Thursday, December 24, 2009

Responding to a friend's Facebook plea for Christmas Cracker jokes this morning, I shared these festive chucklers with the gang. I happened to have them handy cause my 4 yo had just bullied me into giving him a cracker NOW (Christmas Eve, 8am). I figured my friends might as well benefit from my weakness...

Why can't you tell a joke to an egg?
Cause he'll crack up.

Why did the cookie go to the hospital?
Cause he felt crummy.

Why did the chicken cross the playground?
To get to the other SLIDE!

Merry Merry, one and all! Hope your holidays are filled with laughter.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I considered focusing this post on PLONK but there are so many highly drinkable, good quality wines under $10 that I thought the P-word a bit of a slur. On the heels of a recession and during this season of peak consumption, having a few inexpensive wines on hand is where smart meets hospitable. And making sure they're good ones means you can go beyond your own guilty pleasure to use them as quick, simple gifts for friends, neighbours and hosts.

I'm no sommelier, but my current picks for house wine are very pleasing to the palette and the pocketbook. Props to the Toronto Life Where to Get Good Stuff Cheap issue for a few new discoveries. Prices listed below are current at the LCBO.

Glug glug, ahem, chin chin.

Argento Malbec (Argentina) $9.95
Casal Thaulero Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (Italy) $6.95

Cono Sur Viognier (Chile) $9.95
Dunavar Muscat Ottonel $8.35

Villa Sandi Prosecco (Italy) $14.85

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

As the family shutterbug, I get a lot of joy out of snapping pics of my little ones. As the one behind the camera, though, I never end up IN any of the photos and feel a little missing from the family album. Seeking a remedy, and growing tired of fiddling with the self timer on my point-and-shoot, was I ever delighted to sit for a couple of professional photographers recently.

Turns out, I'm not alone. A few mommy friends have recently asked me if I know any good photographers. This is the among the happiest times of our lives, and we ain't getting any younger. Now's the time to document!

For a quick-and-dirty portrait session, the department/super store route isn't half bad. I've seen perfectly good results from Target, Walmart and the Real Canadian Superstore. But going the extra mile and splurging on a professional can be a lot of fun AND will surely land you with some phenomenal photos that you'll treasure forever.

Some of my favorite family-friendly photographers in Toronto include:
They've posted fantastic examples of their work on line. Check them out and...say cheese!!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My mum was a school secretary for years. Every Christmas, she'd come home with a mountain of mugs, tchotchkes, and boxes of chocolates from the kids at school. Of course she appreciated the sentiment, but we all agreed that there had to be a better way to acknowledge our teachers and caregivers than with another generic gift. As a parent, I was hard-pressed to come up with a better idea. After all, there are at least 6 people at our son's school who deserve a little something...what could we get that they'd enjoy without breaking the bank??

Last year, I corralled a bunch of the parents at our preschool to pitch in on group presents for the teachers. With strength in numbers, we were able to put together a generous box of homemade Christmas cookies for each caregiver, topped off with a significant gift card to let them pick out their own treat. These gifts went over really well, but it was a lot of effort to coordinate the whole production.

This year, I was faced with the same challenge of finding presents for a handful of staff at our child care centre, but also had to come up with something for the Kindergarten teacher. And since I'd been the ring leader last year, parents started asking me what to get. Recognizing that some of the best moments of a teacher's day surely had to be when they were NOT with the children, I decided to subscribe to a couple of magazines for the centre's staff room. And even better, I was able to do so through a fundraising program that generates cash for our school.

For the teacher, I found a lovely hardcover family style cookbook (on sale) that I hope she'll enjoy with her own brood. As I gave it to her though, I mentioned that we wholly sanction re-gifting if it doesn't suit her taste. At the very least, I figure we may have taken a gift purchase off of her list!

My husband was raised Jewish. I come from a Catholic family. We like to say our kids are Cashews (ironic that one should have a nut allergy!). Our son's kindergarten teacher kindly asked for some help preparing to celebrate Hanukkah with the children at school. We are grateful to live in a very cosmopolitan, diverse community where kids of all backgrounds will celebrate each others holidays, learning about the world's cultures and traditions through stories, songs and food.

Together with our son's teacher, the school's cook asked me for a recipe for potato latkes. She's going to make a batch to celebrate the Holiday and if they're a hit, these yummy potato pancakes could make it onto the regular breakfast menu at school. How fantastic is that?

My Lithuanian-Catholic grandmother made potato pancakes for us all the time when we were kids. My brother could eat dozens! She used dry Cream of Wheat cereal in place of matzo meal. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, give these tasty treats a whirl.

Potato Latkes
750 g of starchy potatoes, grated
1 large onion, grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tbsp matzo meal or flour
salt & pepper
1/3 c vegetable oil
  • soak grated potatoes in cold water for 30 minutes
  • mix potatoes and onions, squeeze out as much liquid as possible (use a sieve or your hands, cheesecloth helps)
  • mix eggs and matzo meal into potato and onions, add salt and pepper
  • heat oil in a skillet, fry 2 tbsp of mixture in patties until golden brown on both sides
  • serve hot with apple sauce and sour cream
If you're making a large batch, place a rack on a cookie sheet and keep latkes warm in the oven until you're ready to serve.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 Care

I met a couple of new neighbours last week, and was especially delighted to meet their delicious 2 week old baby girl. Out-and-about in the 'hood so soon after her arrival, these folks were energized and on top of their parenting game. As we chatted, they asked me where my kids went to daycare in the area. In turn, I asked them if they were on waiting lists anywhere in town yet, and when they sheepishly confessed that securing a space was still on their to-do list, I urged them to make it a TOP priority. Do-it-yesterday kind of urgency.

Child care spots in Toronto are at a dearth to say the least. To get my son into the centre of our choice, I was on the list when I was 4 mos pregnant. Actually getting his spot in the end was partly thanks to this advance planning, but partly sheer luck. When I became pregnant with our second child, I told the Director of our daycare before I told my own mother. Time is of the essence if you hope to get a spot, to say the least.

Beyond the dire supply-and-demand issue, there are lots of things to consider if both parents are planning to work outside the home. Daycare centre, home care, or nanny? Near home, work or the kids' eventual school? And most burning of all: how are we going to PAY for it?? When I return to work next year and have two kids in daycare, that first years' fees will top out at $2,300 a month. Yikes. I've often joked that I should just get them a condo and cable TV. Mercifully, the fees go down as the kids get older.

Planning WAY in advance and doing tons of research is key. The City of Toronto has posted some useful resources on their site. Canadian Nanny is a helpful service for those looking to hire at-home caregivers. U.S. readers can try Metro Daycare to source childcare in their area. Pot

A dear friend returned my Crock Pot yesterday. I'd brought it to her place for a party, full of those irresistible little sweet and sour meatballs you find on buffets at this time of year. She asked for the recipe. I am thrilled to share it, as it represents crockery cookery at its jar-of-this-can-of-that best.

Yummy Party Meatballs
1 jar of grape jelly
1 bottle of chili sauce
1 dash cayenne pepper
2 bags of Swedish style pre-cooked meatballs (frozen): show-offs can make their own balls.
Combine the jelly, chili sauce and cayenne in a saucepan on the stovetop until the jelly melts. Put the meatballs (frozen) into the Crock Pot. Pour the sauce over the balls. Cook on high for at least 2 hours to heat through and hold on low if serving warm at a party. Enjoy leftovers over rice to maximize sauce intake.

Now that the holiday season has started to rumble down the tracks, Crock Pot season is also officially open. Party snacks like the meatballs are a fantastic application (to say nothing of cheesy artichoke dips and fondue!), but as we all get busier and busier, the Crock Pot can help you be in two places at once. Let the slow cooker make your dinner while you're out shopping and decking the halls. Basic approach is to line the bottom of your pot with veg, put some meat on top, add liquid and seasonings, turn it on and walk away. Our faves include chili, beef stew, and the granddaddy of them all: BBQ pulled pork!

Stephanie O'Dea has made a living out of slow cooking in her Crock Pot. Her blog is a must-surf for recipes, tips and great stories. This woman even TRAVELLED with her Crock (yes, car lighter power adapters are available!) that's commitment. Bon appetit!

Friday, November 27, 2009 Gear

A girlfriend of mine is pregnant with her second baby. She asked me for insights on any must-have gear for her expanding brood. One of the great joys of second+ kids is the opportunity to reuse all of the stuff you've hoarded since number one came along. Especially since the rumours about how fast they grow are true: average life span of kids' gear is painfully short. Once you're beyond rookie status, you also have a more seasoned eye for what you *need* to make life with babies easier.

One thing is certain: with more kids, moms have more stuff to carry. Hence, the genius of the MommyHook. It's a sporty carabiner type item that allows you to hang your shopping bags and what-have-yous on your stroller.

Speaking of strollers...among the greatest disillusionments of motherhood is the realization that no one stroller can do everything you need it to. Most moms I know have an infant car seat adapter for quick wheels-on-demand in the early days; a heavier-duty model for jogging or other more active applications; an umbrella stroller for light-weight travel once kids are sitting up on their own; and any number of other wheelie options. Once you have a second kid, add a double or sit-and-stand tandem stroller to the arsenal. We got one (I liked the Baby Trend version best) and it's fantastic for both the baby and our "I'm NOT a baby!!" kindergartener, unless they both want to sleep. Told you nothing was perfect.

There's a fantastic web site that helps parents navigate the baby gear landscape. Think of it as the TripAdvisor of kids' stuff. The Baby Scoop provides a forum for parents looking to share their experiences with a wide variety of products. And while you're surfing, always check Craigslist and other online swap shops before taking the plunge. Second hand can save money AND come along with some nice tips from the previous owner.

A mom in my neighbourhood asked me if we knew of a good kids' dentist. We've just switched over to Dr. Christine Binert & Associates in the Danforth Village and are very happy with the care and service they provide.

Today, we took the whole family over. Our little girl, who remains toothless at 3 mos of age, was the only one spared a check-up this time (they gave her a teething ring anyway), but our 4yo had his first cleaning and exam, and he did great!

The office is located in a house, a comfy departure from medical arts buildings, and it's decorated enthusiastically with festive holiday stuff, making it even more welcoming. They offer terrific incentives for kids, giving them the chance to win all kinds of treats: even a new bike is up for grabs for kids who brush and floss as promised. Every visit includes a trip to the Dentists' Treasure Chest for a reward, too.

Friendly staff, capable dentists and hygienists, homey atmosphere, and TVs on the ceiling? Now that's worth smiling over!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sometimes, my friends ask me what they should eat for lunch. Sounds crazy, but really, they're just bored... and smart, cause they realize that I spend a lot of time considering food. Today's lunch was delightful. I hope it inspires you to eat something great today.

Toasted whole wheat bagel with whipped cream cheese, scallions and gorgeous smoked Tandoori Georgian Bay Whitefish, with a bowl of Butternut Squash and White Bean puree. Um, delish!

The fish came from the superlative Akiwenzie's Fish & More of Wiarton, Ontario. You can find this deliciousness (along with their amazing Honey Garlic smoked fish and fresh filets) at the Wychwood Barns and Dufferin Grove Farmers' Markets this winter. Audit

Ever wish you could get some help paying for home improvements? Want to make your home more energy efficient but concerned about the expense? If you're planning to do any renovations or upgrades to your home, make sure you get a Home Energy Audit first. Both the Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments have generous rebates available for homeowners who make their homes more efficient. Don't leave money on the table!

When we bought our house 2 years ago, we knew we'd have to replace the furnace sooner than later. Luckily, we had a friend in the HVAC business who was able to improve our system affordably, but even better, he insisted we get an audit to make ourselves eligible for potential rebates. Are we ever glad we did. Turns out, we'll get over $2,000 back from the government, we have a greener, better functioning heating and cooling system to keep us comfortable, and we've added tangible value to our home.

Here's how it works. You book an auditor (many referrals available through the government online, plus a recommendation posted below) and they come out to do an initial review of your house and its systems. The cost is around $300, but this initial audit itself is eligible for a $150 rebate. You then have 18 months to make any necessary improvements or upgrades and the auditor returns for a post-improvement check. This secondary audit costs another $150. The auditor confirms your eligibility and then (best part!) they complete all the necessary paperwork on your behalf. Your rebates, if any, will just appear in your mailbox 90 days later, like magic!

For more on the Ontario Home Energy Savings Program, visit

For info on the Federal EcoEnergy Retrofit Program, check out

Green Alliance (auditor) can be booked by calling 416-903-7285.

Dan O'Brien Heating, Air Conditioning, Ventilation can be reached at 416-429-9139.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Among my favorite moments in history is the time I served as pocket concierge to a friend who was in Philadelphia on business. He had never been to the City of Brotherly love and brother, it's a town I love...I was happy to oblige.

So he'd txt me from his 'berry...and I'd txt him back. Where to get a good cheesesteak, how to order it like a local, what beers to try, where to have dinner, where to get his kids a souvenir of the trip and so on, and so on. He felt like a local, I felt like I had a vicarious visit to one of America's finest cities...he sent me a pic of his 'steak. Right on.

Cheesesteaks (Center City): Carmen's or DiNics: Reading Terminal Market, 12th & Arch. Order it "wiz-wit"= with cheez whiz and fried onions (make the trek to Pat's King of Steaks on 9th Avenue if you're really serious about Cheesesteaks)
Beer: Yuengling Lager; Blue Point Toasted Lager (admittedly a NY brew)
Dinner: Alma de Cuba: 1623 Walnut Street (one of innumerable GREAT restaurants in Phillly)
Kids' Stuff: Born Yesterday: 1901 Walnut Street/Rittenhouse Square Shopping

Got a series of, oh, a dozen emails from a friend this week asking for tips on a local toy warehouse sale. Location, hours, highlights, brands available, methods of payment, parking...she covered the gamut. She asked what time she should go, what she should buy, whether this toy or that toy was there, what I bought, what I paid, what my kid is asking for for Christmas. Girl was serious. I like that.

So here it is: if you want to go to the Samko sale...go early, park where you can, leave your coat in the car and your kids at home, buy what you like and can afford. Happy holidays.

Samko-Miko Toy Warehouse Sales:

My cousin lives in Singapore. He was once in Toronto and had an hour or two between meetings. He was looking for shoes. Not sporty shoes. Not dress shoes. In-between, smart casual shoes. He called on me for advice. to the rescue!! Within minutes I had him on his way to several in-between-shoe-retailers within a short walk of his home base. He was delighted and was sort of, well, born.

B2: 399 Queen Street West/Eaton Centre
C Squared: 365 Queen Street West
Get Outside: 437 Queen Street West
Aldo: First Canadian Place, King and Bay Streets