Sunday, November 27, 2005

Remembering grandparents

I've read a couple of good tributes to grandmothers recently, and wanted to pass them on. (Maybe there should be a Carnival of Grandparents?) Marsha's grandmother passed away recently, and Marsha's memories of her are shared on the Abarbablog. And Firefly recalls teatimes with her grandmother here. (We've tried Firefly's grandmother's scones and can assure you they're quite delicious.)

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Snowy-Day Dinner in the Treehouse

Tonight we had a sort-of Italian dinner: Cheese Ravioli with chickpeas and spaghetti sauce; Stir-fried Artichoke Hearts with Bacon; Garlic Breadsticks; Carrot Sticks; Sliced Kiwi Fruit; and Dried Fruit Bars.

The ravioli was the frozen kind; I cooked it first, drained it, and then combined it with the chickpeas and about half a can of spaghetti sauce, all in the same pot, and let it warm through. It does tend to stick to the bottom of the pot when you're heating it, so you have to warm it very gently.

We were going to have a salad, but the lettuce got eaten up earlier in the week along with most of our other green vegetables. I wasn’t sure what we were going to have along with the ravioli until I noticed a forlorn can of artichoke hearts that I’d bought for the Common Room’s pasta-chickpea-artichoke heart-spinach salad...we don’t eat pasta salad much in the winter, so the can had gotten pushed to the back. Betty Crocker turned out to have exactly the right recipe (since we also had just a few strips of bacon left in the fridge):

Artichoke Hearts Saute

2 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts, drained and cut into halves
1 tsp. lemon juice

Cook bacon in 10-inch skillet, stirring occasionally, until limp, about 1 ½ minutes. (I cooked it until it looked just about done, and then drained off the fat.) Stir in artichoke hearts; cook and stir until hot, about 3 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. (It will be noted that not all the Squirrels wanted to try this, but Crayons at least made a brave attempt to be open-minded.)

The Garlic Breadsticks were a half-batch of Miss Maggie’s recipe, here. Last time I made them, I divided up the dry ingredients and made only a half-batch in an 8-inch square pan; so this batch went together pretty quickly.

Dried Fruit Bars was a recipe of Mary Carroll’s that I clipped from Vegetarian Times a long time ago. Crayons, who loves to cook, helped me put it together. (She did not think it tasted delicious, but the Apprentice happily ate Crayons' share.) Notice that it’s vegan, which means it’s also good for people with dairy/egg and even wheat allergies, if your granola’s wheat-free.

Dried Fruit Bars

2 cups low-sugar granola
1/4 cup apple juice (we used orange juice)
oil or spray for greasing pan
4 cups mixed chopped dried apricots, pitted dates and prunes (we had no prunes but used raisins)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup pear or other light fruit juice (we used orange again because that’s what we had)
1/4 cup arrowroot powder or cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In blender or food processor, grind granola to a coarse powder, then transfer to a large bowl. Mix with juice. Lightly oil or spray a 9 by 12-inch baking pan (we used a 9 by 13 pan) and press the mixture into the bottom of it.

In the blender or food processor, puree the remaining ingredients. (Actually, what we did was chop the dried fruit to make sure that we had about four cups of it – I measured it by dumping it into a four-cup plastic container – and then it went back in the food processor with the other ingredients to get pureed.)

Spread the mixture over the prepared granola crust. Bake for 25 minutes. Let cool, then cut into squares (Mary Carroll says 12 bars, but we cut it in smaller squares). Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. You may have a rim of dry crumbly stuff around the outside if your fruit didn’t quite cover the crust, but you can cut the nice part into squares and serve them on a plate, and nobody will know, right?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Advent is coming

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.

Our family always celebrates Advent for the whole four weeks before much so that, when the Apprentice was a toddler, a well-meaning grownup asked her sometime in December if she wasn't happy that Christmas was here, and she corrected him: "It's not Cwistmas yet, it's still Advent."

We have our own set of traditions, some of which are shared by many Christians, such as lighting Advent candles on a wreath. We're not too particular about the colours of the candles...some years we've used all red candles, some years we've used three purple and one year Mama Squirrel got it backwards so we had three pink and a purple.

We also try to use some blue decorations (like table mats), early in the month, instead of Christmas red and green. When we used to go to a Lutheran church, the girls always looked forward to the seasonal changes in the church; when Advent came, there were blue hangings on the pulpit and the pastor wore a blue stole. I've never been quite sure then why we don't use blue candles on the wreath; I suppose we could! But other than the candles, we try to think blue for awhile. Gradually we bring out some of the more Christmasy decorations. (The nativity scene comes out fairly early...we've inherited two sets in addition to a small one we already had, so we decide whether this will be the year of great-grandma's dime-store set from the 1940's, or the other grandma's REALLY BIG set that takes up the whole top of our buffet. I think it's the REALLY BIG set's turn this year.)

And we have songs that lead up to Christmas. We don't jump right in with Silent Night on the first night of Advent. We sing some of the old Advent hymns like Hark the Glad Sound (we sing it to the Richmond tune) and O Come O Come Emmanuel. And we sing some songs from a book called Gold, Incense and Myrrh: Contemporary Christmas Carols, by Sister Miriam Therese Winter of the Medical Mission Sisters. The copyright date on the book is 1972, so I don't know if it's still available anywhere. [Update: I found out that the author has a webpage here and you can buy CDs of her music.]

I hope the Mission Sisters wouldn't mind if I posted the words to one of their songs. We've sung these around the Advent wreath for several years and I think our Squirrelings consider them as much a part of the holidays as the more familiar carols and hymns. I'm sorry that I can't provide the tune as well...just imagine something played on a guitar rather than a hymn meant for a pipe organ.


Now the emptiness of ages proclaims the promised birth.
Hope to help unhappy hearts.
Love to light the earth.
And He shall be called Wonderful!
He shall be called Peace.
For to us a Son has been given,
to us the Lord is born.
He will govern with justice and joy, consoling those who mourn,
And He shall be called Comforter,
He shall be called Peace.

Streams will wash away the desert as He goes passing by
Those in need will turn to Him
He will hear their cry.
And He shall be called Wonderful!
He shall be called Peace.
He will lead His flock like a shepherd and call us each by name.
He will walk in the favor of God,
and we shall do the same.
And He shall be called Comforter,
He shall be called Peace.

(Copyright 1971 by Medical Mission Sisters from the collection "19 Scripture Songs." All Rights Reserved.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Four-Bedroom Treehouse: Part 2

Part 1 is here.

I promised to post about some of the old treehouses I used to know, the ones that were never short of bedrooms although they didn't have some of the other frills that usually go along with big houses today.

The first was a board-and-batten house that my grandparents bought in about 1950 and lived in for forty years. When I first read Understood Betsy as a child, I imagined Aunt Abigail's kitchen as looking something like my grandmother's, including the big old dog sleeping under the table. From what I've been told, my grandfather panelled the walls of the kitchen, in rec-room style knotty pine, and built all the cupboards to match. Because the cellar was just a fruit cellar, Grandma had a washer and dryer at one end of the kitchen, and when they were both going at once they made the floor shake, while she worked around the house either whistling or singing hymns, always the same ones. The stove was a gas one, the kind you had to flick a spark at to light a burner. (Unique in my experience, up to to then.)

One side of the room had a door going out to a side part of the house that was my grandpa's woodworking shop...if you can imagine part of a city house that was about as unfinished inside as you can get. In some ways, this wasn't a city house at all, but a farmhouse that had somehow sprouted on a busy street corner. When you came in through the back door, you came in through more unfinished space...but who needed it fancy? It was a good place to leave your snowy boots.

The house smelled of dogs and pipe smoke, and bacon and cake and other things to eat that weren't good for you. There was a piano missing the white stuff on half of its keys, which we could bang on all we wanted (that's probably how the keys lost their white stuff)...there was a big square parking area instead of a driveway, which seemed entirely natural--didn't all grandparents need a parking lot for all the relatives' cars? I've heard stories about how my two uncles, as teenagers, used to sling a jalopy up to the nearest tree with a rope so they could work on its undersides.

There were funny slopy walls in the bedrooms...four bedrooms in the main part of the house, and another room built over the kitchen that you climbed up to from the mudroom. Ownership of the bedrooms got shifted around over the years, especially as the makeup of families shifted around and children and grandchildren ended up living back at Grandma's for a short or long period of time. My sister and I stayed there too, overnight or on days we were sick, or during spring break. I remember once doing something at Grandma's similar to the DHM's children (see her posts about The Equuschick Can Still See). I ran way too fast down the stairs into the front hall and put my hand right through the glass of the front door. I'm sure I wasn't the first person to bleed all over Grandma's house...and she bandaged me up and didn't scold too much. (I guess it was lucky she was a nurse.)

I always thought of that house as a relaxed place. Not fancy, kind of cluttered, not clean down to the last corner (how could it be with so many people coming in and out?); but in tune with the busy, giving, practical people who lived there. The dining room table magically expanded to fit everybody who showed up for Christmas dinner, and the bedrooms somehow stretched to fit as many cousins as required. So different from some of the houses we've looked at of them had a tiny dining area built on a kind of balcony...definitely meant for four and no more, and what would you do then if your grandchildren came for supper? Have them sit on the railing? And what would be so wrong with just building an upstairs with an extra bedroom?

My grandparents' house didn't have any garage at all...actually, most of the places I lived in growing up didn't have garages either. It didn't have air conditioning. It didn't have a rec room. But it did have room.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Four-Bedroom Treehouse: Part 1

"We're running out of room. Two of you will have to sleep hung on hangers on a hook on the wall."--Fozzie's Mama, Muppet Family Christmas

Why are four-bedroom houses so hard to find?

The Squirrels have been looking to relocate for quite awhile now. We've looked at everything from every-inch-finished condo townhouses (too family-unfriendly, they wouldn't even let you have a barbecue) to older houses that would have taken a heap of fixing up. And we haven't yet found anything that a) we like, b) we can afford, and c) that has four bedrooms.

For a long time we tried to be flexible on the four bedrooms. We've heard all the stories from older people who raised a passel of kids in tiny little wartime houses and all the rest of it. And after all, we only have three squirrelings, which is just a modest-sized family compared to many of the homesquirrelers we know. So theoretically we could just keep everybody doubled up, right? Three bedrooms should be plenty. And most new four-bedroom houses are the kind that also come with Jacuzzis and glassed-in formal dining rooms--not what we're looking for.

But we do have three Squirrelings of very different ages and different personalities, and a little bit of privacy goes a long way when you're home together a lot of the time. So we're still looking, and hoping for something with an extra bedroom (and that does not include a damp little scooped-out place in the basement, or a converted broom closet), and enough living space for a busy family. And the looking has been an education in the way people are "supposed" to live now.

This is what we've noticed:

New houses, or ones that have been recently renovated, don't assume that anybody's going to spend much time in the kitchen--although they may have tried to fancy things up a bit with European-style appliances.

Most "dinette spaces" fit four people comfortably.

New townhouses can have as many as four bathrooms to clean but not enough corners to set up a sewing machine or a workbench.

The "master suite" in a brand new house will have tons of space, and usually an ensuite bath. The kids' rooms are smaller. But if you think about it, it's usually the kids who have way more stuff to put in their rooms. I'm not the one with the Barbie house or the Rubbermaid container of craft stuff or the pile of board games; I just have my clothes and a few books to worry about. You'd think they could even things out a bit; the kids are the ones who'd really be wowed by some creative built-in storage space.

Most decks are badly built.

Anything described as "cozy" just means small.

Open-concept main floors don't give you anywhere to put bookcases or hang up maps.

And finally, you can tell if someone's taken care of a house by whether or not their bathroom doors have rusty hinges after only a couple of years. Rusty hinges equal too many steamy showers and nobody wiping things down afterwards. Bad sign.

In Part 2, Mama Squirrel will talk about some treehouses she's known in times past--all of which had at least four bedrooms but no Jacuzzi.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Organized Kitchen: toaster ovens, leftovers, menu planning

Mama Squirrel likes any kitchen ideas that make life easier and give her more time to do important things. (Like play checkers with Crayons.) Here are a couple of squirrel kitchen tips.

1. We are a microwave-less family, not so much by principle as just by the fact that we've never owned one and have never felt we really needed one. What we've always had, though, besides the big oven, is a toaster oven. Originally we had one from Mama Squirrel's previous life (before squirrelings), but when that eventually went kaput we acquired a more modern programmable one. It actually looks (and beeps) like a microwave.

The advantages to having more than one source of oven heat are that you can bake two things at different temperatures if you need to (like baked beans at 350 degrees and a pan of biscuits at 450), and that you don't have to heat up the big oven if you're cooking a small amount of something. We have a lidded casserole that just fits into the toaster oven space, and we've also baked many things in it in an 8-inch square pan. About the only things we haven't baked in it are cookies (our pans are too big), muffins (although I do bake muffin batter in it, in an 8-inch pan), and any recipe big enough to need one of our plus-size casseroles.

And it also makes toast.

2. Menu Planning: Mama Squirrel's current binge of planned-ahead meals is in its third week, and she's discovered something that makes this planning easier. The Squirrels always shop on Saturdays (and it's not usually possible to make another trip during the week). This means that certain foods are more plentiful, say, from Saturday to Wednesday. By Wednesday, the bananas are gone, the cold cuts are eaten up, and so on. So: our week's menu starts on Wednesday, rather than on the more obvious Saturday. I can plan the meals from Wednesday to Friday based on what's still left in the fridge and the cupboard, and make sure that anything we need for the after-shopping days on goes on the grocery list. If I want to make banana muffins, I write them in for sometime after Saturday, and make sure I buy bananas.

Of course this does mess up the lovely menu forms that you can print out online (nobody's menu form starts on Wednesday), but still it's working.

3. Favourite kitchen tools: a four-cup glass measuring cup (you can mix all kinds of things right in it), sharp scissors (for cutting open those irritating, harder-than-ever-to-open cereal box liners), clothes pins (for pinning all the opened bags back together again), lots of measuring spoons (check thrift shops), a rubber spatula, and a decent can opener. Mama Squirrel has had better luck with the first few than with that last one. Cheap can openers rust and bend, and even the expensive one we once bought doesn't cut the way it used to. Inventors of kitchen improvements: there is a niche there that needs to be filled.

Oh, and a permanent marker. You need one handy if you're going to be putting leftovers in margarine tubs or other non-see-through containers. There's nothing like opening a container of yogurt and getting diced tomatoes instead..

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Thought from Charlotte

Once we see that we are dealing spirit with spirit with the friend at whose side we are sitting, with the people who attend to our needs, we shall be able to realise how incessant is the commerce between the divine Spirit and our human spirit. It will be to us as when one stops one's talk and one's thoughts in the springtime, to find the world full of bird-music unheard the instant before.

--Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children