Friday, September 23, 2011

Sweet Autumn

Yesterday was officially the first day of autumn, and it's making me happier than I can possibly express. Most people who know me well know that this is my favourite season: the weather turns crisp and cool, leaves change colour, and a sense of calm falls over me as I begin to nest in for the winter. I have to admit, my idea of a perfect evening would be sharing a gorgeous dinner with a small group of friends, and then curling up by the fireside with a book or some knitting and a cup of mulled cider, and the darker half of the year is really quite meant for such evenings, isn't it? Wow, am I a wild child... Fortunately, my dear Nathaniel is much of the same mindset, so it works out rather well.

Our little sparrow, Robin, is growing up to be quite the handsome gentleman. It's amazing how much personality is squeezed into that bird, but it's truly a wonder to behold. He has definite likes and dislikes, an extensive vocabulary of warbles and squeaks, and recognises several words that we say: so far, the words that elicit the best response from him are "almond", "blueberry", and the latest one, "TIMBIT". I've also discovered his fondness for Lady Grey tea with agave syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice: what can I say, my boy has good taste. I just have to find a way to keep him out of my teacup.

Robin and a honey cruller Timbit with his name on it.

We thought that we would need to sort out a new nesting place for him for the winter, as his abode in a metal "N" atop our radiator would not be ideal once the heat is turned on. He seems to have sorted out that issue for himself, however, as he has made a little den for himself in one of the cubbyholes built into the Victorian writing-desk we have in a corner by the window.

This season is full of so many delights, and not just those of home and hearth: farmers' markets are teeming with the season's harvest, and we can once again indulge in soups, stews and casseroles that would have been terribly out of place in summertime. The other night, my dear friend Becca created a dish of quinoa with roasted squash, leeks, and garlic that was absolutely gorgeous, and I've been craving roasted squash and pear soup like you wouldn't believe. Nathaniel also has a penchant for creating melanges of root vegetables that, despite their simplicity, have a richness of flavour that has to be witnessed firsthand. We don't really have a recipe for this per se, but there are only a few key ingredients that are needed:

- organic root vegetables
- onion
- garlic
- olive oil
- herbs and spices of your choosing.

One of our favourite combinations was a mixture of sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, orange and purple carrots, parsnips, a bulb of garlic, and golden beets. The vegetables were all chopped into cubes, then tossed in a baking dish with olive oil, salt, pepper, a bit thyme and a sprinkle of herbes de Provence. We then roasted them at 400F for nearly an hour until the vegetables were soft, the onions had caramelised, and people were lining up outside the house to find out what we were cooking to make the neighbourhood smell that good.

We have a few creative projects on the go right now, though our major focus is on Dispatch Ontario 2: the second edition is a paperback rather than hardcover, and is full of stories, poems, colouring pages, puzzles and more! Stay tuned for further updates, and have a gorgeous weekend.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Harvest Begins!

Oh my goodness. Was our last blog post really in June?
That's utterly dreadful.
Please accept our wholehearted apologies for the neglect of this blog: we've both been swamped with workstuff and the like, and putting up new blog posts was a priority that was shoved down the list somewhere between sock-mending and defrosting the freezer.

We shall be posting on here with greater frequency henceforth, we promise!

In our last post, we mentioned that we had found a baby sparrow and were raising it by hand: the wee one is now nearly three months old, is officially a male, and thriving merrily. He lives in our bedroom, has made a couple of little nesting spots for himself around the room, and has developed a taste for cherries, bananas, mangoes, and almond biscotti. (What can we say? Our little boy has good taste.)

In more creative news, Nathaniel and I have created our first children's book! Written and illustrated as a gift for our niece Isabelle, Dispatch Ontario is a tribute to local fauna, architecture, folklore and fun, all geared for an audience aged four to seven. This is the first book in a planned series, and will be available for sale online in the very near future.

We're currently working on content for the next installation, so stay tuned for news on that front!

Now that August has arrived, we're starting to see the fruits of our labours in terms of the few edible plants we've nurtured in our little garden over the past couple of months, and from the looks of it, we'll soon be barraged by more cherry tomatoes than we know what to do with. The heirloom beans are coming in full swing, and our heritage squash and pumpkin plants are starting to flower too! Another trip to Urban Harvest will be in order soon to buy more seeds to keep in storage, and we're saving as many seeds as possible from our own garden. (Do you know how to collect and store tomato seeds, beans and the like? If you're at all interested, leave a comment below or email us directly, and we'll write a blog post on how to do so.)

I hope you're all taking the opportunity to visit your local farmers markets as often as possible to revel in all of the gorgeous food that's coming to full ripeness now. We're heading to Whittamore Farms this coming weekend with a group of friends so we can pick some of our own vegetables, and we've been relishing the produce that's available at the St. Lawrence Market as well. The other night, we had a lovely friend of ours over for supper, and Nathaniel baked what was quite possibly the best vegetarian lasagna I've ever had. Using only local, organic ingredients from The Sweet Potato, he created a multi-layered, gluten free paradise with eggplant, zucchini, sweet potatoes, his own secret tomato sauce, and an assortment of cheeses. Absolutely gorgeous.

Is there a particular recipe that you like to make as summer draws to a close? 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Parenting Passer domesticus.

And so it was that on a sunny spring day in May, Nathaniel and I found ourselves to be the foster-parents to a baby sparrow.

Around 3pm on May 28th, N and I were on our way home from a friend's house when we decided to take an alternate route back to the house, and as we walked along Dundas street east of Runnymede, we saw an older man standing very still, staring at something on the sidewalk.
We approached slowly to see what it was he was looking at, and discovered that it was a tiny baby bird--pink and transparent, probably just hours old (if that), flailing helplessly on the concrete.

I immediately scooped the little thing up into my hands to warm it and told the man that we would take it home with us. He said "ok" and wandered off, and we made our way home with this tiny, fragile little life cupped protectively in my palms. Once we got home, some research was needed to sort out what species it was and what its needs would be, and at once, care for the little house sparrow began.

("Robin", 3 days old)
It's a very surreal experience to hand-feed a pink, cheeping little creature every twenty minutes from sunrise to sunset, but to see the changes in this little life in so short a time span has been nothing shy of miraculous: within a week, the little one (whom we've named Robin, as we don't yet know its gender) has opened his/her eyes, began to sprout feather-stalks, and is starting to look more like a bird than a nugget of chewing gum with a beak on it.

We have discovered that s/he likes to be held in one hand and sung to sleep, that one type of chirp means s/he's hungry while a different tone means that s/he needs to poop, and that blackberries mashed into his/her meals makes for a very, very happy birdlet. As his/her eyes are now fully open, there's a great deal of looking around at the magical new world around his/herself, and the little pink tongue that flicks out to taste new foods is so cute that my heart nearly breaks every time I see it.

It is a very strange, very beautiful experience to parent something so tiny and fragile and helpless. I've cared for human babies since I was in my early teens, and though they're also small and delicate, there's a hardiness to human infants that is completely incomparable to this small little life. At first, s/he weighed less than an ounce, and was completely bare-skinned and blind: the most helpless, vulnerable life form I have ever encountered, and one that was entirely dependent on Nathaniel and I for everything, from regular feedings to encouragement to relieve itself. 
Since then, s/he has doubled in size, changed colour, opened his/her eyes, and sprouted little spikes all over his/her body that are beginning to erupt into soft brown wisps of feather. It's now been 11 days since we found our little friend, and his/her personality has been developing more and more each day.

Despite all of the fears and neuroses about accidentally injuring or otherwise scarring the wee birdlet, this has been an incredible experience, and I am eternally grateful for this adventure in foster-parenting. Never would I have imagined that I'd be getting up at the crack of dawn to mash berries into baby bird food, or stroking a little head the size of my fingertip to calm the wee one to sleep. Among the many lessons I'm learning in this journey, I think one of the most important ones is absolute presence in the moment: for the first week of Robin's life, s/he was so fragile and vulnerable that the possibility of death was very probable. In fact, 98% of orphaned birds don't survive their first 48 hours, so it was with bated breath that we checked on the little one every morning to see if s/he'd lived through the night.

All of this is certainly a lesson in appreciating every moment and cherishing its sweetness. Robin has changed so much in the last week and a bit, and each change is an irreversible one: s/he will never be a blind, pink, squiggly thing again, nor will we ever re-live the moment when s/he opened his/her eyes and looked around at the world for the first time. Every sensation is a new one, and we get to live them through him/her--right down to the bliss s/he seems to feel when we blow on his/her little back and s/he spreads wings to catch the draft around them.
With any luck, this presence of mind will expand to other aspects of life, and we can spend more time in the moment, appreciating it fully, and seeing it for the beautiful, ephemeral wonder that it is.

(Super soft sparrow-kisses)
I've always had an incredible affinity with birds, particularly the wee ones like sparrows and wrens, and I think it's strangely (but wonderfully) poetic that I am learning so much from one that's now sharing its life with us. I am honoured to be part of its growing process, and beyond delighted at the magical set of random circumstances that brought Robin to us.

S/he is unbelievably special, and so, SO loved. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Almost summertime!

I've been so swamped with workstuff lately that when I realised that it's been over two months since we last updated this blog, I was beyond appalled. I've gone from being in a place in my life where I was writing daily, to scribbling notes on scrap pieces of paper every couple of weeks when I have a spare moment to breathe here and there.
Balance: Trying to find it. 

Actually, it's the pursuit of balance that's my main focus these days -- balancing work and LIFE, play and promise, friend-time and solo introspection, etc.
Living here in our little fortress of calm and peace in the High Park/Junction area is certainly playing a huge role in finding a measure of tranquility that hasn't been present in other places we've lived. I've started running again (for the first time in six years...  eek!) and as I explore the neighbourhood more and more, I'm realising what a treasure High Park really is. In previous years, I might have only gone to the park for the cherry blossom festival and the occasional barbecue, but it's now less than a ten minute walk from my house, and I'm reveling in visits there as often as possible. The trails are great for running on, there's a labyrinth to walk, and the swans in Grenadier pond always make me smile.

I'm also planning to start taking yoga classes at Green Lavender: an eco store and yoga studio that's just up the street from us. Spring/summer always seems to shake me from my cold-weather lethargy and makes me want to bounce around and stretch and play, and I think I'll just "go with it".  *grin*

This area is also full of wildlife that I've never even heard of, let alone encountered anywhere in Toronto before. There are 4 different species of warbler that live in the trees in our front yard, and I've seen foxes, opossums, little red chipmunks and plants that are gorgeous beyond measure. Nathaniel and I seem to encounter new bird species almost daily, and when we cleared several years' worth of mulch in the garden, we unearthed bulbs and other wee green things that have turned into yards of lily of the valley, creeping ivy, hostas, and other wondrous plants. I've never had a garden quite so lush before, and we're taking full advantage of our surroundings by having meals outside on our patio and spending evenings out there, reading until the light fades.

Trying to find time to write when all I do is type all day is another matter. It's hard to be inspired to pour forth prose when one's days are filled with seemingly endless torrents of work-stress. Therein lies the challenge, neh?  Being able to leave work at work, and replenish the self afterward so that creativity can flow forth. At least when I leave work, I have a verdant, calming space to retreat to, a wonderful partner whom I love dearly, and a plethora of knitstuffs and books to soothe my soul.  Thank the gods for small pleasures.

I'm off for now: heading over to the home turf of Orange Nose Cakery to pick up my beloved's bithday cake. The owner, Farida, has made a custom, gluten-free marvel for us to indulge in, and I can't wait to try it!


Friday, March 11, 2011

Organically speaking

any of us talk about making healthier choices when it comes to the food we eat, but a great number of people are deterred by the thought that buying organic/free range food is more expensive, and that attaining said foods is an inconvenience (i.e. not all major chain grocery stores carry organic food, so people have to trek all the way to a "health food" store to get it, then have to wade through miles of hippies, etc).

Fortunately, this isn't always the case.

Here in Toronto, stores like Loblaw, FreshCo, Metro and Sobeys either have sections dedicated to organic and healthy alternative products, or have these types of foods interspersed with their regular stock. When I went shopping at one of these stores recently, I found quinoa and kamut pasta right there on the shelf next to the wheaty ones, and there were all manner of certified organic bits to be found all over the store.
That being said, I prefer to support smaller local stores than the large chain ones, but if this isn't an option in your area, you may be pleasantly surprised to find such products where you least expect to.

While some "health food" products may be a bit more expensive than others, many of them are at the same price point, if not lower (if you don't mind buying in bulk). For example, at many health food stores, buying a bag of organic granola that you've shoveled into a sack yourself is far cheaper than oh, let's say... a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (which, though delicious, is also not the healthiest choice as far as foodstuffs go).

I'm of the belief that the long-term benefits of eating for one's health are worth a bit of investment. The old adage "you are what you eat" holds true, as food is medicine in its own right, and what we put into our bodies has a profound effect on how our bodies and minds function. If this means shelling out an extra dollar for produce that hasn't been sprayed with carcinogenic, environment-destroying chemicals, I'm all for it.

Last week, Nathaniel and I had the pleasure of receiving our first box of produce from Mama Earth Organics -- a Toronto company that connects those who live here with local organic growers by delivering farm-fresh produce and other products to our homes. My first bite into an organic apple made my toes curl with happy, and we both had similar reactions when we tasted the Boston lettuce, blood oranges and other bits of wonder. These raw ingredients were exquisite, and the dishes we cooked with them had depth of flavour that just cannot translate properly into words.
Organic produce reminds me of what food tasted like when it was freshly harvested from the garden when I was a child. I remember picking tomatoes for supper after they'd been basking in the sunshine all day, and that crisp burst of tomato scent that wafted with each freeing tug was a small delight in itself.
Most of us have grown so accustomed to the flavourless fruit and vegetables that are readily (and cheaply) available in our local supermarkets that we have either forgotten or, even more sadly, never experienced what these foods should actually taste like.

Toronto has several organic home-delivery services that not only distribute produce, but also organic baked goods, preserves, dairy and meat products, and other delectable tidbits. In addition to Mama Earth, there's also Green Earth Organics, Front Door Organics, and though you have to pick it up yourself rather than having it delivered to your door, FoodShare puts together an impressive Good Food box as well.

In this week's basket, we received ambrosia apples, navel oranges, fair-trade bananas, shallots, rainbow carrots, Boston lettuce, spinach, fennel, black kale, and snap peas. We've eaten the snap peas raw, but we have plans for the other ingredients:

- Kamut soba noodles with kale and broccoli in a garlic-ginger-sesame sauce
- Fennel, carrot and apple slaw with a yogurt dressing
- Spinach and white bean soup (minus the turkey)

At least one of the bananas will likely end up in a smoothie of some sort. *grin*

As we continue to explore this city and its surroundings, we'll be keeping our eyes open for all manner of sources for organic foodstuffs, as well as sources for seeds to be able to grow herbs and veggies in our home garden. This weekend will include a trip to The Sweet Potato ,a health food store near our place in the Junction, and I've reserved a few hours to curl up in the window seat with a cup of tea to read my Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.

Have a gorgeous weekend!
Be well, walk in Beauty.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pioneer quest?

KAY... not quite a "quest" per se, but certainly a delving.
Let me explain: Nathaniel and I have been compiling a list of some historical places around southern Ontario that we're planning to visit over the next few months, and one of the places on the list is Black Creek Pioneer Village. I haven't visited that place since seventh grade, and Sir N has never been, so there's a significant measure of excitement in experiencing everything there from an adult's perspective.

Many of my own interests are more than a little anachronistic, so this forthcoming venture into Pioneer-world has caused the creative juices to churn and squeak, and I've come up with a creative endeavor that's going to be shared with my dear friend Kel, a soul-sister who lives on the other side of the world in the wilds of Tasmania: we're both going to create natural dyes from the native plants and mordants of our own areas, and use them in some artsy projects!  I'm aiming to dye both cloth and wool, do some sewing, and use the spun thread to embroider embellishments on whatever it is I'll be making.
This is exciting! I've been doing some research about the plants that are indigenous to our area, and can't wait to experiment with the colours I'll be able to create from the different plant parts. Of course, I'll have to wait for the snow to melt and the plants to actually start -growing- before I can harvest most of them to start dyeing, but there are some components I'll be able to work with fairly early.

I should be able to create light greens from the leaves of new herbs, pinks from early strawberries and sumac flowers, yellows from onion skins, etc. What I'll be creating with all of these components will be a surprise, but I'm really, really looking forward to the process.

In that same anachronistic vein, Nathaniel and I are aiming to learn some of the other things our pioneering predecessors would have spent their time doing, including canning/preserving berries and other fruit, brewing our own beer or wine, making our own cheese/yoghurt, foraging for wild foods, and tending a garden full of indigenous vegetables and flowers.

Spring really is just around the corner: the March rains will quickly give way to April's green, and we'll be prepped and ready to go!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A new day dawns, and a new journey begins.

HEN last you heard from your dear intrepid adventurers, I'd had a complete meltdown over my inability to remember what non-local foods tasted like, and Nathaniel had gone completely AWOL because of various work responsibilities. That was six months ago, and needless to say, a great deal of change has happened since then.

We did manage to adhere to the 100 Mile Challenge until mid September, at which point we abandoned it with much gusto and curled up with bowls of awesomeness at Thai Elephant on Queen West. Digging into a bowl of padh thai after three months of having no exposure to any spices was almost transcendental: I'm not over-exaggerating when I say that I got teary-eyed as I ate, and I have a vague memory of Sir N cradling his bowl of green curry rather tenderly. It was quite an interesting experience in terms of basking in flavours we were no longer accustomed to -- without regular exposure to those spices and seasonings, our taste buds had become more acute, and we found that we had greater sensitivity to subtleties in the foods we'd been eating. While before the challenge, I might have huffed in a bowl of said padh thai without much thought (probably whilst reading a book), this meal was a symphony to my senses, and I think we spent as much time talking about what we were tasting, as eating the meal itself.

In November, we moved into a new apartment close to the High Park area, and have been making regular sojourns to check out this part of town. Never having lived around here, we're reveling in the artistry of the area's Arts and Crafts homes, and we're both drawing a lot of inspiration from our surroundings for our own art and writing practices.
Since we're so fond of delving into this city's history, we're currently in the process of compiling a list of historical places within 100 Miles of our town that we're interested in exploring (including the multitude of fascinating nooks around Toronto itself, of course!) and the 33 Leagues form York blog is evolving into a celebration of Toronto and its surroundings.

There will be postings from dear Sir N and myself on topics such as:

- The architecture and history of various buildings
- Gardens and wild spaces
- Farmer's markets (and recipes to go along with foods purchased at them!)
- Wild foods that can be foraged and whereabouts one can do so
- Native species, their habitats, and why we find them interesting
- Dates that have historical significance (and any festivals surrounding them)
- Various other happenings around Toronto that pique our curiosity
...and so much more.

So the new journey begins, and with it, a meal to launch this mighty ship.
It's far (FAR) from anything we would have eaten in our 100 Mile challenge, and I'm more than happy to celebrate that. In fact, I may light a candle in thanks to whoever established the spice trade to begin with.

Our repast this evening consisted of hand-made flour tortillas, black bean mash, pico de gallo, guacamole, plain 1% yogurt in lieu of sour cream, shredded old cheddar, and sliced limes. This was served with a side of corn bread, but it wasn't pretty enough to take a picture of.
Just imagine perfect, golden wedges of cumin-laced cornbread deliciousness.
Great, thanks!

I can't give any recipe measurements per se because neither Nathaniel nor I actually use recipes or measurements when we're cooking. I can tell you that I've found the most perfect cornbread recipe EVER, and will be using this for all future cornbread-ish endeavors.

There's a trick to making really exquisite pico de gallo as well: if you're like me in that you're not fond of having mouthfuls of raw onion to contend with, try mincing the onion very finely and allowing it to cure in lime juice for 10-15 min before adding in the tomatoes and cilantro. The sweetness of the onion will come through along with a subtle bite, but that manky, overpowering "onion-y-ness" won't assault your face or come back to haunt you later.
The hand-made tortillas are super easy as well: just flour and a bit of baking powder and salt mixed with a 50/50 solution of water and oil until it makes a roll-able dough. These are rolled out into flat rounds that are approximately 6 inches in diameter, then thrown onto a hot (ungreased!) pan on high heat,  and tossed around back and forth until the bubbly bits start to go brown. The oil content keeps them pliant so you can fill them with all manner of deliciousness and then roll the up for easy devourings.
*Note: For my own cornbread, I substitute unsweetened organic soy milk mixed with a tiny bit of water in lieu of cow's milk.

With the exception of the cheese and sour cream, this meal was completely vegan and could be made entirely so with the use of vegan sour cream and cheese alternatives. Since we're not vegan (as mentioned before, Nathaniel is lacto-ovo veggievore and I'm a "pescetarian") we revel in dairy delicacies rather often, but it's nice to know that we can tweak recipes so our vegan friends can indulge in the food we create as well.

More to come soon!  I'm now going to curl up with a lovely cup of PG Tips and a book, and wish you all a wondrous weekend.