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Monday, March 31, 2014

guilt, precedent and birthday parties...

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I often feel pretty guilty that I don't post more on this blog.  In theory, I'd love to be a blogger who updates 2-3x a week and has great content each time.  But the reality is....life is busy.  It's really busy.  I think most people who've been reading a while already know this, but I have two kids and a full-time job, and I also try to be a relatively balanced human being who makes half-hearted attempts to clean her house a bit and workout once in a while (my love of food does nothing to help the fit of my clothing).

And to top it all off, I'm generally a bit on the lazy side.

So finding time to do all of the things that I'd like to do (in theory) is a challenge.

R, my smallest mini-foodie, just turned two.  She is a giggly little sweetheart who brings joy and smiles to everyone she sees.  Of course, two weeks before said birthday, I realized I had done a whole lotta nothin' in terms of planning/inviting/etc.

And I've set a bit of a precedent for myself in terms of having parties for my mini foodies.

i.e., this cake (I didn't make it, btw - from The Girl with the Most Cake):
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This pink decor (and yes, the white balance is terrible here.  There is a cute little pink rose cake under that dome though, made by yours truly.  Tutorial here.)  First appearance of poms, backdrop and ruffled tablecloths.
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This pink, aqua and red decor (and yes, we got glorious new floors - reclaimed pine from Logs' End - and painted and all that fun stuff in the year between the pink photo and this photo....I seem to remember that we actually started ripping up the carpet the night after the party, and I spent a fun evening pulling staples).  This was my first attempt at a two tier cake and I went with a ruffled cake, tutorial here.
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This turquoise black and white decor (the year I ran out of time before doing something with the balloons, hence why they are seated on a light fixture oh-so-randomly:
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And so...yeah.  Given the labour-filled precedent I had set for myself, I knew I had to do something for this delightful small person - something that would be cute and fun. And also try not to go insane. Oh, and we've moved, so our house is mid-reno, which always makes for fun times.  Hubs has been working crazy hard to get everything done!

I did what any logical person would do - I outsourced about 80% of the work, spent $10 on classy dollar store decor and sent out my invites via paperlesspost (I've used them for every kids party for the last five years and I LOVE them.  So much cuter than typical e-invites and very cost-effective and easy to track your guest list).

Before I talk about the food, I wanted to talk a little bit about a couple of things you can do with dollar store materials to dress them up.  The first thing I make are these tissue paper pompoms.  They are super easy to make, very inexpensive, and when you fluff them out, they really dress up a room.  In the past, I've strung them on fishing line across my living/dining room, and this year (new house), I just covered up my ugly light fixture with them (for safety reasons, I elected not to turn on the light - nothing was touching the bulb, but I didn't want to take any chances!).  Your local dollar store likely has tissue available in most colours - you need 8 sheets for a pompom - I made some ombre poms, which involved using different shades of pink and white, and I made some solid ones.  I just tied mine using dental floss (in the name of full disclosure, I actually made these all at my desk at work during my lunch breaks, and then fluffed them out at home while watching terrible TV on Netflix - working mom multi-tasking FTW).
roomba in action You can see Roomba doing his part in that photo too, hehe.

I also find that cheap crepe paper streamers are another good way to make your room look more festive.  I just twisted white/pink streamers in from the corners.  The more streamers you have, the snazzier it will look, but I ran out of both time and energy, so I just did four.  I think it was cute.  I also added some balloons in the corners, but you'll notice that one set fell down before the party started (oops).  I'm pretty sure no one really noticed that much.

One last little dollar store trick is the plastic tablecloths.  Being the queen of all things lazy, I love these for parties.  I can pick up one or two and have a cute, colour-coordinated table for $2, and then instead of washing, I can toss it at the end.  Landfill gods, please forgive me.

You can dress these bad boys up too.  For the under cloth (the white one), I ruffled the edges, which is SUPER duper easy.  You just keep your cloth folded in half (because it's half the work that way) and you gently pull along the edges, creating little ruffles.  You have to be careful not to pull too hard because it will tear, but no one will notice a tear or two.  For the top cloth (the pink one), I like to gather the edges - I've used safety pins in the past, but this time, I just used a needle and a bit of thread (dental floss will work too) and gathered it up at the corners.  In retrospect, I can see it wasn't terribly centred, but I think it looked cute anyway.

food!

In terms of making a table look good, you can't go wrong with bright, fresh ingredients and white or glass platters.  As I mentioned earlier in the post, this was very much a case of outsourcing - I bought family shawarma platters from my local shawarma place (SO GOOD!  SO much delicious fresh food).  I bought two and really should just have purchased one. A single platter is about $44 and comes with a lovely tray of fresh shawarma veggies (grated carrot, red cabbage, pickled turnip, pickles, hot peppers, salad, tabouleh, spiced onions), a tray of rice and chicken, a tray of garlic potatoes, and separate containers of both hummus and garlic sauce, as well as pitas.  It's a great deal and easily feeds 8 people.  I wouldn't call it health food because it's certainly high in sodium, but as an alternative to pizza or other takeout, I much prefer it because there's so much variety in taste and texture.  And it's just delicious (did I mention that?).

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I also did two trays myself - a rainbow fruit tray and a rainbow veggie tray.  This was pretty quick to put together, and I always like to make sure I have a nice variety of food at my parties, including lots of healthier options.  Especially when there are kids.  I certainly do NOT ascribe to the idea that all food has to be dumbed down to kid level.  We had several young children at the party eating this food and they all LOVED it.

I love these particular platters too - they are large white squares and I think they were about $15 when I got them.  They are absolutely my most-used platters - you can't go wrong with white.

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Finally, the gorgeous cake (hint: I didn't make it).  I met the baker through an Aqua BootCamp class and when she mentioned she was starting to make cakes, I took note and liked her page on Facebook (you can too!).  Her cakes are beautiful, and she was so wonderful to deal with - and you can see for yourself how sweet and pretty the end result is.  What I also loved about ordering a cake was that instead of fussing last minute, making icing, re-making icing and then doing a messy, rushed result and having a virtual explosion of powdered sugar to clean up (ARGH), I could instead be more relaxed and spend time getting the house ready, chillin' with the mini-foodies and just generally being less stressed.

goooorgeous cake

You'll note in a few of the photos that my house is quite obviously in a state of renovation.  That theme is likely to continue, but I do plan to post photos of some of the completed projects, as we finish them.
Last, just a quick pic of two of my favourite little people. Sometimes it can be exhausting trying to keep life on track, but the smiles and love from these two always help remind me of what's the most important part of these parties - fun times enjoyed and memories made with family and friends.

  a rare glimpse of the mini-foodies

Thanks for reading!  Would love to hear any of your tips for having a great party without driving yourself insane with the details!


Sunday, March 02, 2014

kale + wild rice + chickpeas + cheese = yes

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I'm always on the lookout for interesting side dishes that are both healthy(ish) and tasty.  Obviously, potatoes, rice and pasta are delicious, but they are also pretty monotonous and I like to find ways to increase the fibre and the nutrition in the side dishes I make.

And frankly, a person can only eat so much quinoa.

Of course, some would also argue that a person can only eat so much kale, but I'll beg to differ on that.  One of the things I love about kale is how it is a bit of a chameleon - depending on how you prepare it, it can be a completely different beast from one way to the next.  I love kale in a salad, because it holds up to dressing so well, and the chewier texture and bold green flavour make me happy.  Kale caesar is pretty much my favourite, though I will admit you essentially negate any healthful benefits when you douse kale in bacon, parmesan cheese and caesar dressing.  I also love kale chips (hubs and the kids hate 'em though).  I'm not on the green smoothie bandwagon, but I'm told kale is not terrible that way either.

My other trick is to chop it up finely and use it as a bit of a disguised ingredient.

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This gratin recipe came together because I had some semi-wilty kale and wasn't really sure what to do with it.  It wasn't fresh enough for salad, but it certainly wasn't beyond the point of redemption.  So I started googlng various recipe ideas and came across a wild rice gratin that had a healthy serving of kale in it.  Necessity and taste being the mother of invention, I had to make enough changes to this that I think it's worth re-posting as a new recipe.  I added chickpeas because we love them (mini-foodie 2 has an addiction), and instead of gruy√®re, I used a combination of mozzarella and feta, skipped the panko (I don't like breadcrumbs on top of casserole dishes), cut the butter down, and had to sub the broth with onion soup mix.  As terrible as it is, I have a soft spot for this stuff - I just use 1/4 package.  You could easily use 1 c broth and 1 t minced dried onions for similar flavour.

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I LOVED this dish.  It wasn't fast, because wild rice is not quick, and neither is caramelizing onions, but I will say that it's pretty low-maintenance once you have it going (neither wild rice nor onions require a ton of attention if you keep the heat low).  You could easily make this ahead (a day in advance) and pop it in the oven before dinner.  I used a pretty lilac casserole dish, by any small casserole dish would work (9x13 would be too big - mine was about 7x10 and was perfect).

I served this with roasted (frozen) brussels sprouts, which I just tossed in a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper, and baked for the same amount of time as the gratin, and with pan-seared salmon fillets and a quick lemon-caper mayo (sauce recipe follows).

wild rice gratin with kale and chickpeas
modified from Pink Parsley
serves 6-8 as a side dish
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1 cup uncooked wild rice
1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs olive oil
3 medium onions, chopped
1/2 t salt, pepper

4 cups stemmed, ribboned kale leaves
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 1 3/4 cup)
1 cups coarsely grated mozzarella or cheddar
3 oz feta, crumbled
1 cup water
1/4 package onion soup mix (or use broth in lieu of soup mix/water)

1. Combine 4 cups of water with rice and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, until many of the grains of burst and the texture is chewy but enjoyable.

2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet with the olive oil and butter over medium-low heat.  Add the onions, salt, pepper, and turn the heat close to low.  Caramelize the onions, which will take about 30 minutes or more.

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3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray/grease your casserole dish (about 7x10 size, give or take)

4. Add the kale to the onions and cook until the kale wilts, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the wild rice, chickpeas, 1/2 the cheese and the water/soup mix (or broth).  Taste and see if it needs more salt and pepper.  Adjust to taste.

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5. Spread into the casserole dish Add the kale ribbons, and cook until they wilt, about 5 minutes. Stir in the wild rice, 1 cup of the grated cheese, and the broth. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Spread the mixture into the prepared dish, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

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6. Bake until bubbly and beginning to brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve.

lemon-dijon mayo
(makes a great sauce for fish in lieu of a tartar sauce; would also be great on sandwiches)
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1 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 t lemon zest
1 t dried dill (or 1 T fresh)
2 T grainy dijon
2 T classic dijon
1/3 c mayonnaise
2 T capers
salt, pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl.  BAM - you're done.  Don't add too much salt because the dijon, mayo and capers are already fairly salty; err on the side of caution.

This meal was pretty delicious!  The kids LOVED the salmon and didn't mind the side dish (my youngest is obsessed with beans of all kinds and gobbled the chickpeas).  As you'd expect, they weren't enormous fans of the brussels sprouts, but that won't stop me from serving them - I don't force or set 'minimum consumption,' but I do offer, they know they can't tell me they don't like something without actually tasting it.
I've ranted before about picky kids (ironically, before I had kids...), and I will maintain that if you only offer foods within a small comfort zone, kids will never expand their horizons, and will never become less picky.  Even if kids don't necessarily like something, I think it's important to keep offering a wide variety of foods.  One of my favourite blogs, It's Not About Nutrition, has a ton of great advice for dealing with picky kids and helping them expand their palates.

Thanks for reading!




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