The Christmas Table

With baby Benjamin just a week old on Christmas day, there was no question that we’d be at home these holidays. Much as it’s been a delight spending Christmas morning alternately with Tara’s parents and mine, it was fun this year to take the step of spending it with just each other and the kids.

Of course, this also meant that for the first time, we were also on our own with respect to Christmas food. Our families have set a high bar on festive meals, so we had a lot to live up to, but I think we did well.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, we did a little pull-ahead, making a pumpkin pie to put in the fridge, as well as a combined potato and sweet potato dish:

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Tara also prepared tomato aspic, which is curious vegetable jelly that has been a staple for her mum and grandmother:

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Finally, I put on some overnight cinnamon rolls to rise. My first attempt was a failure—the successful result ended up being a hybrid between two different recipes, one by Alton Brown and the other by Ree Drummond. I put them on to bake the next morning after presents, and they were completely decadent and delicious:

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Christmas afternoon, we steamed up the broccoli, and put the roast in. When the roast was done, Tara made Yorkshire pudding in the hot oven, and I threw together a gravy on top. We also made a creamy cheese sauce (Mornay) for the broccoli. This was the final spread:

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Completely delicious—a triumph. It was great to have such a complete meal and yet still have a reasonably relaxing Christmas day; definitely the effect of having done a bunch of stuff in advance.

I think I probably spent more time in the kitchen cleaning up on Christmas than I did preparing food. Here’s the right-after-dinner warzone picture:

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And yes, that is an electric carver there on the far right—I got it for $2 at a garage sale. I feel like such an old man with it, but I love it.

Singing to Clara

Clara enjoys music a lot. She hums her own melodies around the house, and requests music be played from our laptops. On the road, we can barely back out of the driveway before demands are issued forth from the backseat for music to be played in the car. At bedtime, she insists “Clara crib, Da-da ting!”

For the past several months, I’ve been singing to Clara at bedtime—the expectation is now fully established: milk, singing, hug, sleep.

I struggled at first with what to sing to her. Our church is contemporary, and the songs are singable, but they’re rhythmic and often quite upbeat—not always what I’m looking for for tired-me and to provide a calming environment for a two-year-old I would like to sleep. I have fond memories of being sung hymns as a child myself, and my parents still have a stack of the (now very well worn) red hymnals which they sang to us out of for many years.

I appreciate that our church takes a contemporary approach to music; the leadership does a fantastic job with it, and I think it retains its sacredness despite being more accessible and modern-sounding. At the same time, I’ve always appreciated the rich words and more contemplative feel of my favourite hymns, and bemoaned that I don’t have the weekly opportunity to sing them over and over and learn the words by heart the way I wish I could.

Of course, the only barrier to singing hymns to Clara was having the words, so I finally made up a double-sided songsheet, jammed with eight favourites, in three columns, 11pt type. Then, after months of using just the first page, I finished up selecting another eight and created a second double-sided sheet. Because the lyrics and music of hymns are of course in the public domain, I’m pleased to share this online:

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It’s probably not a group-suitable songsheet in this form, as there’s no numbering or really any organization at all—compactness and simplicity are the goals. But I hope that it may be useful, perhaps to others in a similar position.

The Colours of Summer

At Christmas, we received a copy of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. Just reading the opening pages, I could tell that I really liked Bittman’s philosophy about vegetarian cooking and meal construction. Although a heavy tome, Bittman’s approach is very empowering and accessible—to me, it’s in many ways the opposite of a book like Moosewood, which I find overwhelming.

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I’ve probably only made a handful of the actual recipes from Bittman, but I feel that it’s impacted a lot how I make and think about our meals, especially the following points:

  • Abandon the notion of an “entree” and “sides”. Trying to come up with a vegetarian entree has one reaching for substitute meals, like vegetarian chili, vegetarian lasagne, etc. There are some great veggie entrees out there like quiche, but instead of thinking this way, imagine a veggie meal as several items presented on equal footing. This way, your bean salad can simply complement the other items at the table, rather than needing to be main dish.
  • It’s okay to serve some or even most of a meal out of the fridge. Some of these meal components can be more time consuming to make, so make lots, chuck it in the fridge (or even freezer), and serve it several times.
  • Vegetarianism is not an all-or-nothing deal. Bittman himself is “vegetarian before 6pm”, and whether your concern about animal products is health, ethical issues, sustainability, or a combination, even a partial reduction makes a difference.

For last little while, I’ve been using weekend meals as an opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice. We’ve had tubs of hummus and mayonnaise in the fridge, Tara’s made garlic-scape pesto, and I’ve served home-baked rolls, salads out of the garden, pesto pasta dishes, and a variety of market veggies (especially beets, in various configurations). The picture up there was this evening’s dinner on the barbecue, including locally-made sweet chili sausages from the market, zucchini, and a small stir-fry with peas from the garden. This was served with rice from the stovetop.

In garden news, we’ve had lots of peas, and some of the tomato plants are now taller than their 4′ stakes. The lettuce and spinach is pretty much done, and I’ll be sad to see it go: I’ve eaten a ton of the lettuce on my sandwiches at work. It’s so convenient to be able to just grab and wash a few leaves in the morning, with stressing about not eating up a whole head of it fast enough.

Anyhow, I’m excited for these to ripen:

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Blossoms

Most of our readers saw the article in the local paper–the journalist was very sympathetic, but bylaw enforcement did ultimately insist on my little garden being moved off the boulevard strip. In the wake of moving it, though, I was delighted by the number of people who stopped by with compliments, to express regrets, and to say that they had so enjoyed checking on the progress as they walked by on the sidewalk.

I really did just pick the location based on sunlight, but it was fascinating to observe how disarming that spot was. It was a magnet for people to approach and ask me about it, and being on pseudo public property I think almost leant it a community feel.

Anyhow, everything is moved up the yard to a new location in front of the house, and the peas are in bloom:

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We’ve been starting to harvest lettuce and spinach as well, having had several very nice fresh salads:

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And the tomato plants are coming along swimmingly:

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I’ve been pulling suckers and tying them to their stakes, and there are even a few blossoms coming in, so we should have the first tomatos before too much longer!

Growth

So we went to Saskatoon for a week, to visit my sister and brother-in-law. It was a really lovely time—wonderful to relax and visit, outside the hustle and bustle of Christmas or other big family gatherings.

It was also neat coming home and seeing what a week had done to Ontario, to the garden, and to the indoor seedlings (which a friendly kindly agreed to come by and water a few times). Our whole street had been bare trees, which were laden down with brilliant green upon our return.

Curiously, the wooden frame I constructed had gone missing. There was no other damage or signs of vandalism—it appears that a passerby saw it at the curb, misunderstood the purpose, and helped himself to what he believed to be garbage. Clara and I immediately set to work building a replacement, this time putting shallow stakes in the ground to make clear the intention that it be fixed. It was a simple matter to re-enclose the dirt, dirt which you can see actually included the beginnings of sprouting spinach, lettuce, and snow peas, all of which I had put in the ground before we left.

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The seedlings had also done very well in our absence, all looking very lively and healthy in their cereal box accommodations. Cucumbers in the foreground, tomatoes in the background:

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Here’s everything successfully transplanted on May 14-15th:

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And here we are a week later, with some stakes up for the tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers, as well as wire mesh to deter rabbits, and an adorable sign to deter potential vandals:

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What’s been learned so far?

  • I should have started my tomato plants at least two weeks sooner, and probably waited another week or two to transplant them. They look quite stunted now compared to how they were when they went in, and nothing like the lovely ones I bought from Fertile Ground Farm to supplement.
  • I should have put the spinach and snow pea seeds in the ground even earlier, probably by several weeks. I didn’t realise until I did more reading that they’re not only both frost tolerant, they don’t handle the summer heat well—we’ll have to wait and see if they even have enough time to mature to harvest before the summer gets them. Depending on the harvest size this year, I might try doing multiple seedings to stage the harvest across a longer period.
  • I should have put the peas and spinach through the middle of the garden (or intermingled) instead of on edges. If I’d done that, then it would have been more possible for the mature tomato and pepper plants to grow into the freed-up space, rather than… well, I don’t really have a plan for what will go in those spots once the peas and spinach are done.
  • I’ve had at least two instances of Random Plant Death, where with little or no warning, a plant just wilts over dead. I’m sure there is a logical explanation for this, or advance signs which missed, but it was definitely a surprise to see one of my cucumber plants healthy one day and flat on the ground the next.

Anyhow, overall it’s been a really fun and encouraging project. I’m excited to see what gets produced this year, and also to be seeing what to change for next year.

The Victory Garden

When we moved last fall, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was try growing some vegetables at the new house. So a few weeks ago, Clara and I stopped by our local garden store and picked up a bunch of seed packets and a bag of seedling soil.

That weekend, I started tomato and pepper seedlings in egg cartons. I tied them down to a piece of spare wood, and suspended them from string in our front window—where they’d get lots of sun, but not be accessible to the little one. Within a few days, the tomato plants had started coming up:

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The following weekend, I also started some basil and cucumber plants, in a similar manner. Last week, the tomato plants were starting to look a little droopy and discoloured—seems like they were probably outgrowing the egg cups, but may also have been over-watered. In any case, before we left on vacation, I transplanted everything to more spacious accommodations:

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I also put together my garden box, where this stuff is getting moved to. The soil mix suggested by the square foot gardening method is equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite. I had hoped that my backyard compost would be ready in time for this, but I wasn’t satisfied with it, so I ended up purchasing composted manure from the garden store. They also had peat moss, and were able to order in the 4 cubic foot bag of vermiculite I required.

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It’s too bad about all the plastic packaging involved here. If you have a pickup truck, there are some garden stores which will dump bulk soil components directly into the truck bed. Our store doesn’t do that, and it wouldn’t have been an option anyway with the little Yaris.

In the future, I might try to go more natural, perhaps trying to use more of the existing soil, but given all the other unknowns in this project, I wanted to maximize my chances of success by keeping it simple and eliminating unknowns.

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I ended up deciding to place the box on the boulevard strip right by the curb. I think this is technically municipal property, so I’m prepared to move it if necessary, though there were others in our old neighbourhood who did exactly this. In any case, it’s where the best sun is, so I’m going to stick it out as long as possible. Our landlord is very easy-going about this project, and obviously I’ve agreed to repair the grass once I’m done (or we move, whichever comes first).

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This is not strictly square-foot. Because I’m doing tomatoes and peas, which will need something to climb, I think it’s more reasonable for those at least to be row-style.

I’m not certain my seedlings will work out. A friend has graciously agreed to water them while we are away—if they end up looking good when we’re back, they’ll go in the ground; otherwise, I’ll purchase new ones from Little City Farm.