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Kitchen & Cooking

Nearly every week in the summer I shop at Jean Talon market. (I know, it's mid-September. But for me, it's still summer.)

The market is one of my favorite errands/shopping runs. I have to buy the rest of our groceries at the usual places: Costco, health food stores (my favorite health food stores are the shops found around the perimeter of Jean Talon), and the regular grocery store; but the market is the place that brings me the most joy when I shop. I almost always take photos when I'm there, either with my camera or my phone. It's just so beautiful.

This time of year the market is bursting with colors and produce. Like I said on Instagram this week, "I call this Italian season at the market. Italian Nonnas abound buying tomatoes by the bushel baskets. People are seen pushing large carts stacked with boxes of tomatoes and cucs to their cars. It's fun to watch and be a part of."

This past week I made a ratatouille inspired by this recipe (if Arnold Schwarzenegger had a YouTube cooking channel). My family liked it. Brienne, who doesn't like eggplant or zucchinis told me it was really good.

I also prepared what has become a traditional late summer meal at our home, a pot of roasted tomato soup, you can find that recipe here. I get a lot of positive feedback on that recipe, so if you like tomato soup you might want to try it.

I know gardeners whose goal is to eat exclusively from their own produce through the summer months. My goal is to eat locally grown produce through summer, wherever I am traveling or living. And it is completely possible in Montreal to eat a wide variety of exclusively Quebec grown produce through the summer months.

I am grateful for the climate, culture and history of Quebec, along with the strong local food movement and sheer large number of consumers in Montreal, that makes this possible.

Lots of local produce is available in regular grocery stores (yay!) but for me the best selection and price, not to mention beauty is found at Jean Talon.

In August, my family went away for the weekend and I was home alone. By Sunday afternoon, refreshed and re-energized, I felt inspired to make a special supper for their return.

I made one of our favorite foods, something I haven't made for years. I made sushi, or more technically, maki. A simple supper of California-type rolls. I don't do raw fish, or roe at home. That's restaurant fare for us.

I was super proud of my accomplishment. The rolls were beautiful and delicious and tightly rolled, even without a mat. And there was enough to feed everyone till they were full. Filling the teenagers on sushi. Super score!

I don't like cooking all that much these days. These days being, oh, the last five years or so. Only recently, in the last nine months, have I named it and claimed it when it comes to how I feel in the kitchen.

Cooking is not something I love, or even really like to do. Cooking is not the time I "come alive", nor is it a form of happy creative expression for me.

As far as home management, I much prefer to make order in routines and space than to make food. And when it comes to creativity and leisure I'd rather take a bike ride through my neighborhood, read a book, photograph a flower, draw zentangle, etc. than craft a meal.

The sushi was beautiful, but the lighting was bad, such is the state of our dining room. And I didn't take any photos. The inspiration came. I happily made the meal. Not cooking for days does wonders for my motivation.

We ate the sushi. End of story.

I'd like to write a whole post about coming clean in the kitchen with regards to my general "meh" about that part of my job description. I'd love to write about how I thought being a good mother meant being like my mother - passionate about cooking, finding my energy and my "place" in that passion.

(My hang ups with being a good mother don't stop at comparing myself to my own mother, oh no, I've created a good mother character of mythological proportions who is a composite of all the best qualities, and none of the flaws, of the mothers/homemakers/homeschoolers I admire and aspire to be like. Oh yes, being this mom is an impossible task. But you already knew that, perhaps from experience.)

As it stands, cooking is part of my job description. It is something that must be done.

I try to minimize the pain with occasional frozen shortcuts (healthy and not-as-healthy) and outsourcing to the kids. And this summer I "officially" (we've been sliding for some time) brought animal foods into our kitchen for more easy meal options to satisfy my own desires (crepes...) and to attempt to fill the endless-pit-of-hunger that is the teenage stomach.

How I feel about cooking; eating a few more animal foods (though still cognitively believing veg is best); keeping everyone fed according to their consciences, dietary preferences, the need for calories, within the constraints of the budget; and letting go of the need to define myself as a good (good meaning: likes to cook) homemaker - lots of things I could write about here.

And that's the problem with a writing hang-up, writing sabbatical, writing anxiety - the loss of my writing groove for the summer. All of that, which is fairly significant writing fodder (or fooder? haha!) is now water under the bridge, and I didn't post about it.

There have been other transformations in my life than those just happening in the kitchen.

Though I think what's happening in the kitchen reflects the bigger theme in my life as a whole.

This life phase of raising teenagers, of separating my desires from those of my husband's (and being ok with having different opinions and preferences in food and other interests), and accepting myself exactly as I am, in the kitchen and outside of it.

I'm not prepared to write about the false beliefs I'm shedding (have shed), and who I am becoming, just yet, because something else needs to be written.

Summer needs to be written.

With back-to-school in the air (rentree here in Quebec), the official summer season feels like water under the bridge, yesterday's news. But I'm still standing here on summer's shore and I want collect my favorite treasures from the beach. Gather them. Cherish them. Share them.

Care to join me?

Summer is my favorite. Summer is my balm. Summer is the bomb, and on and on. That's not supposed to be bad poetry, it's just that I really love summer and this one was wonderful.

I've never had a summer like this and so some of the "wonder" of wonderful was in fact just that.

Rock concerts and movies on the big screen; festivals and fireworks; outdoor pools and cafes on the sidewalk; Montreal has been a string of adventures and a pace of activity so suited to life with three teenagers. Every week this summer was significantly memorable in some way.

The highlights of summer 2015.

  • Shortly after moving, Damien and I went to a Steven Wilson concert at the Jazz Festival. The last time just the two of us went to hear a live band was when we were in university.
  • Attending Comic Con with the whole family, watching Celine in cosplay.
  • Finding a feels-like-us group of believers to share our lives with and the communal expression of our faith. We don't have to talk different, relate different, or step out of the culture and into another one to hang out with these people. And we made instantaneous (seriously) friends with another homeschool family with kids the same ages as our own. And the fact that we meet Sunday mornings in a movie theater? Totally cool. Christians in the culture, not in cloistered churches. This is how we've lived our faith for years, but we've lived it mostly alone, and that's been lonely.
  • Having my parents come to visit for a week. They loved on us with their usual generosity of spirit and friendship. I am so blessed to belong to them, and they to me.

  • Setting up our fourteenth home. We bought used appliances, a big screen TV, the ubiquitous black Kallax Ikea shelving, and made-to-order bean bags for the kids - three kids, three colors. We established our raising teenagers home and I am happy here.
  • Biking around the city with Bixi. I am completely smitten with the service and the city. Biking is the best way to explore Montreal, and with such a great bike subscription service and dedicated bike lanes through downtown and the arrondissements, this is an uber biking-friendly city.
  • Neighborhood shopping, on foot, or with the Bixi. I do my produce shopping at Jean Talon, I drive there because I buy a lot of produce and I don't have bike trailer to carry it home. But everything else is walkable distance from my house. So walkable that supper can be cooking and I will run to the grocery store (or usually send a kid) for a missing ingredient.

  • Going to La Ronde, the local six flags amusement park, with friends. This was the first time our kids had ever been on these kind of rides. By the end of the day I found enough courage to go on the pirate ship. Yay me! We're all eager to go back.
  • Swimming all summer, for free. By the end of August the kids had "graduated" to walking to the pool and back again on their own. We also made friends with "the other" anglophone family at the pool (we live in a francophone neighborhood) and the kids spent hours swimming together.
  • Finding a homeschool group of older kids, mostly teens and meeting Monday afternoons to play soccer. Active! Teens! Homeschooling! This group meets as a co-op through the school year with a theatre/academic focus and we'll be joining.

  • Walking with Damien after supper. We're hoping to continue this practice into fall. The kids do dishes and we hit the streets around our house to walk and talk. We're not the only ones out, even at 9pm (we eat late in the summer), the streets are alive with people. Montreal is a city for living, it's a city for families, it's beautiful.
  • A youth conference for the kids. This was a Christian teen weekend where the kids tented, had chapel and group sessions, played games late at night and came home tired, smelly, happy.
  • For the two nights they were gone Damien and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary at home and on the town and found this fun vegetarian/vegan buffet restaurant on St. Denis.

  • Celine was baptized in the parking lot of the Chinese Baptist Church on St. Urbaine street. Our church borrowed the space for baptisms because we meet in a movie theatre. In front of family, friends and the city of Montreal, Celine made a public profession of her faith. And there was some celebratin'.
  • I got my Montreal library card and read some books: Maurice Richard, Nellie McClung, The Back of the Turtle, and The Buried Giant. I'm currently reading Along a River: The First French-Canadian Women which is an academic narrative of the history of the women of Quebec during the 17th and 18th centuries. (I forgot, I also read All The Light We Cannot See, great book.)In June, while still on the Peninsula I read The Rosie Project and Station Eleven. The only book in this mix I don't recommend is The Buried Giant but even that was interesting if you could just let yourself relax into it, which I did. This reading doesn't include my self-therapy reading. The big theme in my reading this year is Canadian authors, Canadian subjects and specifically Quebec history. This is part of Returning to Roots (in Project Home & Healing).
  • Learning to zentangle with One Zentangle A Day: A 6-Week Course in Creative Drawing for Relaxation, Inspiration, and Fun (One A Day). I draw almost every day, part therapy, part creativity, all around goodness.

  • Creating our "Tougas Family High School Graduation Requirements" document. I have been wanting to write this for over a year now. Celine is halfway through high school and the big question for me has been how do I know when we're done? If our kids don't pursue post-secondary how do close this chapter? How will I know when my active/super-hands-on phase of being a homeschool mom is completed? So, I answered these questions this summer and spent a lot of time with my head in homeschooling land. Also, for the first time in probably my whole homeschooling career I am "ready" at the beginning of September with an overview of this year and our curriculum. Not gardening or traveling for the summer is a significant factor in this readiness. When the kids were younger I didn't get my act together till later in September. Our time on the Peninsula was quite chaotic with moving and traveling and I was largely out of step with the school year scheme, which is fine in theory (especially since we're life learners), but in practice, it's not so fine for me.
  • Learning how to make a homemade frappuccino, sangria and crepes.
  • Staying put. I didn't go anywhere this summer. I barely left the island and that felt so good. At the end of August Damien took the kids to New Hampshire for the weekend and I stayed home. We had actually planned a weeklong trip of visiting friends, camping, some hiking and trail magic in Maine but the discovery of my passport expiration changed those plans. The part of the plan that still went ahead was Damien and the kids going to New Hampshire to shoot guns. Our friend is part of a gun club and they were having an open house of sorts where you could shoot all manner of guns, from hand guns to semi-automatic rifles. The kids and Damien loved it. I stayed home and have never been so content to be by myself. Two full days of my own agenda and my own space. I'm thinking that the older my kids get and the more out of the house and "on-schedule" I must muster during the week the more my introverted side is rising.

  • Fabulous weather. I'm new here. I don't know what summer is usually like in Montreal but I'm ordering more of this kind of weather for next summer. Some humidity, not too much, just enough to get you in the pool and to help you be grateful for the non-humid days. I love when summer feels like summer. When you can't wear a sweater, or pants. And you rarely need to wear a rain jacket. I wear long underwear and wool socks for 6-7 months of the year. This summer filled my well for the winter months ahead.

That was the summer for me. Those were the highlights, but there were definitely lowlights: difficult talks with Damien and levels of honesty in our marriage that cause pain even as they bring healing, moving-related financial strain, and just run-of-the-mill stressful situations.

Life's trials don't stop for summer but so much about this summer - activities, friends and homeschool community; the spiritually significant milestones; making a small and tidy home; my daily disciplines in self-awareness, self-care and self-therapy - all of that felt like healing to me.

This summer was exactly what I needed.

Kids in the kitchen may not seem like the most logical place to start a month of homeschooling posts but it's perfectly logical for me.

As the kids' educational needs get more intense, not only do I have to, but I want to, devote adequate time to their education (and activities).

We are interest-led homeschoolers. Our kids are responsible for their learning, but I am responsible for preparing the environment, facilitating habit formation, sourcing materials, record keeping, getting them places, and showing up for my job enthused and inspired.

I spend a lot more time "homeschooling" during these years than I did when the kids were little. (This time does not necessarily equate to teaching them directly, but I'll get into that in another post.)

Having kids contribute around the house meets several objectives.

They learn "real life skills", which is core part of their curriculum, and they learn responsibility (character development).

But just as important for me, is that their participation frees up my time so I can "do everything" I need to do.

Kids contributing is my way of making sure I have enough time for their education, my other household work, and my own needs.

Taking care of my own needs is not trivial in the scheme of things. Showing up for my homeschool responsibilities enthused and inspired means that I am both inspired about what we're doing but also refreshed from doing things I love as a regular part of my day.

Damien and I have attempted to divide our labor, as much as possible, according to personal interests, strengths, and gifts. Our recent rebuild was largely about this.

Managing the kitchen, the kids' education, our household finances, and the basic care and cleaning of our home is my job in this life season.

I'm the one who makes things flow around here. I keep things in line. I manage "stuff" and schedules. I like that job.

Life with three older kids, kids period, can get kind of out of hand if you're not careful. I don't know about you, but my family will take as much as I am willing to give and then they'll ask for more. Not because they are mean or nasty or even trying to take advantage of me but because they are human.

We all have a tendency to look to other people to solve our problems, make life easier, do our work. As my kids grow older it is especially imperative that I'm not the mother who enables that.

I'm a dedicated, invested homeschooling mom, yes, but I want my own life also. A life that largely revolves around my kids, my home and hearth, but a life with time to read (in the middle of the day), exercise and be outdoors, time to write, time to make stuff and be creative, time to connect with other women - those are things I want to do.

It's my job to set my personal boundaries, and not to expect other people, my husband included, to intuit and advocate for my needs.

Having my kids involved in the kitchen is about learning important skills, like cooking, but it's also about sharing household responsibilities so I'm not taking on too much of the household burden.

Our kids are required to help in the kitchen for the following very practical reasons:

  • Meal planning, grocery shopping within a budget, and cooking are life skills. This is part of their curriculum.
  • Our health is largely dependent on what we eat. Food related disease (of some kind) is rampant in our society. Learning to cook, eat, and enjoy healthy food is habit formation of the highest order.
  • Kids eat a lot, it just makes sense to have them help prepare that.
  • Learning to cook, to plan meals and prepare them according to a schedule teaches excellent time management skills. (I don't give my kids school assignments, daily meals are natural "deadlines" in our days.)
  • I actually need their help for us to accomplish everything everyone in our family wants to do in a day. I just can't do it all, and when it comes to cooking, nor do I want to! We all have to pitch in, it's simple as that.

Looking Back

Six years ago (the kids were 10, 8 & 6) I wrote a post about the number of hours I spent on food-related chores.

Managing a buying club, weekly trips to our CSA, gardening, making most everything from scratch, and regular hospitality in addition to menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking, tipped my daily average into full-time hours. I spent approximately eight hours a day on food related chores. It's as unbelievable to me now as it was then.

When I wrote that post I resolved "it's time to get the kids more involved in the kitchen... I would love to work myself down to a part-time job."


our kids cooking Ramen noodles on the trail, a first for them

That particular summer was probably the height of my kitchen and cooking related time investment. It wasn't until a couple years later that I admitted on the blog I don't really like cooking, at least not all the meals, and such a high amount of food related chores, though noble (and I think I took some pride in how noble it all was), wasn't really how I wanted to be spending my time.

Since that summer six years ago I have been actively working myself out of that full-time job, down to a level that feels more manageable. Publishing that post, taking a hard look at the numbers, was a light bulb moment for me, illuminating where I needed to make changes.

Another lightbulb moment came this past summer when I watched my kids thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail. I realized what they were capable of and decided upon our return home that they would take on more household responsibilities.

Before our hike the kids were helping somewhat in the kitchen. Celine was cooking supper once a week, the kids were making snacks, and on their own for breakfast. And at the height of my online work Damien was also helping in the kitchen.

Since coming home from our hike Damien and I have changed the division of labor so I am back to being responsible for home, and he's responsible for the income, he's mostly out the picture in the kitchen. But the kids are more involved than ever.

Currently in our kitchen

We have a weekly cooking schedule and I divvy up the daily food responsibilities - cooking lunch, dishwasher and lunch helper, snack prep, and cooking supper - among the four of us. (Damien does supper dishes and helps me cook on the weekends.)

Each of the kids is responsible for planning and cooking one lunch, one snack and one supper every week. They also will assist either me or one of their siblings in preparing lunch two days a week.

What this means is the everyday each kid is doing something in kitchen, on a rotating schedule.

I am responsible for two lunches, two snacks and two suppers. And on the weekends one lunch and one supper.

I am now down to preparing less than 50% of our family's meals and snacks.

Meal Planning and Scheduling

First of all, participation is not optional. If you want to eat, you have to be a part of the cooking.

For the record, participation in household chores has never been optional in our home. If possible, I will divvy up chores according to interest and strengths, and the kids sometimes swap things around on their own, but participation is not voluntary. Because this has always been the standard, since they were toddlers, the kids may sometimes whine to me about their chore woes (to which I mostly laugh, and then usually tickle them, yes really) but they know resistance is futile.

At the beginning of the week everyone is responsible to choose their recipes for the week. There are a lot of repeats, each of us has our favorite recipes we like to make, but I "encourage" the kids to regularly try new recipes. I provide some guidance so we're not eating rice every night, etc.

The meals are written on a weekly menu plan that looks something like this.

I prepare the grocery list from this menu plan and do all the shopping. The kids aren't old enough yet for that!

The kids have dietary guidelines (our house rules) they must follow when choosing recipes. Vegan, minimally processed ingredients, lots of veggies, gluten-free and corn-free for their Dad.

Some of our current favorite recipe sources are:

You can find recipe inspiration for the type of food we eat on my Pinterest.

Breakfast:

Fend for yourself. I like eating the same thing, most every day, some variation of oats, nuts, fruit. None of my kids likes oatmeal anymore, they may never have "liked" it but it was what we ate for breakfast for years.

Everyone fixes their own - potatoes & salsa, leftover supper, rice, miso wakame soup. The only time we have convenience store-bought breakfasts (toast or cereal) is on the weekends.

Lunch:

Now that each of the kids are responsible for one lunch per week, our lunch menu has expanded and now includes:

  • green meal salads (I wrote an ebook about that)
  • grain, vegetable and bean salads
  • soup (I'm the soup master of the house and at least once a week, especially in this season, I make soup for lunch)
  • occasionally a sandwich-type lunch


generally cats are not part of cooking

Snacks:

Oh, these kids need to eat a lot.

Snacks are either something baked (according to the house rules), popcorn, rice pudding, or veggies and dip.

Whole-food, plant-based snacks are some of the trickiest things to find recipes for and we're always tweaking recipes and making modifications. We have a few tried-and-true but we're always looking for more. (And we're all tired of Lara bar type foods.)

Supper:

As has been the case for the last fourteen years, suppers are built around either rice, potatoes, pasta or beans, with the addition of a hearty amount of vegetables, beans or tofu, in some kind of sauce.

Suppers are One Pot Meals though most often two pots are involved - one for the grain, one for the bean/tofu/vegetable sauce. Almost all of our meals are eaten in a bowl.

The kids cook much of the same fare I've been cooking for years. The following links give examples of the type of meals they make:

With the kids helping more in the kitchen I feel inspired once again in the kitchen to experiment with more complicated recipes. Yes, I can make hearty soup with my eyes closed but I am enjoying trying new recipes these days and reserving the soup usually for lunch.

Training and Technicalities

My kids have been working with me in the kitchen, in some capacity, since I could sit their diapered bums on the kitchen counter, or stand them on a chair to help wash dishes.

They know their way around the kitchen but I was still surprised how little "they caught" from this when it came time to start cooking a full meal, like supper.

At fifteen Celine has been cooking supper for a couple years. She's a pro in the kitchen now. She can modify recipes, make substitutions. Her repertoire goes beyond pasta.

Brienne, twelve, is my most inclined-to-cook child. She likes experimenting in the kitchen especially if sweet things are involved, which they aren't very often. She likes to dress the part.


House of Anubis inspired "boarding school" look,
lately Brienne prefers wearing a lady's maid/servant attire while preparing meals (or anytime of day really)

Laurent is fourteen and his biggest challenge in the kitchen is following the sequential steps of a recipe and also not having the experience to fill-in-the-gaps if the recipe if vague about something. Processing a long list of instructions is difficult for Laurent (because of dyslexia) so the practice of reading and following recipes is really good skill-builder. To assist him I will often re-type recipes, making sure the instructions are very explicit. Eventually he'll have the experience to fill-in-the gaps on his own, but in the beginning I need to help with this.

When the kids are first responsible for a meal or snack preparation I work with them, as their assistant. I did more of this hand holding pre-hike.

When we came back from our hike and Brienne and Laurent started cooking supper, as well as Celine, I helped them as an assistant for two weeks and then stepped out of the kitchen. They've had years of lunch cooking experience, my kids are master salad makers, so I knew they could work their way around a kitchen but there was still lots to learn.

Generally, I'm in the house and available in case they have questions. I've scheduled Celine's supper cooking with my weekly big grocery trip (in other words, I'm out of the house when she's cooking) because I know she can manage without me in the house.

Most of our recipes are now stored digitally. I chucked out my recipe binders in our last move, it was time to purge. I keep recipes now either in MacGourmet (the program I use for writing my own recipes), or as simple text or pdf documents stored in digital files, organized in the same manner as my old hardcopy recipe binders. (Beans, breads, curries & stir fries,... ferments, grains,... potatoes, remedies, rice...)

Brienne and Laurent like following printed recipes so we're rebuilding a much simplified recipe binder with our current family favorites.

That's the short version of what it looks like to have five cooks in the house.

It feels somehow selfish, and slightly ironic, to admit that having the kids contribute more in the kitchen has increased my overall enjoyment in my vocation as homemaker.

Although I identify most strongly as a homemaker, I'm happiest in my role as manager of our home as opposed to family chef. I am more comfortable with being a domestic maestro than a kitchen goddess.

My kids of course can make their own choice of who they want to be, and the roles and responsibilities they'll assume when they leave home and eventually start their own families. But one thing's for sure, all of them will know how to cook.

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