BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

C'est L'halloween

Nikolai's interest in Halloween started right around the end of June.  His choice of costume changed many times over the intervening months.  However, around Labour Day he settled into a final choice... he wanted to be a Fairy Princess.

I should have seen this coming... he loves his princess dress, and he was a queen last year.  But he's really started to developed those strong gender distinctions that all four year olds assert.  For example, as a yoga instructor he has told me that girls are not allow to do the T-Rex move (thrusting out your claws and teeth) we should do the ultrasaurus move instead (stretching up really tall).  However, he's still very much interested in being a fairy princess.

So I was left with a parenting quandary... I really believe in "Free to Be... You and Me", and Brad thought that his choice of costume was perfectly fine.  However, trick or treating as a fairy princess is an entirely different thing from joining in the school parade as a fairy princess (Nikolai's preschool is linked to a grade school). Is it my job to protect him from the teasing of 6 year olds?  What about his 4 year old classmates?

Nikolai does have a strong enough sense of self to be robust to such teasing... but I know that it would still hurt his feelings.  What should I do?

With much guilt, I interfered with his personal freedom and declared that he would wear the cowboy outfit that Uncle Roger gave him to the school party, and wear the fairy princess outfit for trick or treating.  He seems to have adopted the idea and shows a clear understanding of the need.  When the woman at the grocery store checkout was taken aback by his costume plans, he added a modifier explaining that he would also be a cowboy.  When the midwife responded positively to the fairy princess costume he was happy to leave it without such a qualifier.
I'll post some photos of both costumes tomorrow.  However, I wanted to blog today because we have been so busy with our Halloween preparations.  Our flurry of cooking and crafting has come about in an effort to decrease the emphasis on candy (which Nikolai can't eat).  We've made sucrose free chocolates, cookies and cake.  I am quite proud of my efforts, and wanted to share!

Felt Trick or Treat Bags
Nikolai's candy will be left in his bag for "The Candy Fairy", who will trade the candy for a toy of his request.

1. The bags are 8" wide, 3.5" deep, and 10" tall.  I cut the sides out of one long piece of orange felt (11" x 24").  I cut the base out a bit extra large to make it easy to fit (9"x 4.5").  Lastly I cut out two pieces for the handles (2" x 10").

2. The faces were cut out of black felt and were sewn on first (Nikolai requested a scary face).

3. The long piece of fabric was then sewn together, with all the sides of the bag emphasized by top-stitching.

4. The base was fit on, and sewn around on the outside. Since I don't need to worry about raveling with felt, decided to do an external seam to ensure a strong rectangular structure.
5. The handles were folded in half length-wise and top stitched on either side.

6. The top edge of the bag was folded to the inside, with the handles sewn in at that point.

Rolled Pumpkin Cookies
This recipe made a nice orange-ish cookie that was very much like a soft gingersnap.  I think it would be firmer if you used sugar instead of date sugar; either would work well. Dates just happens to be low in sucrose, and honey would have made the cookies too soft. For an exorbitant price, I can buy date sugar at our local health food shop.

Cream together 1/2 cup butter and 1 1/4 cups sugar.  Add in 1 egg, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 cup pumpkin puree (I used a red kuri pumpkin because I wanted an intense orange colour).  Then add in your dry ingredients: 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ginger.

Use as a drop cookie immediately, or refrigerate for 1 hour before rolling.  Roll to 1/4" thick and cut out shapes. Bake at 350F (180 C) for 15-20 min. Push raisins in for faces before baking, or frost afterwards.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Is it all for naught?

I am going to open up to the blogosphere to see if anyone happens to have a solution for our current dilemma.  It all surrounds our lovely fireplace:
 And here it is again, decorated for Halloween. (It's easier to see without Nikolai admiring his own artwork.)
The origin of the problem belongs to Brad.  He spent the whole summer looking at the dead branches on our fruit trees, then looking at the fireplace, before he decided that heating the house with cherry wood seemed like a sensible idea.  Unfortunately there were several issues that made it not such a sensible idea.

Pruning the fruit trees was relatively easy.  Just a morning's work for Brad and my Dad (with a wee bit of help from Nikolai).  What we didn't consider was the fact that even dead wood does not count a "dried firewood".  Our first fire was very smoky, and the wood did not want to burn.  Apparently six months in our basement should solve THAT issue.

However, cured wood will not solve our ultimate issue... that only about 90% of the smoke seems to actually go up the chimney.  And this is the problem we would like some advice on!  Here are the facts:

1.  The chimney was repaired and cleaned two years ago.

2. None of the tenants since then have had fires (likely due to the unpleasant smoke issue).

3. It is a coal burning fireplace from 1905.  And many of the houses in our area have similar fireplaces... which means that I have friends with similar fireplaces... and a bit of detective work has told me that they also have issues with smoky fireplaces and don't really use them.
Here are the facts that I know about coal burning fireplaces:

1. They are safe for burning wood as coal burns hotter than wood.  (Though our fireplace may no longer be safe for coal because of it's age. Besides, I'm betting Victoria has a bylaw against burning coal because of the air pollution issues.)

2. It is tiny.  It really can only hold 1 log at a time, so we were thinking of using wax logs (after the cherry wood didn't pan out).

3. Things still seem to burn when the metal cover is on... however it doesn't fit very well, so we still have to deal with smoke in the living room.

4. We have two dampers, both of which we keep open while burning.  There's also a shoot that dumps the ashes into the basement.  We've tried blocking it off to prevent cold air from coming up from the basement, as well as burning with it open.

The only theory we have is that coal burns hotter, and thus more of the smoke would go up the chimney (using the heat rises theory).  Does anyone have any ideas about how we might be able to have a winter fire in our beautiful fireplace?  (A smoky house is not an option that I am willing to, cough, consider).

As a reward for your help, I am going to share a delicious winter recipe. As usual, I forgot to take a photo before we started to tuck in.

Calendula Baked Eggs

Now I realize that calendula probably isn't seasonal for many people right now... but it just sounds so much more appealing then kale baked eggs.  Lucky for us our nights haven't gotten below freezing, so our culinary flowers are still blooming in full force.  In fact they are the happiest plants in the garden, as even our lettuce has stopped growing. I figure it's because I keep planning on pulling them up to mulch the flower beds.  But how can I touch a flower bed that's still in full bloom?

Gently roast 1/4tsp of cumin in a frying pan.  Add 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1/2 yellow onion (thinly sliced). Cook until soft. Stir in 2 chopped tomatoes, 2 cloves of diced garlic, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp smoked paprika. Cook until the tomatoes are broken down.

Remove stems, and finely chop 1 bunch of kale (or chard).  Add to the frying pan and cover with a lid until the kale is tender.  Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup of  calendula petals (optional).  Divide into oven proof dishes, make a well in the centre and carefully break a few eggs into each dish (4-6 eggs for the whole recipe). As you can see in the photo, I was a bit lazy and simply cracked all the eggs into the frying pan since it happens to be ovenproof.

Bake at 375F (190C) for 10-12 minutes, until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and more flower petals before serving.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The insanity of customer service

There is a comedic show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called the Rick Mercer Report.  I wouldn't say that I'm a big fan, however, we did happen to watch one episode recently and it had a very pertinent sketch.  (Warning the link directly opens a YouTube video). Anyways, it basically makes fun of the crazy (lack) of service offered by a few telecommunications companies.

Disclaimer: We have been going through a similar experience since moving to Victoria, though our telecommunication choices are limited and the service provider that caused me so much angst is not actually mentioned in the video. Since this blog is essentially my chance to vent all my frustrations, I'm not going to directly mention the service provider at issue.  However, there are very few service providers on the Island, and it wouldn't take long to figure out who I'm pointing my blogging finger at.

The story begins on a sunny day in February, when we first signed up for our telephone/internet service. The man who came to set up our services fit all my quintessential rural Canadian stereotypes. He was definitely of lumberjack stock, and had the easy manner that is often lost by the business of city living. Nikolai was thrilled by all the tools, and he (un)fortunately got to watch the installer for quite some time.  At issue was the fact that the telephone lines in our house were too old to manage the internet feed.  After testing all the telephone lines, he finally found one that was "internet capable".  This one was set up for the internet with the rest being left as basic phone lines.

It took me less than a day to realize that the remaining "basic phone lines" were not actually good enough for a telephone line.  We tried 3 phones and every phone jack in our house before I decided to use my crackly phone line to cancel our service.  The person on the other end of the phone was very gracious.  They noted the quality of service issue for our area and offered me four months of free phone service.

Free was about the right price for the bad quality of our line.  It was nothing that I couldn't get used to, having had plenty of poor quality cellphone calls in my life. However, when we finally ended up with a bill for the phone line in our mailbox, we decided that it was time to switch to a cable based phone/internet service. (At this point in the story it would be good to adopt an acronym for the telephone line based service provider as it will make everything easier to understand.  I think The EX is a good name, so they will be The EX from now on.)

And all was well... the service was switched... and I returned our ADSL modem as directed, via the post office.  It was a great service.  We simply handed the modem to the post office clerk, and received a tracking number for the delivery.  The EX covered all the costs for us!

And all was well... until our next bill (September 15th)... when we were charged a lot for the cost of the modem. So I gave The EX a call to see what was up, and what followed was quite a bit of Kafkaesque dialogue.

-The first person I talked to suggested that I needed to call the post office to ask them about it, since they didn't have a record of having received the modem.
-I called the post office, and the response was dismal. They delivered the item on August 30th, so I would have to discuss it with The EX.
-So I call The EX back and reached a different person. This person told me to wait.  It could take up to 6 weeks for them to process our modem and our bill would vanish at that point.

All was well... until our next bill (October 15th)... which now had interest charges in addition to the cost of the modem.

-Once again, I called up The EX. As before, I was told that they didn't have the modem.  In fact the guy stepped me through the online postal tracking system twice, convinced that I must be wrong about the package having been delivered.  Was I reading the status bar correctly?  Perhaps the package was lost in the postal distribution centre.  But every time I looked at my computer screen everything suggested that the package was delivered on August 30th. Regardless, I was told that The EX hadn't received it, and it was my job to figure out what had happened, or pay the fees.

-Another call to the post office proved to be a useless endeavor.  I was not allowed to pursue the missing package because I hadn't paid for the postage.  At least the post office person agreed with the fact that it appeared to have been delivered on August 30th.  However, since The EX had paid for the postage, The EX would have to open a report on the missing package.

Now I am 7 month pregnant... full of hormones... still bit nauseous after 7 months... and I'm suffering from a good deal of back pain (perhaps a blog for another time).  And I was pretty ANGRY.  So it wasn't with just my usual level of irate anger that I called up The EX... I had turned into the mighty pregnant banshee, willing to turn anyone to stone. And it was a man who was unfortunate enough to pick up the phone in their shitty little cubicle in The EX's  call centre.  He would never understand was it was like to spend months and MONTHS of being sick after breakfast. He wouldn't know the discomfort of spending the past 3 months trying to sleep with pain radiating from your back down your legs.  And he wasn't in training to push a grapefruit sized head out of his nether regions.

And he knew it.  The first thing he said was, "yes. Your modem arrived on August 30th."  The second thing out of his mouth was "I don't know why you had so much trouble with our customer service people".

All the air exhaled from my chest.  I am generally a reasonable person, and I was transformed back into my more diminutive self.

Now I just have a small part of me that lies in wait... for The EX's monthly call.  They want us back, free phone, TV, whatever it will take... and every time I patiently explain to them (as I would explain to a 4 year old) that our phone lines don't work. But the next time they call at 6 pm, interrupting our family dinner, and disturbing our sense of peace... I will be waiting for them... and they will never want to call us again.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On this harvest moon

Thanksgiving is definitely a "new world" holiday. In terms of history, most people think of the starving Pilgrims in Massachusetts being fed by the aboriginal peoples.  But really, harvest festivals arose spontaneously all over the continent and are likely derivatives of European traditions.

In modern times, Canadian Thanksgiving occurs a whole month and a half earlier then that in the USA.  And there is good reason for it!  Thanksgiving is often the first weekend of snow (for much of Canada), and signals the end of the harvest period. 

This year, Thanksgiving crept up on us, we've had so much warmth and sunshine that it was a surprise to discover that October had arrived!  In fact, Thanksgiving weekend was so warm that we were outside in bare feet and short sleeves while preparing our winter garden.  Regardless, the weekend seems to have signaled the end of summer, with an abrupt change into cold weather and foggy days.  Luckily we did manage to finish all of our garden chores.  We're fully planted in winter veg (parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, kale, spinach, onions, garlic, sunchokes) and cover crops (broad beans, corn salad).  Our cloche is erected and providing a home for our tender herbs and salad greens. 

 With Brad's extra day off we took a trip to the pumpkin patch for some extra holiday cheer. (For carving pumpkins, we used the pumpkin from Nikolai's garden for the pie). To finish off our personal harvest festival, our landlords showed up today for a tour of the garden.  We got permission to trim the fruit trees for firewood (who knew that cherry wood actually smells like maraschino cherries). Next spring we'll be able to build a temporary "greenhouse" on the south side of the house. (James bay has too much ocean breeze for our tomatoes to ripen, but some gardener's plastic should keep things warm.)  Little do they know that my secret plan is to build a hen house at the back of the property!

(As for the picture, we seem to always be traveling with a pirate these days).
Now for a favorite recipe.

Any Kind of Muffin

This truly is a muffin recipe that works for any flavour and any special diet.  I've made it gluten free, vegan and now sucrose free!

First mix your wet ingredients:
-2 eggs (or egg replacer)
-1/3 cup of oil
-1/2 cup of brown sugar (or 1/3 cup of honey)

Then add your dry ingredients:
-1 1/2 cups of flour (I've used a GF mix and rye, but I'm sure it would work with wheat)
-2 tsp baking powder
-1 tsp baking soda (bread soda)

Then mix in a cup of something wet. This can include: juice, yogurt, chopped fruit, etc.  If I use chopped fruit I add 2 tbsp of another liquid because otherwise it tends to be too dry.

Scoop into a muffin tin and bake at 350 F for about 25 minutes (until a skewer comes out clean). Whenever I make something gluten free (muffins included) I always freeze them right away to prevent them from going stale. Otherwise these should remain fresh for as long as you can manage to keep from eating them!

You can flavour this muffin batter in any number of ways. My favorites are:
-Lemon zest with poppy seeds
-Apple with cinnamon and ginger
-Pear with ground almond (in place of 1/4 cup of flour)
-Banana and walnut
-Berries and yogurt
-Chocolate chip with coffee (OK, I haven't tried it. But it does sound good!)

Friday, October 05, 2012

A tail of two fishes

The most "famous" aquarium in BC would have to be the Vancouver Aquarium.  It is obviously the largest, and has the most varied animals.  (For those of you who haven't heard of it, it is most famous for it's belugas and dolphins. Though I'm not going to comment on the ethics of keeping large roaming animals in rather small pools.)  --Note the picture is retro 2010--
The aquariums on Vancouver Island are much less famous and much smaller in scale.  This summer we visited both the floating "Under Sea Gardens" in downtown Victoria and the "Ocean Discovery Centre" in Sydney. 

The Under Sea Gardens would definitely qualify as a major tourist trap.  Moored up beside the Wax museum and across from the Parliament Buildings, it definitely wins for the prominence of it's location.  However, if the beluga tank in Vancouver seems at all small, then the Under Sea Gardens is more akin to a sardine can then a "natural" environment.  The tanks were definitely dirty and over full.

The lady handing us our tickets optimistically told us that it would only take about 10 minutes to tour the space.  I'd say we were done in less than 5 minutes, and even then we dragged Nikolai around the place twice.  It really wasn't that engaging.  However, their claim to fame is the hourly "Theatre Performances".  Nikolai was keen on a plot and a story, but the 20 minute show involved some prerecorded information about the sea creatures, and a diver who's job it was to drag the fish/animal in front of some viewing windows based on a timed schedule. 
The saddest part of the presentation was when he struggled to show us a rather reluctant octopus.  I have a theory that octopuses are ACTUALLY the smartest creatures on the planet.  They can change their skin colour and texture to communicate with each other.  They can move in the water and on land.  They also show many signs of learning and intelligence. We are just so LUCKY that they don't live for more than 3 years, or we'd probably have some competition for our established place in the world.

By comparison, the Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney BC provided a nice interpretive experience, focusing on our local sea life.  It's a bit off the beaten path, but Sidney has a nice shopping district and it's close to the ferry terminal and the airport, so it's not too far off the beaten path.  The Centre has few displays of fish in tanks. However, it leans more towards the interactive and educational displays, with crafts and microscopes to keep kids busy. 

Really, everyone's favorite part was the "petting aquarium".  It was filled with all the creatures you would find in our local tidal pools, with a few knowledgeable staff members on hand to explain everything and encourage the children to pet a spiky anemone or a sea cucumber. 
But if a free sea life adventure is more your style, then you could always explore the intertidal pools on your own, or go down to feed the rather domesticated seals at Fisherman's Wharf.

--Sorry about the poor photo quality.  We only had our phones with us on of these occasions.--