31 August 2013

Prepping for our International Student

I am just getting ready to pick up our exchange student at the airport. We have been looking forward to her arrival for weeks but as the pick up time approaches our nerves are kicking in. 

The older boys have asked "will she like us?" and the six year old has asked me "will I like her?". Today my answer has been the same to both questions, "I hope so".  

I really want a good experience for all of us. We are looking forward to introducing her to all of the things we love about our new home and hope that we can learn a little more about Italy as well. 

The hubby finished the bed last night...

and put it up this morning.

(These photos are a perfect example of why I need to go to photography school. I could not get clear pictures at all.) 

I love that my hubby made a bed out of 2x4s. 

The boys insisted on trying it out. They wanted to make sure she had a good view looking out the window. 

I am happy that we have her room all put together - on time - and I am looking forward to meeting the girl who will be part of our family for the next few months. I hope we can make life comfortable for her. I am sure she is much more nervous than we are.  

I am also really looking forward to seeing what the hubby makes next. The boys have been asking for shark beds...

29 August 2013

Decisions, Decisions...

Not feeling great today. I think I have an end of summer cold coming on. But, aside from that possible cold my family and I are all healthy.

 I am so thankful for my family. I feel so lucky to have an amazing husband, four great kids and to know that we all love and support each other.  I know that is a great blessing and it is the most important thing in my life. 

After my last post I was introduced to and reminded of a few big problems belonging to other people that helped me put my own problems into perspective.

For those who asked  - my problems almost always tend to be financial. That and trying to maintain all of my values and priorities in a world that doesn't always support them. Well, very rarely supports them ... maybe almost never supports them. It is difficult for all of us in our family to always be doing something different from everybody else around us. Sometimes what we want to achieve seems nearly impossible. But we feel strongly that we are making the right choices for our family and we continue to push forward hoping that at some point everything will work out. I often feel that I make as many steps backwards as I do forwards and wonder if I am really just standing still. But, as I look back I do see progression and improvement although it is never as fast as I would like.  I feel like a little kid wanting to cry out, "but I want it all now" and I am constantly reminded that that is not how it works. 

Sometimes not having any money is really annoying. Every time (and I mean EVERY time I seem to finally have the budget balanced something else comes up to knock it off balance). I really don't like having to choose between two things that seem important - this week as I confirmed enrolment in photography school and worked on finishing applications to graduate school - that I was hoping to do next year - I made the discovery that I would not be able to afford both the gas money to drive to school and application fees for graduate school. Money is needed for both in the next two weeks - before payday. So again I must choose. 

Yes, I realize that this could be seen as a really pathetic example of a hard choice and I have had much harder ones. But, this is what is hitting me this week. I will probably look back on it a year from now and understand it better; but, in the moment it feels hard.

I swear I am not as flaky as I appear. I know I must always look to people like I am constantly changing my mind about going to events or doing things. But, it is very rare that I actually change my mind. Usually I just run out of money. Not having enough gas in the car keeps me from hundreds of events and activities that I want to attend. 

Education is so important to me and is also the area of life that has given me the biggest headache. For my husband and myself it is expensive, time consuming, stressful and surrounded with deadlines that I often have a hard time meeting both physically and financially. For the kids the education they are offered is often not what I am wanting, usually not what the kids are wanting and I have a hard time getting them excited about going. This year is no exception. The kids were doing so well but as we get closer to the actual day of starting...they are hitting the brakes - hard! I am definitely not one of those parents who looks forward to the end of holidays. This is always the most difficult time of year for our family as we prepare to leave our sanctuary and support group and head out individually into the world.     There has been a lot to talk about in our house this week as we make decisions and try to encourage each other. Some days I would just like to wrap a cocoon around our house and forget about everything else outside the walls of our home. If only I could.

On a side note the bed my husband has been working on is almost finished...

he finished painting it last night and we are going to try a few different techniques on it today to see if we can get the exact look we want...I will post a photo when it is done, which will have to be soon because our exchange student arrives Saturday!

28 August 2013


Why is it that as soon as it feels like life is finally going to work out perfectly a whole new crop of problems arises?

I have a few beliefs concerning adversity.

I believe that adversity helps me become stronger - I really believe in that old saying - that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger - it is so true.

I believe that adversity helps me to gain perspective and to realign my priorities if necessary.

I believe that if I focus adversity can help me recognize all of the wonderful things that I have in my life.

I believe that I will never have a challenge that I cannot overcome - even though I may need a lot of help.

I believe that adversity helps me to stay humble - recognizing that I need help and asking for it has always been extremely difficult for me.

That said...it is so frustrating and exhausting.

Life - or mine at least - is never... and I mean NEVER easy. The way my life is going so far I think that by the end of it I will be stronger, and more, focused, appreciative and humble than I ever thought possible or ever wanted to be. Every time I overcome one hurdle I get a little scared about what is coming up next. I often wish I had time to just relax a little. But all I can do is breathe deeply and say "bring it on...I'm ready".

23 August 2013

Checking Off My To Do List

It always feels good to get to the end of the day and place a number of checkmarks on my to do list.

We have been prepping the house for our new houseguest who is arriving next week.

We are hosting an international exchange student from Treviso, Italy and we are so excited to meet her. Our house is still not fully furnished. I am hoping she doesn't mind. We have been working to make sure her room is furnished.

My husband is making a bed out of 2x4s and 2x6s. He even made the paneling out of 2x4s (read: very small budget). Here is his little preview... I'll be taking photos when it is finished.

It is going to look great. He is putting it all together today and should have the first coat of paint on it before we go to bed tonight.

Slowly...slowly...the house gets put together. I am hoping to have it comfortable by Christmas.

Today all of the kids were registered for school, which was a little disappointing for a couple of them but I was really happy to get all of the paperwork done. That took up most of the afternoon and was a bit of a reality check for all of us that summer is coming to an end very quickly.

My hubby starts a new job on Monday. Not his dream job...but, not so bad either. We are happy that he has full-time work. After a month of unemployment our bank account is looking forward to finally getting some inputs.

The best part (for me anyway) about my hubby's job and the school info getting done is that I have been able to co-ordinate all of our schedules and discover that I can move forward on my own plans for September.

For a long time I have been trying to improve my photography. I love being behind the camera and I have been enjoying learning how to improve. Maybe I am just impatient but I haven't been improving as quickly as I would like to. So, I have decided to really do something about that.

In 12 days I get to go (oh yes leave the house and physically go) to photography school...for ten months. I am so excited. I was accepted months ago but I wasn't sure how our schedules would work out. I have been hoping I could go but, I am always a mom first and I needed to make sure my kids would be taken care of and that either I or my husband would be there to take them to school and to pick them up...and it has worked out. Today is the first day that I have been able to say that I am definitely going to school this fall.

The first couple months will be a little intense as I am also finishing my last degree ( I finish in October). But I am ready for the challenge...

19 August 2013

Historical Architecture and a Little Perspective...Summer is Winding Down

Over the last few days I have really felt the summer winding down. I have been trying to cram in as much learning time as I can in between all the other things that need to get done.

My kids are noticing dinner taking a little longer to get to the table as I play around with recipes and my camera - always trying to improve and learn new things. (Today's dinner was a pounded chicken breast stuffed with a mixture of swiss chard and feta wrapped in bacon and glazed with a mixture of maple syrup and dijon mustard, potatoes, and market beans)

I will be honest with you...the chicken was a little overcooked.  I still haven't mastered my timing and while I usually use the touch method to check for doneness I didn't take into consideration the soft filling - so I was fooled into cooking it longer thinking it wasn't quite done as it still felt too soft. On the plus side it tasted good and an extra glass of water never hurt anyone.

But, the potatoes... cooked in the same roasting pan as the chicken, crisping up in the bacon fat and picking up a little of the maple dijon glaze...oh my. yum. I have just raised the bar on potatoes in my house. There were people wiping their fingers in the serving bowl trying to capture the last little bits of deliciousness.

 In the kitchen I am really enjoying the peak of summer produce and looking forward to the huge fall harvests. I love this time of year.

We are at that time when the busyness of summer is beginning to collide with the coming of autumn...

The boys are coming to the end of their swimming lessons, I am frantically trying to finish up portfolios for my next educational adventures, fewer and fewer boxes remain to be unpacked, our pick up date and time for the Italian exchange student who will be spending the semester with us has been finalized, and I am gathering all the papers necessary for registering my kids for school this week.

In the midst of all of this we are trying to sneak in all of the exploration time that we can.

There are so many places left to discover... and so little time and money to do it with. (We are hoping that this is the week that my husband's job is finalized so I can put the finishing touches on my plans for September).

I am trying to avoid stress and still take time to relax and enjoy the little things around our neighbourhood.

I love being able to go for walks with my family (and I especially love that my boys are young enough to still get a thrill at picking wildflowers for their mom).

One of my favourite things about my neighbourhood is all of the old homes.

I really enjoy looking at the architecture and imagining what life was like here a hundred years ago.

This is probably one of the few neighbourhoods in Canada that hasn't changed much in the past century.

While there are a few newer homes (and by newer I mean about sixty or seventy years old)...

Most of the houses were built around 1900 when this was a thriving city. There are dozens and dozens of historical homes down the beautiful tree lined streets where I live. It is relaxing just to take a walk around the neighbourhood and as I do I am reminded that life continues. Things that seem stressful today will probably be forgotten soon. I love living amongst all of this history - it helps me put my life into perspective and prioritize what is really important. Life is short...and I need to take the time to appreciate what I have...and to keep learning. There are so many things that I want to do and learn I don't think I will ever get to them all in this lifetime - but I will die trying!

We often walk until the darkening skies remind us that it is time to go home and get the kids into bed. The pace of life is slower here and I already feel myself adjusting to the difference. In spite of the busyness - I am calmer, more relaxed and less worried about my troubles. Things will be okay. 

Just think of all the troubles these houses have seen... and they are still standing strong and beautiful.

17 August 2013

Ratatouille and Wild Blueberry Pie

Yesterday I was able to visit the little farmer's market in town and bring home bags of delicious looking produce.

It was a special market day because it is wild blueberry season!

Last night we cooked up a yummy, summer market supper...

One of my favourite summer foods is ratatouille...

I am not an expert in french cuisine and I am not always a food purist - I am happy to make changes to suit my tastes, budget or items on hand. So, my version of ratatouille may not even really be ratatouille but that is what I call it.

My version is roasted - roasting the vegetables caramelizes them so deliciously that I can't make it any other way.

Roasted ratatouille has to be one of the easiest and yummiest summer foods to make.

I simply cut up the freshest, ripest vegetables I can get my hands on - this really is one of those recipes where in season, vine-ripened produce makes a HUGE difference!

I make medium/large chunks of tomatoes, zucchini (or other summer squash), eggplant, and red (or whatever colour you have - but I find red to be the sweetest) peppers. Toss them in a glass, oven proof pan (a cast iron skillet works really well too). Liberally coat them with good olive oil, a big handful of chopped fresh basil and a peeled head of garlic - although I often toss in two heads of garlic - roasted garlic is just so good.

I put them in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Give them a stir once in awhile watching that they don't burn. They really need to be watched during the final ten minutes or so.

You want them to be looking dark around the edges. They will almost look overcooked. The corners of the pan may start to look a little burnt...but that is okay.

They cook down quite a bit so put in twice as many vegetables as you think you need. They will be soft with little bits of crispy caramelized goodness and packed with flavour. This is my husband's most requested summer-time dish...even above steak and scallops...crazy good.

On a side note - my kids don't love it. My six year old complained a lot before I made him try it. A bowl full of mushy veggies did not appeal to him for some reason! But, I have a house rule that they have to try everything at least once a year. If they try it and hate it this year they don't have to try it again until next year. This year the six year old and the eight year old both said it tasted better than they remembered and added a spoonful to their plates after trying it. I may have to make extra next year...

I served it with some pasta and grated parmesan cheese.

At the market I picked up ten pounds of wild blueberries and my ten year old asked if I could PLEASE make a blueberry pie with the lines on top...

I whipped up some pastry in the food processor (I use Martha Stewart's pate brisee recipe) - easiest method EVER!

I never used to make a lot of pies - I think because my mom told me they were hard to make - but this pastry recipe is so easy and I have never had problems with it.

Now I find pie one of the easiest desserts to whip up. The pastry takes literally only a few minutes to mix up and then I pop it in the fridge to rest for an hour.

 When I am ready to bake I pull out the dough and let it rest on the counter for a few minutes.

 I grab a bowl - toss in a few cups of blueberries (I used about four cups for my pan), some flour - I used 1/4 cup, and some sugar - again I used a 1/4 cup - but in this case I used vanilla sugar just because I had it and I thought it would be good. I grate (with a microplane grater) a little bit of fresh nutmeg over the top and give it a stir.

After rolling out the dough I just place it in my tart pan with the removable bottom. This is the best pan to use when you are busy - no messing with fluting edges or anything. I fold down the edges making them a little thicker than the bottom - I like to make sure the edges are not too thin so that I can pop the pie out of the pan without it collapsing...not that this has ever happened to me before.

The lattice top is just rolled out pastry, cut with a special tool...that I do not have.*  (see note below)

Then the dough is woven on top of the pie, brushed with a beaten egg and sprinkled with sugar. I put it in a preheated 425 degree oven for ten minutes and then reduce the heat to 350 for 30 - 40 minutes until the pastry looks golden brown and the berries are bubbling away under the lattice. After placing it on a cooling rack for about five minutes I unmold the sides of the tart pan while it is still warm just in case some juices have escaped down the sides of the pan. I wouldn't want the blueberries to cause the pan to stick to the pie...again, not that this has ever happened to me before.

Place the pie on a cake stand and...

Voila! yummy beautiful pie.

The boys are always so impressed and it really doesn't take much effort. For all of you afraid of making pie...try it! It just takes a little practice.

One thing I have learned: Perseverance is probably the most important quality we can cultivate. Nothing is done with excellence without it.

I wasn't a very good cook when I was first married. But, it was really important to me that my family eat well. So, I practiced. My cooking is still not great but it is so much better than it was. I am always learning new things and improving. I just keep practicing. I have not reached Martha's level yet...but, I think I have reached her level when she was starting out - watch some of her early work and compare it to what she is doing now there is a vast improvement and proof that perseverance really is so important.

*Full disclosure - I have never found a pastry cutter that gives a well defined edge to my lattice. I did have a semi-expensive, lovely, stainless steel cutter that gave a barely defined edge - it was really little better than using a knife - I gave up on it a few years ago. Lately I have been using a rolling cutter that came with a play-dough set. That's right play-dough. When I saw it I knew it would do the job perfectly - whatever works!

15 August 2013

Cooking on a Small Budget...

One of my favourite things is getting a new cookbook (or borrowing one from the library) and getting to try a new recipe.

I would love to be able to cook from my cookbooks trying new things every week.

But, what usually happens is I write up a weekly menu and grocery list and then realize that my budget doesn't even begin to cover the cost of the ingredients - Halibut for six...not too cheap - sushi grade tuna...likewise - filet steak, lobster, ten different types of cheese...sigh. I only wish my cart looked like that. I usually need to stick to the more basic - read: less expensive - recipes.

But, even with those I am often left lacking ingredients. It may have been awhile since I have shopped or I may be busy and cooking at the last minute - running to the store often takes as long as whipping up something with what you have. I have a pretty well stocked pantry but...like I often tell my kids...you can't have everything. And so I substitute.

One of the things I love about cooking is the ability to improvise and change things to make something your own. I love looking in my fridge and seeing it nearly empty, hearing the whining all around me that there is nothing to eat and then being able to make something really good out of what is there. I don't really love the emptiness or the whining but I love the creative process it inspires! Sometimes - the ingredients I have are so different that I end up with a completely new and often delicious recipe.

I have heard so many people complain that you can't eat well on a tight budget. I have found that I may not be able to eat as well as I like but, we still eat pretty good. I also hear complaints that they just aren't creative... I've never really been the creative type either - but, I have learned that building creativity is like building muscle - you have to use it! And I have learned some tricks. My favourite is swapping out.

(Now that I think about this - I think I learned this from my mom. She is famous for her: "You think it's chilli but it's not". My mom really doesn't like anything spicy so she would make chilli - minus the chillies. Now, I don't think anyone would mistake it for real chilli - but, she liked it and that is really what's important).

For example: I made the pioneer woman's beef and bean burritos (from "Food From My Frontier"). I love the pioneer woman - her recipes (when I follow them) always turn out exactly the way they look in her books or on her blog.

But anyway - I wanted to make burritos. I did not have any tortillas. My spices were left behind on my move and I haven't replaced most of them yet and so I did not have cumin, oregano or chili powder. I did not have cans of mexican tomato sauce or enchilada sauce, I did not have refried beans. Basically, I did not have over half of the ingredients and the really important ones no less. I had ground beef, an onion, salt and cheddar cheese. My husband thought they couldn't be made...

I looked up a tortilla recipe on the pioneer woman's blog and found a recipe for homemade flour tortillas. I didn't have any lard. I would gladly use lard - I just didn't have any.

This is what I did:

I took her tortilla recipe and changed the flours up a bit - just for flavour. I had some Masa in the pantry and so substituted half the all-purpose flour with masa making a cross between a corn and a flour tortilla to give a bit of extra flavour. I used butter instead of lard. Not authentic I know - but it's butter, how bad could it be. I started by mixing the tortilla batter and then let it rest.

I then pulled out a large pan and cooked up the ground beef. While it was cooking I added the chopped onion and I also happened to have a poblano pepper in my fridge (not something I usually have - but I picked one up a week before because it looked so pretty...it was still in the fridge and I was happy to have an opportunity to use it). I opened a large can of whole tomatoes (I usually have some in the pantry) and squeezed them into the pan with my hands...how I would imagine an Italian grandma breaking up tomatoes into a sauce. Spices were hard...I added a clove of garlic minced, salt, pepper, crushed red chilli, and I had some dried chipotle chillies in the pantry (they keep for a really long time, have a lot of flavour, and come in handy once in awhile). They were really hot - so I added two chopped up. I added a small amount of italian seasoning that I had that made up for the missing oregano (about a tsp). I was upset about the cumin but there wasn't much I could do there. I also had a spicy crab seasoning that smelled like it would work so I added a small amount of that (about 1/2 tsp).

I let the sauce simmer for a bit and then added a large can of kidney beans. Not refried beans - but, still beans. What I had was something that resembled a chilli. While it simmered I rolled out and cooked the tortillas. They smelled amazing. When they were ready and after all the liquid had simmered out of the beef and bean mixture I put about two tablespoons of the filling in the centre of each tortilla, added a large pinch of grated cheddar and rolled them up. I didn't have any sauce to cover them with - and my kids don't like a lot of sauce anyway - so I just sprinkled cheese on top.

I let them bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes until the cheese melted and we had dinner. Start to finish was just over an hour. (I only let the tortilla dough rest for about half an hour instead of an hour and they turned out fine. I think the corn reduced the gluten content so they didn't need as long of a resting period).

Everyone loved them. I served them with a bit of sour cream (if I had salsa or guacamole they would have been used too - but I didn't have any and they weren't really missed). The chilli taste was prominent... I was a little worried about the spices... but it was really good. Totally different than the pioneer woman's recipe. Not completely authentic - but really yummy. The kids gobbled them up. Not only did I have dinner... but I also made a new recipe! 

I do this all the time and it is an easy way to make something delicious with what you have without having to be overly creative. Pick a recipe from a cookbook and substitute each ingredient you don't have for something similar that you do. Things won't always turn out as good as the original but sometimes they are even better or just something different and what is wrong with that?

I get to experiment, learn something new, and develop my creativity... if I had money I wouldn't be forced to do those things. So - I also get to see the bright side of having a small budget! 

It's all good.

12 August 2013

On the Right Path...

Another happy day here in Nova Scotia...

It is difficult for me to describe how different I feel knowing that I am where I know I should be. I have an inner contentment. Stress is non-existant. Not that my life isn't stressful - I mean, my husband and I are both unemployed and the bank account is very quickly dwindling away to nothing - but I feel good. 

I have been walking a lot lately - feeling the breeze, enjoying the sun and just being with my family. 

I have loads to do - but I have not felt stressed at all. 

For those who have been around me over the past three years you know how strange that is. I have been constantly frazzled - I feel like I have aged at least a decade. But, coming here has been a big sigh of relief. 

I am not oblivious to the challenges that lie ahead but I feel prepared to handle them. I feel like I am on the right path. 

I feel lighter, happier, more optimistic...basically, completely content. It has been awhile since I have felt so good.

The best part is I can feel a change in my family too. I don't know if it because I have changed or because our situation has changed but it is good. (my 8 year old is feeling very proud of his bicep and is loving showing it off - posting it for the world to see will give him great pleasure and I am trying to be a  supportive mom!)

The boys have been LOVING it here. 

They are really enjoying all of our explorations. 

And my girl...is growing up so fast. Life isn't always perfect for her - having three younger brothers is not always a 13 year old girls ideal - but I have less of her hiding away with her iPod and

more joining in on family explorations as I give her more independence - SO hard to do! But, I really am trying to allow her more freedoms and to step back a little more. As I do, I notice small changes. And while the early teen mood swings are still there...

I am seeing more smiles and hearing more laughter...

which makes us all happier. I am so grateful to be able to follow the path I know I need to be on and thankful for everybody who has supported me in my decisions. I am so happy to have these experiences and to be given the opportunity to learn and move forward. I am putting the finishing touches on my next step and am really excited for what is coming up in September!

Hopefully everything works out for all of us here. I do know that we are headed into another very busy year full of changes and new experiences and I can't wait...

10 August 2013

Feeling the Love this Week-end...

Lately, we are feeling more like locals and less like tourists - and it has been raining off and on this week-end - so staying home and having some family time sounded like the perfect thing to do.

Friday evening we went for a family swim at the YMCA - there was us, and one other kid in the pool so maybe we are not quite like the locals - then we came home, made pizzas and had a movie night. I love being able to relax and spend time with my family. It feels like it has been a long time since we were able to really relax and do that. 

This morning I had the absolute luxury - for the first time in forever - to wake up just because my body wanted to. Seriously, I almost couldn't believe it. It was about 7:15... nobody else was awake... and I just woke up... actually feeling rested. I think I am still in shock. This is the first time in months that I haven't woken up exhausted and feeling like I could go back to sleep for another week and one of the few time ever that I haven't been woken up by one of my kids. Crazy! There is hope that one day I may actually live the life I imagine for myself.

Anyway... today I decided to have a relaxing day. Just because I could.  Before lunch me and all my boys went for a walk around the neighbourhood and I thought I would share a bit of what I saw...

Our neighbourhood has some beautiful houses. I always love walking around looking at the architecture...

Today, I was loving the brick...

and stone.

Some of the neighbours are starting to get their wood ready for winter - lots of people around here heat with wood - it made me think of how quickly the summer is passing. And when I looked around at my boys they looked so big. 

Time passes so quickly. 

I realized that I need to spend more time just enjoying the everyday moments with them.

I am thankful that this little guy- although getting so big - still has a long way to go before he grows up. I need to remember to give him time to be young...

and enjoy all the things little boys love. I love watching the curiousity in their faces. My boys have taught me so much about the joy of exploration. I am so thankful that I had three of them. I think I really needed those daily reminders to look around me and find beauty in the little things. I am very blessed.

And I love that I can - sometimes - still outlast my kids. I feel so happy today. Just look at them - how could this not make a mama happy? I love my boys - all four of them.

And because I was feeling a little sad that my girl didn't want to come on our walk - shocking I know. 

(Why wouldn't an almost 14 year old want to go for a walk with her family around the neighbourhood? I no longer can entice her with a visit to the park. The chance to stay home alone in a quiet house is just too tempting these days.) 

Since I was feeling the love when we came home I decided to make my girl her favourite lunch... 

so yummy...

Hope your week-end has also been great!