Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2017 Reading Challenge

If you follow along on Instagram, you’ll have seen this post recently… 

“Reading has always been a passion of mine! There is just nothing like immersing yourself in a book, and getting lost in a plot! Beauty & The Beast is to date, still my favourite film, and from the first time I watched it at three years old, I wanted the library Belle was gifted, almost as much as her gorgeous yellow gown! I majored in English in University, but since graduating and starting a family, taking the time to sit down and really devour a book has escaped me! In 2017 I decided to try again! It may not be the classics and deep literature I studied for years, but really, the small break from screens and setting an example for my boys that picking up a book is as good a hobby as any, was well worth it! …”

Last year I tried my best to reintroduce enjoyable and relaxing activities into my schedule. With two- and three-year-old boys and what seems like constant appointments, therapies, and schedules to attend to, it felt frivolous. The infamous mom guilt reared its ugly head and was strong. For years, a shower and sneaking a chocolate from the freezer were my opportunities for a deep breath (I’m not saying that to play the martyr card or ask for pity, it was my reality and I was exhausted). When 2017 came around, I decided to, very slowly, reintroduce ways to recharge. Two big ones included date nights (more on that in an upcoming post!) and reading again!

I know it sounds a little odd, but reading has truly always been a passion of mine. From preschool days, sitting on my bed sounding out words using Hooked On Phonics, to never leaving the house without a book well into my teenage years, it all eventually led to an Honours degree in English Lit! Reading has been a comfort, an escape and the opportunity to learn so much about the world and myself in the process.

Having two babies a little over fifteen months apart didn’t leave a whole lot of time for picking up a book. And truthfully, it wasn’t something I even considered. It took my husband and I longer than we  expected to get to our wedding day and then under a year later we were blessed with our son and I completely immersed myself in being a Mommy. There was colic and laughter, sleepless nights and beaming smiles, and hobbies were replaced with everything baby and then everything baby again! Now that the boys are a little bit older and playing more independently, and with each other too (my favourite thing ever!!!) it’s still surreal that I can sit in the family room with them and pick up a book that isn’t of the board variety!

My husband introduced me to GoodReads and the idea of the Reading Challenge was enticing (by the way, other than using it as a resource, I am in no way affiliated with the site!). I chose 25 books since that would work out to one book every two weeks or so, and I felt that was the most realistic goal I could set. I still can’t believe I managed 34 (although having had surgery in February and being stuck in bed for a bit helped boost my total). I started reading on the bus on my way into work, in the evenings right before bed, and on Shabbos afternoons while the boys played or napped!

At first I was a little embarrassed to share my list above, given how for years Chaucer, Emerson, Beckett and the like were what I was reading, but this is what I enjoyed and these are the story-lines I escaped to here and there throughout the year! There are a lot written by the same author, since I didn’t put much research into which books to pick up and would just search for more of the same author if I enjoyed a certain book! Otherwise, books were chosen by what was easiest to grab in the library before my toddler decided it was time to leave!

Here are a few of my favourite books of 2017!

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella - I love the Shopaholic series, but like the Undomestic Goddess, this break from the series was also fantastic! It was relevant with just that little bit of added adventure and suspension of belief to make it a great read to get lost in! It really shows how easy it is to curate your feed and create a whole other world outside of your reality,  with a few creative photos on your Insta feed!

The Choices We Make by Karma Brown - This was the first book I read by Karma Brown and immediately requested her others from the library right away. Her writing is phenomenal and the characters truly come to life as you move from one chapter to the next. The story line is heavy and the tears flowed easily, given that the emotion packed into each chapter and the power of her writing were so incredible. Having read two others after this, it’s my favourite of her books! Here the story of two friends and families become intertwined as one friend helps the other realise a dream. The shocking twists and turns make it impossible to put this down.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - This was the first book I read in almost one sitting in 2017. I couldn’t put it down! The prose, the voice of the main character, how she draws you in with her quirky and innocent observations, had me hooked right away!

Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner - There are lines that Erin wrote that hit so close to home, I could have written them myself. Her words brought comfort, understanding, a sensitivity and a fresh perspective on really thinking about your priorities and shifting your perspective to what matters most. It’s a combination of autobiography and self-help, and given that this is a kosher food blog, I do want to mention that there is a religious (Christian) element to it as well, as well as the next book I'll mention! A really great read and many quotes I still go back to! And on that note, I also absolutely loved Grace Not Perfection by Emily Ley! I’ll preempt this by saying that I am a huge fan of Emily Ley! After years of wanting one, I finally got myself a Simplified Planner for my birthday last year and I love, love, love it! I read this book on the bus the first couple of weeks after having returned to work. Having been a stay-at-home Mom since the day my oldest was born, it was a hard adjustment for me, filled with so many different emotions. Reading this book at the beginning of my day, after having left the house to babies who were still sleeping and not being the one there for breakfast for the first time, was like having a comforting friend with me! So much truth in this book and, again, so many quotes that I bookmarked and look back on frequently. I'm currently reading her recent book A Simplified Life and it's fantastic!

Other notable favourites include: Between Sisters by Cathy Kelly, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Astor Place Village by Stephanie Lehmann, The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

Let me know if you’ve read any and what you thought of them! Any suggestions for my 2018 list?

Happy Reading!

Monday, January 08, 2018

Real Life Kosher Cooking {Cookbook Review & Giveaway!}

This cookbook was generously provided by Artscroll.
The  review and opinions expressed below are completely my own.

Real Life can mean different things to different people. Just 6 months ago, my definition of real life meant being a stay at home Mom with two toddlers attached to me basically all of the time, with the exception of a short afternoon preschool program for my oldest (which required a 20-minute walk with both boys, come rain or shine). Today, real life looks like working full time, while both boys are attending full-day preschool and after-school therapeutic programs. Regardless of how our routines and schedules have changed, one thing remains the same - it always seems like every minute of the day is accounted for and any spare minute here or there is valued beyond words.

When I read the title of Miriam Pascal’s latest cookbook, I couldn’t help but hope that the pages within really, truly reflected the promise of the title. Real Life Kosher Cooking, just seemed too good to be true. The best way I could imagine putting it to the test, was to incorporate it into our weekly menu planning - a week that looks like two parents working full time and two little boys spending 30+ hours a week in school with therapeutic supports as well as after school programming. Four schedules and just as many routines. Backpacks to pack, clothes to wash and a home to maintain. Cuddles, playing and outings. And y’know some sleep here and there!

We chose a handful of recipes and incorporated them into our weekday and Shabbos menu. These included:

Lemon Oregano Roasted Chicken p. 130
Crispy Onion-Topped Potatoes p. 202
Orange Dijon Salmon p. 179
Mexican Omelette with Crispy Home Fries p.20
Lemon Crumb Cake p.260
Pecan Pie Bundt Cake p.258

They were all great but the omelette was by far my favourite! And with my husband prepping the potatoes before he left the house, the whole meal was able to be made quickly, after we all got home! My husband especially loved the Pecan Pie Bundt Cake! He isn't usually so enthusiastic about bundt cakes, but he remarked a few times over Shabbos how much he loved it! It was so easy to make, and the title really captures the flavour perfectly - it actually takes like a pecan pie, in all it's sticky, deliciousness, but in the form of a bundt cake! Just make sure you super prep the pan so that it comes out in one piece!

I love that the recipes in this book do not compromise on flavour or quality, while still ensuring they’re approachable enough to be made in a real life, kosher kitchen, with all the demands of a daily schedule. The variety is also worth noting - whether you’re looking for something for a weekday dinner, an addition to your Shabbos menu or even a great dessert to gift to a friend, you’ll find it  all. We really appreciated the variety of chicken options, given it’s a staple in our home and our regular recipes tend to get a bit repetitive. While I’ve yet to make them, the first two recipes of the book had me hooked right away - Churro Waffles & Healthy Oatmeal Pumpkin Pancakes! Yesss! Having had success with so many of Miriam’s recipes from her blog, OvertimeCook.com, I approached the book confident in her directions and the combinations of flavours she presented, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed!

The style of the book is very similar to Perfect for Pesach, which Miriam also photographed! It's very straightforward and the layout makes it very easy to navigate. Additions to recipes such as, Notes, Variation, Plan Ahead and more, give you the opportunity to take the recipes to new levels and shape them to accommodate your schedule. The only thing I found missing was an estimation of how much time each recipe takes. A quick overview of the recipe itself provides an idea, but it's always nice to have an estimate as well. I do like how the different sections of preparation are highlighted frequently within the directions for different recipes. When a dressing for instance is being prepared, it's highlighted to show you you're working on a different step, instead of it all being jumbled together. This is also helpful if you want to work on a specific aspect of the recipe first! There are also a variety of menus interspersed throughout the cookbook as well (Yom Tov Lunch, Friday Night With Guests etc). I love the ideas and combination of recipes included, the only downside is that they're presented at the beginning of each different chapter, and the first time I was slightly confused because I thought it was an index of the recipes in that chapter! Otherwise, it's another thoughtful, helpful addition!

If you're familiar with Miriam's website OvertimeCook.com, you'll know that her food photography is incredible! The images you'll find in the cookbook are just as crisp, and enticing. I especially love that they're so real! They are presented simply and cleanly, highlighting the dishes and making the recipes the focal point without distraction. They also feel doable! You see the image and not only do you want to immediately make everything because it looks so appetizing, but you also truly feel like you can plate it the same way and that the presentation will have all of the wow factor without any of the intimidation! It's a great representation of how the book is accessible and truly geared for everyday kosher cooking in a real life, kosher kitchen!

With a new year starting and all the hope for a fresh start, this book is an asset. Whether you're hoping to menu plan more consistently, eat out less and make quick and delicious meals at home, or simply change up your regular menu with options that are approachable and straightforward while still maintaining a wow factor result, Real Life Kosher Cooking is a great kitchen companion to get you through!

As a special treat, Artscroll has generously given us one copy to giveaway! In order to enter, visit our Instagram page and check out the giveaway post! For a bonus entry, leave a comment sharing your favourite "real life" weekday dinner!

The contest is open to US entrants (the cookbook will only be shipped to a US address). The contest will run from Monday January 8th, 2018 to Thursday January 11th, 2018 at 8:00PM EST, when 1 (one) winner will be chosen. No purchase necessary. Miriam Pascal's Real Life Kosher Cooking will be shipped directly to the US address, Itsy Bitsy Balebusta assumes no responsibility for shipping. The winner will have 24 hours to respond before there is a re-draw for the prize. Good luck!

As another treat, here's the recipe for the Pecan Pie Bundt Cake that was such a hit here (reprinted with permission). Enjoy!

Pecan Pie Bundt Cake (p. 258 Real Life Kosher Cooking, Miriam Pascal, 2017, Artscroll)

3/4 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons oil
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
4 eggs
3/4 cup oil
1 cup sugar
2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups flour
3/4 cup soy milk

Preheat oven to 350F. Coat a standard (12-cup) Bundt pan well with floured baking spray, be sure to coat the pan very well, as the cake will be sticky. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together pecans, brown sugar, oil and corn syrup. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, on medium speed, beat together eggs, oil, sugars, vanilla, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until creamy.

Turn mixer speed to low; add half the flour, followed by half the soy milk, then the remaining flour and remaining soy milk, beating each time until just combined.

Pour about half the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Top with the pecan mixture; add remaining batter.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

It All Begins with Food {Cookbook Review!}

This cookbook was kindly provided by Appetite Random House. The review and opinions expressed below, are completely my own.

Leah Garrad-Cole’s, It All Begins with Food, is so much more than a cookbook! Personally speaking, it has been a wonderful reference guide and source of support (and inspiration!) when it comes to creating our weekly menus. When I was kindly offered this book to review a couple of weeks into our recent endeavours to eat better, I was hoping it would be exactly what I needed to give us some sort of direction. Not only are the recipes fantastic, but the method, steps and information are all presented in an approachable manner - not demanding diets be this way or that, or instilling any guilt. Too often the conversation around what we feed our family (and young children in particular!) takes heated and controversial tones. It seems everyone’s paediatrician or doctor has a different opinion and, in my perspective at least, it feels like the guidelines change month to month! My boys are 15 months apart, and when it came time to discuss starting our youngest on solids the advice was completely different from that of our oldest (only a year earlier!). Searching the terms “Baby cereal” and “baby lead weaning” spark threads that go on for pages with countless different views. And I’m not even going near the formula vs breastfeeding debate. Feeding your family is stressful from so many different angles. From the amount of criticism and opinions openly offered, to the ingredients available, time with which to prepare meals and throw in allergies and picky eaters and you’ve got a recipe for disaster!

Looking back on it now, I didn’t appreciate nearly enough how well Y ate as a baby. Anything we’d give him he’d eat. By the time he was one and a half, he had tried foods that even I hadn’t tried before (hello liver?!). Fruits, cheese, cut up veggies, chicken, you name it the kid ate it! While we did endure colic and sleeping issues, at least mealtime was the one area where everything flowed easily. And then we welcomed N. So many people told me about how their second child was completely opposite to their first from birth. I didn’t know what to expect with N, but I can tell you I have never met two people as opposite as my boys! While N had his own slew of health issues, he was a fantastic sleeper from day one and regardless of all of the medical issues we faced his first year, he had the happiest disposition ever (and I’m not being biased – nurses, doctors and specialists all remarked on it!) . But when it came time to eat. Oh my…

Initially, in the NICU N started out with an NG tube. That was followed by a specialized high-calorie formula to help our tiny little guy grow! We must have switched formula brands over 5 times (with countless different varieties within in each brand attempted as well). Then came the months of OT for feeding issues. And today? Getting him to eat more than a couple of bites of anything is my mission at every mealtime.

It isn’t only N whose meals could use some tweaking. I will admit, my meals throughout the day are rarely ever planned and function more around convenience and what I can grab between cleaning up, nap time, trying to get some work done, organizing our schedule and school/camp pickup. More often than not that means a quick bowl of cereal or whatever is left over from the kids' meals. Pretty glamorous for a supposed food blogger right? At the end of April, with the encouragement of my husband, we decided to change that. We wanted healthier meals throughout the week, and options that were easy enough to prepare that we wouldn’t feel discouraged and jump back into our diets of bagels and cereal.

This book literally arrived within three days of this new adventure. I love that Leah chose a direction for the book that is so approachable and warm while still being informative and unwavering from her intention to help those looking for a route to clean eating and healthy living. She understands that life is busy and hectic, and that sometimes it’s easier to just grab something and go (she actually started Love Child Organics, which makes organic, nutritious purees among other products, that are free from preservatives, fillers, refined sugars, pesticides, GMOs and anything artificial!). She understands that making (and feeding our kids!) tasty, healthy food isn’t always easy. This cookbook is now my textbook. It’s what I refer to when I find other recipes to see how I can make them healthier, or what Leah has swapped in or out of her recipes and how I can apply that elsewhere as well! Leah has the experience from a wide breadth of areas, from coming from a family of women who love cooking to being a teacher and administrator with children who often dealt with issues of food security, as well as having worked in a respite school. Having kids of her own now, it’s clear that this book is the result of firsthand knowledge and experience. Too often I’ve felt books of this genre are unattainable and flipping through them has left me discouraged. As I flipped through the beginning of this book however, one quote was highlighted that made me feel right away that this was going to be different. Just nine pages into the book, Leah openly spoke about the pressure to cook homemade food and make one meal for everyone to eat together every night, how we don’t have 48 hours in a day to get everything done, and sometimes we need to rely on prepared food. Above all, it’s written for parents – and from one parent to another. 

The key is easy to understand, and provides insight into which recipes can be frozen, which are gluten free, plant based, dairy free, egg free and more! There's also a chart for basic substitutions to help make recipes healthier or conform to certain diets (i.e. substitutions for egg replacement). I love that Leah encourages creativity and adapting recipes to suit personal tastes, rather than sticking to what’s laid out in front of you regardless of whether one simple addition or substitution would make it work better for your family! 

For those who are looking for more information and details specifically concerning organic food, there’s an entire chapter including definitions and comprehensive information. There are also sections on stocking a “clean” kitchen and pantry (prettily colour coded, which caught my attention right away and helped ease some of the overwhelmed feelings when looking at all of the alternatives and information provided!). There is so much information that this really serves as the only guide you need to not only start you on your way to healthy eating, but also help you maintain your goals and expand on them once you achieve a level of comfort and familiarity with the ingredients and options available to you!

The information portion of the book concludes with meal planning tips as well as tips on nurturing adventurous eaters and finally a guide on starting your baby on solid food! There are countless guides, troubleshooting information, allergy guidelines and help, tips and an abundance of support to get you started on this exciting chapter! I cannot do justice to the amount of information and resources the book provides parents with, other than to say that the first full recipe doesn’t arrive until page 84! Everything before that is getting you set up to approach this journey with the utmost knowledge, confidence and support possible!

I love that the book begins with baby’s first foods and takes you straight into family meals. It's the book you NEED when beginning solids, but one which will also carry you well into the future of everyone around the table for family dinner! The recipes are straightforward, the directions are clear and concise, and they are all approachable and not intimidating. For the most part, the beginner recipes have a handful of ingredients, all clean, healthy and readily available. Recipes progress to finger foods (which honestly make great snacks for any age – who doesn’t love sweet potato fries?!) and I love that they’re freezable! The smoothie section is fantastic with a whole chart on how to create your own combinations while ensuring the most nutritious outcome. The “Superhero Breakfasts” and lunch sections provide endless meal inspiration, basing recipes on familiar dishes with healthier ingredients (lasagnas, quesadillas, soups and dips!). Yes, the ingredients are healthier, but they’re incorporated into familiar dishes, not asking you to leap too far our of your comfort zone. 

The family dinner section has to be my favourite! One-pan roast chicken, tacos, shepherds pie and ALL HEALTHY! My absolute favourite is the “Best Ever Turkey Chili Soup”. Yes, it has kale. Yes, it is the middle of the summer. Yes, we have it weekly! I make one batch, freeze half and two dinners are taken care of! And it is soooo good! Honestly, one of my favourite dinners now! I love that it’s not only easy to prepare, and so healthy, but it’s actually really, really delicious!

Like I said at the beginning, feeding your family can be a very challenging experience. Add in allergies, or any other complications and the stress level sky rockets. Try to make it all healthy and homemade on top of that and you’re rapidly approaching territory which feels absolutely impossible. I hope this review has helped to show you that it isn’t and that there is a guidebook out there for people like us who have for too long relied on breakfast for dinner, bagels and cereal while maintaining that tomorrow will be different. All those times I’ve bought lettuce and vegetables only to throw out before heading to the grocery store the following week. All those misguided attempts at eating healthy without having a true understanding of what that even means. Pick up this book. You’ll get so much more than recipes from it (although, seriously, try the turkey chili soup!). The knowledge and support within its pages will carry you though the beginning of your path to clean eating and healthy living, and well beyond that!