Wednesday, February 26, 2014

go with the flow

This year, there have been a litany of occasions that have tested my patience, most particularly when it comes to getting everyone out the door first thing in the morning to get to school on time.  We have experienced a record-breaking year of tardiness...we're now at the point where I can jokingly suggest to the school principal that we should have our late slips permanently laminated for the year.   I have no tears left for the mornings.

Often during our drive to school, we've encountered construction or busy traffic.  Early in the school year, I would switch lanes, dart around any obstruction just to rush to our destination.  In the backseat, I could only imagine what my kids witnessed...a seemingly crazy car race, whizzing by other vehicles.  Unfortunately I might have some idea of what kind of example I've set for the kids about patience...and about driving.

As the year progressed, for my sanity I had to learn to accept that there will be days when we will be late, and days when we will be on time.  There were times when we've left the house early only to encounter a traffic accident that put our concerted efforts down the drain.  There have also been days during questionable snowy driving conditions, where I would put safety first, focus on the task at hand, and go calmly knowing that we're not the only ones who are behind schedule due to the weather.  And ironically, it's those times when we've actually arrived earlier than everyone else!

Although I believe in respecting other people's time and arriving promptly, I also learned that I can only control how prepared we are to get to our destination, and I have absolutely no control about our path to it.

Now when I drive to school, the kids don't even flinch when I patiently wait behind a slow moving vehicle ahead of me.  They don't ask to "go faster" because I'm calm, cool and collected, and they now get the chance to observe what's outside the window, enjoying a safe and stress-free ride.  Sometimes there's a reason, not only which path we take, but how it is taken.  We should still prepare and do the best we can, and when we're satisfied with our efforts, just relax and go with the flow of traffic.  Maybe if we learn to stop rushing, we just might get to where we want to go...faster.

Grilled Mozzarella & Spinach Baguette
(Makes 6-8 servings)

This takes a little longer to make than your average grilled cheese sandwich, but it's well worth doing it.  Sometimes when I'm entertaining, I make 2 batches of this spinach mixture.  One to use with tortillas as a traditional dip, and the second batch I use for lunch the next day, as a grilled mozzarella spinach sandwich.

  • 1 pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed.
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • mayonnaise
  • mozzarella cheese
  • parmesan cheese
  • Mix the thawed chopped spinach with the mayonnaise in a mixing bowl.  
  • Add the onion and garlic.
  • Fold in the mozzarella and parmesan until mixed. 
  • Place inbetween two slices of a baguette.
  • Grill until cheese is melted.
Side note:  If you're serving this as a spinach dip, once all the ingredients are mixed together, place in a oven safe dish and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbly.  


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

carpe diem

After an extra long weekend (with a PA day last Friday and the Family Day holiday on Monday), as our son noted, this past weekend was equally as long as our upcoming work week.   Finally, a break!

As a rule, we usually complete all of our homework right after school before we get to play.  Especially before a weekend, so we avoid the homework-scramble-the-night-before we return to school.  But this time, we deviated from our usual routine, and although the kids did most of their work, they left a few things to do for later on, and started enjoying their long break right away!

With March Break just a few weeks away, we decided to do a few low key activities and just enjoy spending time with friends, cousins and each other.  I guess we've been so accustomed to being organized and always on the go, that it felt a little out of my comfort zone to not plan anything at all and just go on a whim.  We went to restaurants we've been meaning to visit.  We took advantage of quiet skating parks.  Watched a few movies.  And to be honest, as much as we needed the rest and slow pace, a part of me was feeling a little anxious.  Nothing planned, no bookings, no rush.  This actually felt odd to me.  For once, there were no activities planned with military precision. Laundry and homework left incomplete.

Maybe I felt odd because subconsciously, I thought there were a lot of "should haves".  As in, "we should have" finished all our work before we played.  Or, maybe "we should have" taken advantage of this extra time off to go on a fabulous weekend getaway or full day ski trip.  

During our quiet ride home from a dinner night out, our son unexpectedly said "You know, we are very blessed to have parents like you.  To be able to have opportunities like trying new restaurants and having new experiences, even if the experience is just eating a meal together.  Not a lot of kids are as lucky as we are."  I think my eyes started to water right there and then.

When I think of that moment, I realize that maybe we did seize the weekend after all.  The kids learned an important lesson about work before play, as they experienced the eleventh hour panic about incomplete homework on Monday night (trust me, they won't do THAT again).  And I learned that it's okay to get out of my comfort zone of planning and organizing...and to seize the day instead of carefully planning every little detail, because sometimes you just might find even more magic in those unexpected moments.  

Looking at the impromptu twelve layer chocolate cake with ice cream, and how it made those beautiful faces smile...I guess I'll just have to practice leaving my comfort zone once in a while and say 'carpe diem'...and maybe just seek comfort in my food instead.

Herb Mashed Potatoes
Serves 8-12 people

There is nothing more comforting than mashed potatoes, especially on the cold winter nights that we've been experiencing lately.  Adding roasted garlic and oregano added more depth to the taste, and elevated this dish from your average mashed potato into something a little more fancy, served at a restaurant.

  • 5 pounds of potatoes, peeled and quartered. 
  • ½ cup of butter
  • ½ cup of grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup of cream cheese (optional...adding the cream cheese allows the potatoes to be made ahead of time and stay creamy when reheated).
  • 1 whole garlic, roasted
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 ½ tsp. of oregano
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
  • Add potatoes and cook until tender but still firm, approximately 40 minutes.  Drain.
  • In the meantime, place the garlic in a square of tin foil, drizzle with olive oil and roast in the oven at 400degrees for approximately 30-40 minutes.
  • Add butter, parmesan, garlic, salt and oregano.
  • Mash.
  • Add cream cheese (if using), and top with a little more oregano.
Serve and enjoy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

a little bit of passion

As far as I can remember, I would always carry around a little pocket inexpensive point and shoot one that I'd take with me almost everywhere. Before the ability to take millions of photos with a digital camera,  as a child I would sort through developed photos, proudly looking at my photographic achievements.  The photos that captured what I was passionate about (I've always been  a little obsessed with sunsets) were always the most beautiful.

Those old photos may have been slightly blurry or had too much reflection, but it didn't matter to me because the photos represented a story, not a technical achievement. Even to this day, I've been reluctant to purchase a DSLR camera, not just because of the cost, but mostly because I believe too much technical "stuff" interferes with the moment.  I've often seen others spend too much time "setting up the right light" instead of just watching the story of the world unfold in front of us, and capturing just the right time.  I guess that is the difference between a run-of-the-mill "portrait" photographer, and a photographic artist like Annie Leibovitz, who doesn't just rely on her equipment, but her passionate eye and empathy of the human story behind the face, capturing the spirit in front of her. 

In this article on, author Lee Colon discusses how to spark employee passion.  I thought this was apropos in timing, as we head into Valentines (and Family Day shortly thereafter). I gave my own personal twist to his 3 "needs of employees", to demonstrate how to incorporate these needs into our personal lives.  My own little "sparks" to ignite passion in our own family.

1.  Celebration or "Purpose".  Although the article describes offering an overall purpose for employees, it is often to difficult for young children to visualize and make the connection with the task at hand to an overarching goal (i.e. "eat your veggies, and you'll be really big and strong").  And as adults, far too often we get bogged down with our daily mundane tasks, making it difficult to see the forest for the trees. (Long commutes.  Laundry.  Endless laundry.)  So I try to arrange little weekend "rewards" could be small like trying a new dish or a big family outing to dinner and a movie.  Something to look forward to, short term purposes along the path of a long one, to celebrate our determination to muddle through the mundane because at the end (of the week), it will be worth it.

Just like employees who need purpose (short or long term), I consider these little celebrations our own little versions of "purpose" (or motivation).  And trust me, nothing makes the kids eat their veggies faster than the motivation of baking cookies or treats on the weekend.

2.  Rituals or "Intimacy".  My husband often has team building exercises at his company, sometimes off-site, and often filled with fun and interesting moments of discovery.  It gives everyone a chance to know each other beyond their professional capabilities.  It's a ritual that his team I think finds comfort because they are valued and listened to as human beings, not employee numbers.  In our home, we also have little rituals (from homework rituals to mealtime rituals).  Things like always saying our blessings before dinner and bedtime.  Or having "Fish Friday" (no-meat dinners on Friday).

There is so much unknown in the world, so rituals big or small gives us the sense of comfort because we know what to expect.  The known.  And when you belong somewhere, you have the courage to fly and discover your passions, knowing there will always be a place to come home to.

3.  Count your blessings or "Appreciation".  I often think there is a misnomer in the business world that managers don't try make their employees feel appreciated.  I actually think there is a huge concerted effort by modern leaders today, more than ever, to involve their employees in many aspects of a business so they are involved, in control and feel their work and opinions are appreciated.  But the fundamental difference I see between many professionals and how I feel as a parent, is true gratitude.  We all work hard.  And yes, we'd like to hear "great job" once in awhile.  But there are many people who work just as hard (if not harder) who don't have the accoutrements that we enjoy today.

When my kids are tired of going to school, or don't like the lunch that was packed, I remind them that there are other children who have to bike an hour to school, or don't have food.  When they see others who don't have as much, they count their blessings and are grateful for what they have, and become more passionate about being better champions of this world.

With these "sparks", hopefully this Valentines you'll ignite a little work or at home.

Happy Valentines Day!!!

Cinnamon Sugar Donut Holes/Cake Pops
(Makes about 2 ½ dozen)

Our daughter received a Cake Pop maker for Christmas. In lieu of using the provided popsticks, we found it made great donut holes instead (aka "Timbits" for my Canadian readers).  However, if you don't own a cake pop maker, the batter of this recipe can be placed in mini-muffin pans (makes about 24) and baked for 20 minutes at 375 degrees.   It's not round, but the taste is the same.

  • 1⁄2 cup sugar
  • 1⁄3 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½  cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½  teaspoons baking powder
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1⁄2 cup milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
Cinnamon-Sugar Topping
  • 3⁄4 cup sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

    • Beat together sugar and shortening in mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg. 
    • Stir together flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Beat in eggs and vanilla.
    • Alternately blend in flour mixture and milk into shortening mixture, beginning and
    • ending with the flour mixture.
    • Fill each cooking reservoir (if using cakepop maker) or mini muffin cup with about 1 tablespoon of batter.
    • Bake 4 to 5 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into puffs comes out clean. (20 minutes in the oven at 375 degrees if using the mini-muffin tin)
    • For cinnamon-sugar topping, combine cinnamon and sugar in small bowl.
    • Immediately roll hot puffs in melted butter, then in cinnamon-sugar mixture.
    • Makes about 2 ½ dozen
    Enjoy these little bits of heaven!

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    end of the day

    This January has been a particularly long, snowy and cold month.  As the temperatures continue to dive down to arctic equivalents, the motivation to get up and get moving in the morning has been challenging for both adults and children in the household.  Often I'd barely open my eyes, peeking out at the morning frost on the window, staying cuddled under the oh-so-warm comforter, hoping to hear the phone ring with an early morning call from the school to inform us that it's a snow day.

    A brief but timely article in 'Inc. Magazine' had some interesting tips on how to end your day to become more productive.  Although this article was geared towards having a productive business day, I think many of the points would work for parents.  Here are 5 of the points that I think not only work well with adults, but are good habits to start teaching children when they are young.

    1.  "Finish one (organizing) project".  Every semester, there is at least one long term project that is  due at the end of the term (or during "report card season").   Book reports, science projects, or other assignments that require various work phases to complete (like research, rough drafts etc.).  I always find these assignments are generally due during a frantic time...right before Christmas holidays or March Break, and there is nothing worse than trying to cram all your work into the last week before a holiday.  So on our school calendar, we mark due dates, and every single night, the kids are required to work on at least one hour worth of work towards completing their assignment.  By doing this, often they feel accomplished that they did something, and usually finish their projects way before it's due date.  There's never a better feeling than a worry free holiday instead of cramming last minute for school work.

    2.  "Address all communication".  After school in our house, it is required that the kids empty their backpacks and present all notes that come from the school.  Notes from teachers, other parents, newsletters, birthday invitations, playdate arrangements etc. are determined, discussed, arranged and questions are answered.  This way we all know what is expected of us, and the next steps we need to take (like buying a birthday gift early, not on the way to the party!)

    3.  "Review your calendar and to-do list".  After school, the kids are required to go over their agendas and check off all the homework, tests and assignments they must complete for the next day.  I usually take this opportunity to also probe what's happening (socially) in the class, and help them prepare for future assignments. Making sure an agenda is reviewed EVERY NIGHT is key. Luckily our school provides these agendas, but keeping an inexpensive one in the backpack sets a good habit for the kids to keep on top of things.

    4.  "Set out your clothes".  Every night, we review the weather forecast and set out all the clothes for the next day.  We consider their school schedule (gym, outdoor recess), and make sure that that all the necessary items are ready to go.  This shaves at least 15 minutes off the morning routine, as the kids have already coordinated their outfits the night before, items are checked to ensure they're clean and don't have holes, and there are no arguments on what to wear.  This also teaches them to understand how to read the weather reports, and prepare for the next day.

    5.  "Set out your shut-down time".  This one is the most challenging for me, especially since technology plays a large role in our family life.  Our rule of thumb is: no video games during the school week, so we can concentrate on school work/extracurricular activities.  No technology allowed at the table during meals....only real conversations allowed.  And we try to shut down all media at least one hour prior to bedtime, so we can unwind and avoid media driven stimulation.  This last hour, prior to bedtime is spent either reading, writing in journals, drawing, playing with legos or (my favourite), a quiet conversation about our day.   As much as I love everything that comes with our digital devices, it's the quiet time that truly allows us to connect.  It's a cathartic time to release any negativity that hinder us, and provide clarity or perspective of the day to help us realize how grateful we should be.

    I guess it's true that how you end your day can be just as important as how you begin it.  As I shudder at the thought of driving through one more snowy cold morning, with end of day planning, organizing and then settling down (maybe with some warm homemade soup), we'll be well prepared for tomorrow.  Whatever the weather.

    Quick and Easy Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup
    (Makes approx. 4 servings)

    This recipe is very adaptable.  You can add all kinds of spices to give this more depth, like rosemary, parsley or thyme.  It's not a lot different than making a mushroom roux (or gravy), but adding other spice elements along with cream makes this a simple and easy soup.  Side note: If you're making a recipe that requires condensed cream of mushroom soup, I discovered that this can be used in lieu of the "canned" version (bonus: no preservatives).  Just follow the instructions but omit the cream.

    • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms
    • 2 tablespoons onions, chopped (I used red onions...shallots would work well too)
    • 2 garlic cloves, minced
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 3 tablespoons flour (separated)
    • 2 cups chicken broth (I used low sodium organic broth).
    • 1 cup light cream
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
    • 1/4 teaspoon thyme or parsley
    • Cut the mushrooms into slices.
    • Melt butter in large frying pan. Add in onions, garlic, and mushrooms. 
    • Cook until onions are soft.
    • Blend in 2 tbsp. flour and stir.
    • Slowly add the chicken broth until slightly thickened while stirring frequently.
    • Add one more tbsp. of flour and seasonings, continuing the stirring.
    • Slowly add the cream to the soup until desired thickness and consistency.
    • Top with croutons or parsley.