mind capable of entertaining himself wherever he is, with whatever he has. The photo on the right shows three African boys I met on the coast of Zanzibar – it has a prominent place on my family room wall. I found these boys using scraps of garbage they gathered on the beach to build an amazing, fully functioning sailboat. They are daily reminders to me to teach contentment and simple creativity to my children.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Tonight's dinner brought to you by my baby, my BFF, and my pantry. I try to keep my cupboards stocked with the requisite handy items and sometimes I like to challenge myself to cook without buying anything new to complete the meal. Tonight I was inspired by my 6 month old (I wanted him to try yams - of course, I mean orange sweet potatoes - for the first time), my best friend (who recently told me about the deliciousness of the unlikely pairing of yams and avocado), and my pantry (which had been home to a lone can of crab for way too long). Dinner turned out to be twice baked potatoes with crab and avocado and a side of asparagus.

Cheesy Crab Stuffed Yams

Roast 4-6 yams, 45min in 400 oven.

Meanwhile saute:
1/2 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 tsp thyme
3 cloves garlic, crushed

When fragrant remove from heat and add:
1 can of crab meat
1/4 tsp grated or powdered ginger

Remove yams from oven, slice in half and scoop innards into a second bowl. Reserve skins on baking sheet.

Mash or whip potatoes with a few dollops or butter, sour cream, yogurt, milk or some cobination of the above until desired "mashed potato" consistency is reached.

Fold in the crab mixture and scoop back into yam skins.

Sprinkle with grated cheese and paprika. Bake until heated through and broil to brown cheese. Add a few slices of avocado for garnish and voila - dinner.

Friday, February 17, 2012


I have a few soups up my sleeve; this sounds messier than it is. You see, despite my husband's grumbles and recurring statement upon seeing soup for supper, "What's the main course?", I make and eat and love soup.

What follows used to be a plain broccoli spinach soup recipe that is now kitchen sink soup that's more appetizing than that makes it sound. This is the soup I make when I feel like we didn't eat enough veggies the day before or when I just want a tasty, quick dinner I know my 2 year old will gobble up.

Eat Your Greens Soup

Saute in olive oil:
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery or 2 leeks, sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced

8 cups of a combination of chicken or veg stock, potato cooking water, pureed squash, leftover mashed sweet potatoes, et cetra (this is the kitchen sink part)
2 heads of broccoli, cut into florets
2 fresh tomatoes, diced or equivalent canned tomatoes
1/4 cup parsley, chopped

Simmer as long as it takes you to wash the one bunch of spinach and remove stems (15-30 minutes depending on child interference).

1 bunch spinach leaves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cardamom

Remove from heat and puree as much or little as you like.

Optional additions (it's good with all of the following or just one):
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 can cannellini beans
1 tsp basil pesto
Romano cheese, grated for garnish

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All Scrabbled Up

I am fond of the dictionary. I really like Balderdash. I like words and puns and palindromes and double meanings and double negatives and onomatopoeia. Learning the spelling of someone's name helps me remember it. I grew up playing Boggle. All this, and Scrabble is just not my game.

Which brings me, somewhat tangentially, to a confession: back in my university days I consorted with pseudo-hipsters. You know the type: not truly hip - they didn't do enough drugs or call themselves poets - but kind of hip because they owned a trumpet, wore mis-matched socks, and every one of their seven jackets came from a thrift store. These folks often answered "I try to write" when asked what they did as if claiming they actually did write was too committal but telling the truth ("I'm an unemployed English major") was just too lame to admit.

To return to my opening statement, let me take you back to one fateful night ten years ago when I found myself in a Montreal pub surrounded by my pseudo-hip acquaintances. (To be sure, I was never one of them I just liked to marvel at their aloof indifference from a nearby perch or perhaps I was the pseudo-ist of them all.)

I had just ended what seemed like a serious relationship and was looking for distraction, and so when half the crowd went home to bed I stayed on for one last pitcher of beer with the stragglers. As the last of too many drinks entered my system someone brought up Scrabble and the next thing I knew we were on the Metro zipping towards an unfamiliar third story walk-up on the eastern Plateau for a friendly bout of late-night word games.

I grew up looking the other way when my mother and older sister would play Scrabble, being drawn more to the simple racket of Boggle (likely because, being the younger sister, I could not compete on their level). In retrospect, I think I must blame my mother for the biting embarrassment of what was about to unfold in that Montreal apartment for she allowed me to play Boggle past the age when I should have graduated to Scrabble.

So there I was, quickly drawing nearer to one of my most mortifying moments in my young, pseudo-hip life, a game of Scrabble that awaited me at the home of that trumpet-toting boy who tried to write. In that moment on public transit I was thinking, "I am competitive. I am a wordsmith. I am a word nerd. I can spell. I was voted 'future Shakespeare' in my high school year book". Perhaps it was the heady medley of beer, youth, and a partial post-secondary education that allowed me to think I could hold my own among true Scrabblers - oh my transparently pretentious young mind.

By the time we settled around the table and chose our sweet, little featherweight letter tiles I knew I was in over my head. It took me ages to come up with words out of a toddler's board book to play alongside their "jukebox" and "quartz".

On my lonely walk home in my vintage coat and mis-matched mittens I thought maybe I might pick up the banjo.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It's a Cell World After All

Now I've done it; I've gone and joined the cellular revolution. Having been an early bloomer in other areas of my life, I'm content with having been a late cell phone adapter. And I'm only, what, a decade behind the times? I skipped the dim-witted phone era and went straight to a smartphone just in time for the health scare era.

I know I'm supposed to keep my phone on me in order to hear its dulcet ringtones and feel its telltale text message tremble, but with health organizations around the world advising limited use and arms length distancing from wireless devices, I'm not quite ready to cozy up to my new friend.

Getting a cell phone did feel inevitable. Like joining Facebook or having a second child, I knew sooner or later it would happen to me.

When I worked full-time (outside the home I should add) I loved that I couldn't be reached on my days off; I never had to make up an excuse why I couldn't cover for someone; I simply couldn't be reached if I wasn't home. With a cell phone I'm going to have to be much less passive in declining social engagements or delaying my response to messages. Already I find myself feeling the need to return a text message instantly, if only my thumbs could keep up.

It's not you, it's me.
I've already experienced some of the painful side effects of adopting cell phone use. First, I've rendered my beloved wristwatch useless. Second, I've had a thumb cramp. And last, I missed a neat thing my son did as I was trying to figure out an app. And so, as someone who's been learned most of what I know about cell phone culture from the outside, I vow to prioritize present company ahead of textual company, to attend to my kids before my apps, and to wear my watch as much as I ever did.

Though this gadget is new to me, my kids will not remember a time when Mom didn't have a cell phone; it may well become family lore that I didn't get a cell until 2012 and they will brag to their friends about what a hippie I was (or be ashamed of what a Luddite I was). Either way, I can finally utter (or type) two little words I've been dying to say: text me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tried and True or Tired Food?

Is there really such a thing
as unique green beans?
I don't know about you, but I tend to
cook in phases. Every few weeks I get re-inspired by a cookbook, a new season in the air, or new ingredients at the market or in my garden, or a meal at a friend's house.

I still remember the lunch a dear friend made out of leftovers years ago using quinoa, ground pork, and a variety of fresh veggies and herbs. Ever since, I feel that quinoa and ground pork are naturally complimentary, like cheese and apple, bread and butter, eggs and arugula, chocolate and orange, bacon and Brussels sprouts...

Unfortunately, whenever I am on the far side, the down slope, of a cooking whirlwind I know the doldrums aren't far away.

"Sorry dear, it's soup again."
And so every other few weeks I get into a cooking rut. I seem to buy the same old vegetables and fruit when I shop and I lean heavily on my standbys (which means we eat more Mexican, more perogies, and more soup). As it is, I typically make soup or stew once a week even though it's not hubby's favorite. It's easy, nutritious, and I often freeze the leftovers for a rainy day and I like it. Perogies are the one frozen convenience food that I nearly always have on hand, and Mexican is anything with tortillas, beans, and salsa - again, requisite staples in my pantry.

During these stale, humdrum times I assume that I'll slide out of the rut as effortlessly as I slid into it, and this is usually the case. Other occasions, the rut is deeper and longer than I can stand and I have to propel myself out of it. It's these latter times that get me thumbing through my old copies of food magazines with Post-it notes or perusing sites like Foodgawker and Pinterest in search of an irresistible image or culinary combination that piques my interest enough to inspire me to saute, steam, boil, broil, poach, roast, simmer, and braise all over again.

My latest favorite food blogs are 101 CookbooksSerious Eats, and Lip Smacking. How about you? I want to know where you get your edible enthusiasm, your cooking creativity, your grilling genius. Do tell.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I grew up eating shepherd's pie. My husband grew up eating cottage pie. Despite much debate early on in our relationship, I now understand that I actually grew up eating cottage pie as well. Shepherds raise sheep and so shepherd's pie is likewise made with ground lamb, not ground beef as I am accustomed. Of course, cows don't live in cottages, but Wikipedia tells me "the term cottage pie is known to have been in use in 1791, when the potato was being introduced as an edible crop [for the] poor (cf. 'cottage' meaning a modest dwelling for rural workers)".

This is a meal that any shepherd, rural worker, or stay-at-home mom blogger living in a 1940's bungalow can make at 5 o'clock and eat with her family 45 minutes later.

Bungalow Pie

Peel, chop, and boil:
4 med potatoes or yams

When fork tender, drain, mash, and add:
1 T butter
1/2 cup milk (more if needed)
s+p to taste

Set aside mashed potatoes. Saute in olive oil:
1 onion, diced
1 lb lean ground beef

Add as you go:
1 carrot, diced
1 large handful of green beans, chopped (may substitute 1/2 cup frozen peas)
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce

When meat is browned, add:
2 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 bunch kale, chopped
1 cup beef, veg, or chicken stock

When kale is bright green, remove from heat. Pour meat and veg mixture into an 8x8 pan and spread mashed potatoes on top. Sprinkle top with grated cheese or paprika, or both. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Broil briefly to brown top.