What I’m Into: July 2014

feet at beach

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So Summer is 2/3 over for us. The season of swimming at the beach, swinging at the park, and fresh garden produce covering every inch of kitchen counter space. Why must it ever end?

We went vacationing with my family . . . we stayed in a cabin up north in Tobermory, Ontario, where the water is icy-cold and crystal blue. I got a chance to do lots of reading out on the porch. It was lovely.

And here’s what I’ve been into!

Books

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Hyperbole and a Half (Allie Brosh) — like everyone who’s ever been on the Internet, I’ve read and LOVED Allie’s brilliant and hilarious blog. When I saw that my brother owned a copy of the book I took it home and read it in two days. Some of the content is from the blog and still every bit as funny. And the new stuff absolutely slew me. It’s a very quick read, on account of all the pictures. Pure fun. (Also: language.)

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence (Ed. Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer) — You guys, this book has been hard for me to read. Not because it’s too academic or too abstract — it’s not — but because it’s very compelling. And it makes me wonder if I really want to follow Jesus that much after all, because he asks a LOT of us. I’m not sure I want to give up my life. I’m not sure if I can do it. And at the same time, the message is so captivating and beautiful . . .

This collection of essays tackles all of the most common arguments against Christian pacifism, from “What would you do if someone attacked a loved one?” to “What about Hitler?” Each chapter is written by a different author, so each one has its own unique voice and perspective. It’s very readable while still being academically robust. And in reading it, I’m torn between not wanting to be a true follower of Jesus because it sounds so demanding and feeling like I couldn’t possibly do otherwise.

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Anthony Esolen) — This is the first nonfiction book in a while that I’ve actually found addictive. I couldn’t put it down. It’s exciting, challenging, and provocative. I was totally hooked from the first page. And while I didn’t agree with nearly everything in the book — I basically skipped the whole chapter on patriotism — I was definitely challenged in a lot of my ideas about education. He really got me to re-think my aversion to rote memorization and grammar lessons.

Esolen writes from the perspective of someone who wants to kill children’s imaginations — a la C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters — and thus explores ways to do that: keep them indoors, keep them under constant supervision, keep them endlessly busy, etc. It’s a very interesting trope, though he often seems to forget what he’s doing and gets rapturous describing the things he’s supposedly fighting against (spending time in nature, reading great literature, etc.) Also: he writes like a mid-century Oxford professor. Which is strangely refreshing — I’m a huge Lewis fan, after all — but it also means he writes from a very andro-centric, euro-centric perspective, which is mildly annoying. I kept having to check back at the date of publication to reaffirm that it was, in fact, published in 2010. He makes jabs at feminists and truly believes all the best literature in history was written by white men. Weird. Oh well.

Children’s Books

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I recently started to think that at almost-three, maybe I should expand Lydia’s spiritual education beyond mealtime prayers and loving example. I thought it might be a good idea to introduce her to the characters and stories of the Bible. So I pulled out a children’s Bible I’d bought for her a year ago — The Beginner’s Bible. I had one like it when I was a kid.

Lydia absolutely loves it, and has spent tons of time poring over the pictures; but honestly, I am not a fan at all and plan to get rid of it once her fascination wanes. It makes all the stories seem too cutesy and cartoonish. It does not inspire one with a sense of wonder and awe. All of the fish in the pictures have big googly eyes and are grinning. Even the ones Jesus multiplies for the five thousand. What the crap? And look how Goliath is hanging out innocently with David, Jesus, and the other Bible characters on the front cover. How does that make sense?

Jesus is introduced as a nice dude who likes kids, who fixes owies and brings people back to life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJesus is all, “Hey! Wanna be pals? We can live in the clouds together!”

I’m not crazy about the theology, either — the dictionary at the back defines a Christian as some who “believes Jesus has forgiven their sins and will someday live with him forever in heaven.” There’s a lot of emphasis throughout on how we’re going to go live with Jesus in heaven someday. Um. Not exactly the dominant message I’m trying to send my child. “Believe the right things and you can live in the clouds where everything is awesome!”

I was relieved to see that the floods and wars and other horrific violence weren’t present — I still feel she’s too young for those kinds of things — but it kind of made me question what exactly I do want her to know from the biblical stories.

I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of literature would be the best for instilling a sense of reverence for God and a love for goodness and God’s beloved creation. Perhaps the Bible is out entirely until she’s older? Suggestions?

Moving on . . .

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson) — this book is delightfully original and imaginative. The word play is clever but simple enough for a three-year-old to enjoy. Thanks to this book, Lydia has added a number of new words and phrases to her vocabulary, such as “frightening” and “drop off to sleep.” I love it. The only downside is that it has inspired Lydia to colour on walls with purple crayons.

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Arabella Miller’s Little Caterpillar (Clare Jarrett) — lovely illustrations, pleasant rhythm/rhyme, learning about the life cycle of butterflies. What’s not to love?

Movies

No movies here! It’s summer, remember?

Television

OK, so we have been watching some TV. Ben lured me into watching the first episode of The Mindy Project, and we’ve gotten pretty far into the first season already. That show is hilarious. I love what a charmingly complex character Mindy is — she’s intelligent, confident, and independent; but also often silly, gullible, and melodramatic. The jokes fly so quickly you’re not even done laughing at the first one before you’re laughing at the next. Very addictive.

With the Munchkin

I spent way way too much time working on these sandpaper letters for Lydia.

Montessori sandpaper lettersThey’re inspired by the popular Montessori material meant to aid children in learning the phonetic alphabet. You introduce each letter not by its name but by its phonetic sound, and have the child trace over the letter while she repeats the sound. The tactile experience is supposed to help her associate the sound with certain muscular movements, which will be helpful in writing. (I followed this tutorial.)

Anyway, cutting out the letters from sandpaper took a million years. Fortunately we did most of it while watching Mindy Project.

We also tried this craft — making flower mandala sun catchers. The result was pretty, but I’ll have you know that Lydia whined and complained through every stage of their creation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat was my month! How about yours?

Disclaimer: post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

Linking up with Leigh Kramer.

Mexican Skillet and Rice: Dinner on the Table in 30 Minutes or Less!

Mexican Skillet and Rice: super-quick dinner in less than 30 minutes!

Hi friends!

I promise Becoming Peculiar is not becoming a food blog. I love food blogs, but that’s not what I started blogging to do.

However! Food is a really huge part of my life (and spirituality) and I really do love passing along a good recipe or two.

And as I mentioned in a recent post, summer just isn’t conducive to long, meditative posts for me. I’m too anxious to be out in the world living and doing and making. So for now, it’ll mostly be quick, simple, and fun posts. Meditative posts will return when it’s cold and boring outside.

And speaking of quick.

I have gotten myself in the habit of always only cooking elaborate dinners every night. I typically spend 2-3 hours working on dinner every night, with cleanup and everything. That’s way too much time in the kitchen every day when I have so many other projects I’d like to be working on. I do find it fun and satisfying, and our food is pretty fantastic (if I do say so myself) as a result; but sometimes, I’d like to give myself a break. Without resorting to junk food.

Part of the reason I spend so much time in the kitchen is my desire to make everything from scratch. That takes longer than opening up a can of this and mixing it with a box of that. USUALLY.

But real food can be quick, too. I just have to remind myself of this fact every once in a while.

Lately, I’m interested in building up a repertoire of super-quick and easy (but still wholesome) dinners for hectic days when I don’t have time for elaborate ones. I don’t have a lot of these types of recipes, to be honest.

But this recipe for Mexican Skillet fits the bill perfectly and has been a staple my whole life. Honest. I’ve been making it since I was ten years old.

Back then, we used minute rice and bouillon cubes for flavour. (In fact, the recipe originates from the back of an Uncle Ben’s Minute Rice box, circa 1992). We topped it with chopped iceberg lettuce and orange Kraft cheddar (Cheese should not be orange, you guys. It’s made out of milk. When did you last see orange milk.) Over the years I’ve adapted it for a more real foods diet, but it’s still simple, quick, and delicious. Better lettuce, better cheese, no powdered flavours, and real rice make this a winner.

The next time you have to whip together a quick dinner in less than half an hour, try this one out. You don’t even have to have the beef defrosted ahead of time — just throw the meat right in your skillet, frozen, with a bit of water; put on the lid and let it simmer until it’s ready to brown. It’ll only add another 10 minutes to your total cooking time. I did this the other day and still had time to tidy the kitchen before calling the family in to eat.

Mexican Skillet. Dinner in 30 minutes

Mexican Skillet and Rice

  • 1 cup uncooked rice (I like basmati)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 quart jar canned tomatoes, diced or whole (I use home-canned)
  • 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • chopped romaine lettuce (or other favourite. We’ve used arugula and spinach in a pinch)
  • grated cheddar cheese (preferably raw organic)

To start, get the rice cooking. I usually use basmati because it cooks up so quickly (20 minutes or less), but you can use your  favourite long-grain rice (including brown) — just adjust water and cooking time as needed. For basmati, add rice and 1 1/2 cups water to a small pot over high heat. Cook until it starts to bubble; then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until tender.

Meanwhile, brown ground beef with chopped onion in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes, salt and chili powder. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 5-10 minutes. Add cooked rice. Taste and adjust flavouring.

You’re done! Serve with lettuce and cheddar.

Ole!

 

6 Tips For Getting Green Salads on the Table More Often

6 tips to help get you and your family eating more green salads

Growing up, I always thought I wasn’t much of a salad person.

But that’s because my idea of what constituted a salad was very limited and sad.

The only salad I’d ever encountered was that of the Kraft variety — gluey bottled dressing drizzled over iceberg lettuce, wedges of watery greenhouse tomatoes, and slices of cucumbers, sprinkled with solid blocks called croutons. As far as I knew, there were five types of salad in the world: Ranch, French, Italian, Caesar, and Thousand Islands. All of them were pretty meh.

Even when I got older and started experimenting with other flavours from the bottled dressing aisle — creamy poppyseed, sweet onion, raspberry vinaigrette — I found myself terribly dissatisfied. Everything tasted flat and plastic-y. They would sit in my fridge door for literally years before I’d finally toss them.

And honestly, if that’s all there was to salad, I wasn’t missing out on much nutritionally. Iceberg lettuce and imported or hydroponically-grown vegetables are almost useless to the body, and bottled dressing is mostly just preservatives. No thanks.

In my later twenties, when I started getting serious about food, I finally discovered the glorious variety and spectacular flavours of real green salads. Garden-fresh romaine, spinach, mesclun, arugula, kale, and broccoli; tossed with zippy creamy dressings or sweet and zingy vinaigrettes. Salads topped with tangy fruit, crispy nuts, grilled meats, fresh herbs, and crumbled cheeses. They were packed with vitamins, protein, probiotics, and intrigue. They could even be a complete meal!

broccoli salad

But they were a lot of work. Composing a salad with hand-shredded leaves, homemade dressing, toasted nuts, and some kind of fruit took a lot of planning and hands-on time. It was too much effort for a side dish when I was already cooking the main dish from scratch. So salads were still pretty rare in our house, even though we loved them and they were so good for us.

Until I discovered that having a few key ingredients on hand at all times made me salad-ready anytime the passion for something crisp and cool took over.

See, the problem is that the main ingredient in most salads — greens — are terribly perishable. They don’t last long once you pick them and or/take them home from the market. So the key to seizing the salady moment is making sure you always have all the other ingredients handy when you get your hands on some fresh, crispy greens.

Here’s what I do and what I recommend, so that you always have the necessary elements on hand to make delicious, fresh, homemade salads all through salad season. (I’m just going to point out that winter is not green salad season here in Canada. I don’t eat green salads in winter, unless you count cole slaw. Although I sure do long for them!!)

So here are my tips for getting salad on your table on a more regular basis:

Experiment with different homemade salad recipes until you find some that you love.

If you’re not a big salad eater already, keep trying new ones until you hit on a favourite. It took me a long time to find ours. Even try kinds that you think you don’t like due to early exposure to the Kraft version.  I always thought I hated Greek salad until I tasted homemade Greek salad. Not even the same category!!

They’re a ton of work at first but persevere until you find a few your family loves. There is hardly anything more nutritious and refreshing you can serve your family. And they will get easier once you are comfortable preparing all the other parts.

Once you have these figured out, you can start prepping big batches of dressing and other toppings so you can throw together a quick salad at meal times without hassle.

The toppings I list below are the elements of our favourite salads. Yours might be a little different.

green salad

Make big(ger) batches of a few favourite dressings to keep on hand.

Ours are Caesar, sweet balsamic vinaigrette, and more recently, Greek. Homemade dressings can be a pain to mix up last-minute, but if you make them ahead of time you’ll be so grateful when you’re scrambling for a last-minute side dish. I like to keep our fridge stocked with these throughout the spring and summer so that they’re always handy.

I also find it essential to always have my fridge stocked with a batch of homemade mayo. With a bit of vinegar and other flavours or spices, homemade mayo can quickly be transformed into some of the most delicious creamy salad dressings you’ve ever tasted.

Toast batches of nuts.

Most salads benefit from a crunchy element. Nuts usually fit the bill perfectly, especially with sweet dressings.

And all nuts benefit from some toasting. It makes them crispier and enhances their flavour. But you don’t want to be toasting nuts while you’re also preparing the rest of your dinner. If you’re like me, you’ll burn them 75% of the time.

So here’s what I do.

My favourite nut is slices or slivered almonds; chopped pecans also make a terrific change.

I do about a cup or two at a time, which will last for quite a few salads.

Just pour your nuts into a dry large pan, and heat them over medium heat. DON’T LEAVE THE STOVE. Attend to them, stirring gently but continuously, until they’re a light golden colour. Remove from stove to cool, and store in an airtight container. (I like to keep them in a small mason jar.)

They’re ready to sprinkle onto a salad at a moment’s notice.

Keep your pantry stocked with nonperishable fruit.

I adore fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, sliced apple, etc) on my salads. But I don’t always have fresh fruit on hand. (Canada, remember? We only have fresh fruit available five months out of the year). Dried and canned fruit are a wonderful, convenient substitute when fresh isn’t available.

I find we eat salad much more often when I keep canned mandarin slices, canned pineapple, and dried cranberries on hand. They are a delightful addition to leafy salads!

Keep your fridge stocked with feta, fresh Parmesan and/or other cheeses.

Feta cheese is another ingredient I try to keep on hand during salad season. It really zips up an otherwise boring salad, and takes little effort to crumble on top of your greens (or tomatoes or cucumbers.) If you don’t care for feta, you might prefer goat cheese or even Parmesan. Just a suggestion.

Our Favourite Salads

To get you inspired, here are our favourite salad varieties that use combinations of the above ingredients:

  • Fruity: mixed sweet greens (lettuces, baby spinach, field greens, etc), sweet balsamic vinaigrette, fresh cilantro leaves, toasted almonds, and any fruit (fresh berries, dried cranberries, mandarin slices, pineapple chunks, etc)
  • Greek: romaine lettuce, sliced cucumbers, garden-fresh tomatoes, Greek dressing, crumbled feta. (For a small batch of dressing: 6 Tbsp olive oil, 1.5 Tbsp lemon juice, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, 2 pressed garlic gloves, 1 tsp oregano)

What are your favourite salads? I could always use some more ideas!