The Final Stretch: Lunches

Here is a hilarious beginning vs end of the school year post on BuzzFeed.

Here is lunch at the beginning of the school year:

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and at the end:

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I have not quite sunk that low, but I can tell you that I have 49 lunches left to pack.  Yes, I’m counting.

applesAnd that is why I am always glad to hear about new things to put in the lunchbox.  Ontario grown and produced Martin’s Apple Chips are new to the market, and they were kind enough to send us a sample.

They are 100% apple.  That’s it, that’s all.  The apples are thinly sliced and dehydrated and have a lovely crispy crunch.  I really enjoyed them on their own, but they also make a great gluten-free alternative for cheese crackers.  Check out the other ideas on their blog.

We love to support local businesses and to tell you about the products that we have received and enjoyed.  This definitely checked a lot of boxes for us: healthy, tasty, local.

Enjoy!

 

The Pleasures of Handmade Chocolate

050I didn’t clue in on the second or third or fourth readings why my son was so fascinated with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Apart from the fact that it’s a timeless, fabulous read that’s entertaining for both children and adults.  We were also loving the edition illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose whimsical drawings seem to perfectly complement Dahl’s outlandish tale.

But there was another reason, and that’s because my boy really wanted to make chocolate.  I was ever so slow to catch on to this.  When he first talked about being a chocolate maker and a chocolate inventor, I said sure, and got on with whatever critical task I was doing.

When he kept talking about making chocolate, I clued in that he actually wanted to try and I told him one of two things:  a) I didn’t know how or b) you can’t make chocolate.  I’d like to think I made the former claim, but I’m pretty sure I said the dumber latter thing.

At last, when the poor child was blue in the face with asking, I had a glittering eureka moment.  Why don’t I just look into it, I thought?  And promptly discovered that it is not only possible to make chocolate at home, but not difficult at all (unless you are starting truly from scratch with cocoa beans, which we weren’t).  Snapping out of my no-can-do trance, I remembered that I love making things in the kitchen at home with my boys and at last we got to work.

We did some research, read a bit, watched a few youtube videos.  There are lots of different recipes out there, but I wanted to make one with cocoa butter, because this seemed the most delicious and pure way.

The recipe I used (and I cannot for the life of me find the source, sorry) contained exactly four ingredients.

250 grams of cocoa butter (edible, some kinds are intended for body care)

8 Tbs of powdered milk

12 Tbs of cocoa

250 grams of icing sugar

(pinch of salt, optional)

The most difficult part of making the chocolate was getting some really good ingredients, and even that was just a run to the natural food store.  I splurged on raw organic cocoa butter and got some good cocoa powder, because with a recipe with four ingredients, the quality of these would seem to really matter.

We melted the cocoa butter in a makeshift double boiler, and blended it with the mixed dry ingredients.  And, um, that’s it.

Then we poured our chocolate mixture into a variety of silicone molds (maybe some chocolate bar molds should go on my son’s gift wishlist?  If you don’t have these, you could line a loaf pan or baking tray with a lip with parchment paper and break the chocolate into bark.  Spooning out the liquid chocolate was messy so we poured it first into a little milk jug which made pouring into the molds much easier.

We chilled them, popped them out of the molds and wrapped them in mason jars as we had a bunch of May birthdays to celebrate.  I read somewhere that handmade chocolates melt more easily than storebought, so we kept the presents refrigerated until time to give them.

The outcome?  It’s a lovely chocolate.  Not a true dark chocolate, but more dark than milk chocolate, partly because of the milk powder but especially because it was just sweet enough and no more.  It was strikingly similar to some very nice, very expensive handmade chocolate I sampled at a high end farmer’s market.  The texture of ours was a little grainy, which I can only attribute to the milk powder as the other dry ingredients are so fine.  There are lots of other recipes out there, and since it’s so easy and pleasurable and great for gift-giving, I can’t see why we won’t be doing this more and more.

It should come as no surprise that I was enamoured with the process entire.  With reading to my son a wonderful story and having it make a deep enough impression on both his imagination and sense of possibility that he’s spurred to try new things.  And that his energy moves me to try new things.  That I have the opportunity to stretch a little more a mind that I thought was already open to adventures in the kitchen with my kids.  That we get to create and taste and share really decadent and quite healthful treats.  I still can’t explain the blinders that delayed this handmade foray, but thank goodness for the persistent child who helped knock them away; it’s reason enough for me to love these chocolates completely.

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Three New Cookbooks I Love

madYou know that awesome feeling you get when you talk to another parent, and they just get you?  They just get what it is to be harried and hurried and run off your feet?  Well, Madhouse Cookbook is that, with recipes!  Recipes for cocktails!  Recipes you can make with the kids!  It even has recipes that you can make in less than 30 minutes!  It’s week-night salvation, people!  (Full disclosure: a copy of this book was sent to us by the publisher.)

This is a recipe book that recognizes that parents wear many hats.  There are sections for kid-friendly meals, hurried week night meals, relaxed family weekend brunches and, best of all, adults-only entertaining.  This is a cookbook that encourages you to put yourself first sometimes, and get creative in the kitchen.  I loved that push to get us to push the kids out of the limelight.  Elderflower martini, anyone?

glowsOh She Glows is another recent acquisition, named for Angela Liddon’s blog of the same name.  I cannot begin to tell you what a joy it has been to cook from this book.  The fun!  The flavour!  The guilt-free healthy goodness!  The recipe for the roasted rainbow carrots was a huge hit at our family Easter dinner, as was the lentil walnut loaf.  The non-vegetarians among us looked longingly at it, and I confess I love it when that happens.  What I especially love is that I can make the flavourful, interesting recipes from this book, and still serve my kids the plain steamed veggies and simple food that they like by simplifying the recipe for them as I go along.  I get food bursting with flavour, they have to abide by the one-bite rule, and if they don’t like it, they can still have the simple version.  Win win.

Finally, I have had had great success with Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good, a gift from my sister-in-law who has gifted multiple copies, all to rave reviews.  Some of the recipes are crazy, and I will never attempt them.  (Salted fish, I’m looking at you.)imagesABD5QV3DBut others are crazy simple and delicious and total crowd pleasers.  The roasted cauliflower and chick pea recipe is one I now have memorized, and after too many nights of boring steamed cauliflower made for my kids’ tastes, it has made cauliflower a joy again.  Truly.  And, again, it’s one of those recipes that I can adapt easily for my fussy eaters by just putting aside some of the chick peas and cauliflower before adding the spices.  It’s all good!

It’s Finally Time to Use the Gift Certificates

dinnerYears ago (could it be as many as three?!) my husband gave me the best Mother’s Day gift ever: a gift certificate from a caterer for three family meals to be delivered to the house.  Words cannot express the delight I felt.  Having dinner cooked for me and mine is almost as good as a date night when I don’t have to feed my offspring at all.

I treasured those gift certificates.  I held on to them, banking them against a day when I would Really Need Them.  They sat in my in-box and sent off a submarine-like ping to my subconscious: help is always on hand.

The thing is, by the time you are up to your eyeballs in the kind of turmoil that makes a day when You Really Need Them, the gift certificates aren’t much good anyway.  Because ordering from a caterer requires Advanced Planning.

And another thing: I began to look on the gift certificates, not as a blessing that would free me from preparing dinner, but as a manifestation of my having reached Rock Bottom.  They went from being an ace up my sleeve to being something more like a lifeline, a lifeline that was a sign that I was drowning.  I don’t like to think about drowning or needing saving or Rock Bottom, so I did not use them.

In fit of spring-induced energy, I finally, finally tackled the towering pile of papers in my office, and in amongst them was the gift certificate, and I decided, it’s time.

I don’t need saving.  I am not drowning.  I am not at rock bottom.  But I do intend to give myself a week off from dinner preparation before the next Mother’s Day comes along.  A delightful gift, pure and simple.  Spending it out.

 

Three Salads for Winter Blahs

I get very quickly bored of salad.  It’s especially hard in winter to maintain enthusiasm for salad when there are no local, fresh ingredients, and I often find myself in a rut.  Here are some salads sure to please tired taste buds.

salad-May11-HH-AskAmy-LeslieWilliamsMy all-time favourite salad is Fresh’s Tangled Thai Salad.  There is a Fresh restaurant down the street from me, and I never even look at the menu anymore.  I just order the Tangled Thai.  In part, it’s a treat because I cannot have peanuts or sesame at home, so I treat myself to those allergens when I go out.   For some reason, lime has become my winter comfort, and it’s the lime and cilantro that make this salad particularly appealing to me in winter.  (To add protein to this delicious dish, try adding some marinated tofu.)  You can find the recipe on the Canadian House and Home site here.

I also saw this lovely, crisp and zesty salad in The Globe and Mail last week: Shaved Fennel and Mint.  The Red and White appealed to me because I love fennel but have a limited number of ways to prepare it.  With mint, it felt like a taste of summer in the middle of winter.  Yum.  And while pomegranates symbolise Persephone’s banishment to the underworld and the death of all that’s green in winter, they also promise the return of spring, so you can toast the Greek gods’ promise of the green to come and have your salad, too.

Finally, my go-to taste bud pleaser is a pear and blue cheese salad.  My portions of cheese are usually immoderate, but with this salad, I get my cheese fix with just a wee crumble of pungent blue.  Enjoy!  And please share your recipes for great salads!

Pear and Blue Cheese Spinach Salad

Serves 2

4 cups baby spinach, rinsed and dried

1 ripe pear, cored and sliced

1/3 cup walnuts or pine nuts

2 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Heat a frying pan on medium heat for one minute.  Add nuts and stir constantly until nuts are fragrant and toasted golden brown.  (1-2 minutes)  Remove immediately from heat.  Mix oil, vinegar and Dijon with a whisk in a large salad bowl.  Pour out half of dressing, and toss spinach in remainder.  Serve dressing-coated spinach in bowls, topped with sliced pear, nuts and cheese.  Add remaining dressing if necessary or reserve for another day.

Stuffed Pork Chops: Skip the restaurant and stay home this Valentine’s Day

Untitled4Mothers welcomes Jillian as our guest for the day.  Jillian is a mother to her 10 month old daughter and an Air Force wife.  She is currently taking a year long break from her job as a news anchor.  Jillian blogs about her love for food, entertaining, travel and fitness at News Anchor to Homemaker.

My husband and I will be celebrating our seventh Valentine’s Day together this year.  I’ll never forget our first.  We were in college and I came home to a home-cooked meal…it was awful.  He made a shrimp dish, but he must have forgotten every spice in the recipe because it was pretty bland. To be honest though, I was so head over heels I didn’t care.  After dinner, he took me to the surprise part of the date at his apartment complex.  We pulled up to an outdoor fire place and  taped above it was a note that read, “Reserved”, signed by management.  He informed me he was “management.”  He was afraid someone would take his idea, so he made it look more official.  Smart guy!  He opened the trunk of his beat-up 4Runner and took out a blanket, champagne (one of his older friends must have bought it for him) and an assortment of chocolates.  It was perfect.

Thinking of our first Valentine’s Day together got me thinking about our favorite restaurant in our old college town, Athens, GA.  If you’re ever in Athens, then you should stop by The Last Resort Grill.  They used to make a dish similar to this.  It would be a great option for you and your sweetheart this February 14th.  Just my humble opinion of course!

Spinach Stuffed Pork Chop:

Prep: 10 Minutes

Total: 20 Minutes

2 Pork Chops, with a pocket cut

8 oz. Spinach, chopped, cooked and well-drained

Sea Salt and Pepper to taste

Splash of Chardonnay, divided

2-3 Tbs. Butter, divided

Directions:

Drain your cooked spinach and pat very dry.  Toss into a pan with a splash of chardonnay and about 1 tablespoon (or less) of butter. Cook for a couple minutes then stuff the pork chop with the spinach. Season pork chop with Sea Salt and Cracked pepper.  In a pan, melt more butter and add a more chardonnay. Cook your pork chops for several minutes on each side.

Sweet Potato Mash:

2 Large Sweet Potatoes, peeled.

2 Tablespoons of Butter

1 Tablespoon of Maple Syrup

1 Tablespoon of Brown Augar

1/4 Cup of Milk

Directions:

Boil sweet potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash in butter, syrup and sugar, then mash with milk until desired consistency.

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Lunchbox Ideas from Iogo

photo (3)Last weekend, I took my eight-year-old son and two friends along to Iogo Yogurt’s cartooning afternoon with Jo Rioux, the Canadian author of the graphic novel Cat’s Cradle, much loved by said son.  They got to make their own art and Jo came around to talk to them about their work.  (If your kids enjoy cartooning, they can join Iogo’s competition to design the cartoons for their yogurt tubes.  See details here.)

And while she did that, a dietician talked to the grown ups about some new ideas for the lunch boxes.

First: respect the child.  That means respect his or her appetite, likes and dislikes, and abilities.  If your children are able, get them involved in all stages of the lunchbox preparation, from shopping to planning to prepping to packing.

Second: fill in the blanks.  Lunches should have one of each of the following: a meat or meat alternative, vegetables, fruit, a grain and a dairy product.  The dietician had these foods in separate containers for three separate meals, so my son had a chance to go up to the table and do a bit of mix and match with the various selections.  Being able to treat the exercise as a puzzle was a really helpful way to get my son engaged, and it would save time in the mornings if we had a selection of foods already packaged up and ready to fill in the blanks.

_MG_9722 (3)And he gave us some great ideas too.  My favourite was muffin tin omelettes: mix up your omelette batter as you usually would, pour into a greased muffin tin, fill with your favourite vegetables and cheese, bake in a 350 oven for about 20 minutes and voila!  He recommended 12 eggs for a 12-muffin tin, but I used six eggs and milk.  I filled half with red pepper, half with mushrooms and topped all of them with old cheddar, but of course, the possibilities are endless with this, and you can jam all kinds of veggies into one of these things.  They work hot or cold.  What I love about this idea is that it’s one-stop nutrition, with the protein, veggies and dairy all in one.  I’ve also done this with frozen mini-pie shells to make mini-quiches.

Another great idea was a do-it-yourself soup.  Send a thermos with only the hot broth in it.  In separate containers, send the kids’ favourite pasta and veggies and meat or meat alternatives.  He had soba noodles, tofu cubes, eda mame and grated carrot for a Japanese theme, but there are so many twists to this idea.  The kids can add the various ingredients at lunch time, the hot broth will warm the whole lot up, and the kids have the fun of “cooking” at lunchtime.

We all went home with samples of Iogo yogurt tubes, which I put straight into the freezer.  They work wonderfully well frozen (they keep a nice texture), and they keep the food in the lunchbox cool until lunch, thereby doing double duty as ice packs and healthy treats.

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Staying In and Keeping Warm with En Papillote

010Readers, we (gratfeully) acknowledge that you pop by here from all over the world, but we must report that 4Mothers is located physically in Toronto, Canada, and that January here is very cold.  This year, we’ve had one of the coldest winters in memory, so we can notch our meteorological descriptor up to frigid.  It was so cold over the holidays that I ignored my basic rule of going outside for some period everyday – without the requirement of taking the kids to school, I gamely avoided leaving the house.  What are dry goods for, anyway, if not to see a family over a difficult climatic spell?

And if we had to eat, why not warm ourselves and the house while we’re doing it?  Yes friends, I am speaking of the miracle called an oven.  Baking, roasting, whenever I could find a reason, I’d light that baby up.  And now I have one more excuse, because we’ve added cooking en papillote to the mix with big success.

En papillote is cooking food in a pouch, usually made of parchment paper, which holds in moisture that steams the food.  It’s a cinch to fold the packets – there’s a brief instruction here (don’t bother cutting the parchment paper into a heart).  I assume most people would remove the food from the pouch before eating, but if you have children, there’s some drama to opening a steaming pocket of food and eating straight out of the parchment paper, and personally I’d recommend it.

I made this Farfalle with Artichokes recipe from Vegetarian Times, and my boys could not get enough of it (the adults thought it was delicious too).  Bonus for a deep freeze:  it hardly requires any perishable ingredients, and of course you can use any kind of pasta shapes.  If you have a soft cheese in the house (and probably even a mozzarella), you can make this.  One of my sons won’t touch a tomato with a ten foot pole, so I’ve never made it with tomatoes (the other perishable item), and it’s still really good.

It’s just a pasta, but it’s more interesting and tasty in a little parchment pocket, and sounds a lot grander when it’s called en papillote.  I recommend saying en papillote frequently in the presence of your kids while cooking.  Keep the oven door open for a few minutes in January after you turn it off, and the dish has got a lot going for it.

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Tomato Canning

It’s September and that means one thing – yes, the start of school and the return to an insane schedule of shuttling between activities but more importantly, it’s tomato-canning time!

For the past few years we have spent an entire Saturday from sun-up to well past sundown, making the most delicious tomato sauce that will last for the entire year.

From veal cutlets to pasta and grilled cheese to pizza, this basic sauce is the perfect pairing for just about anything and really, what tastes better than a bit of summertime in the bleak days of winter?

Finding tomatoes is easy peasy.  Most farmers markets and Italian grocers stock bushels of tomatoes in addition to peppers, beans and cucumbers.  If you’re lucky a few Nonas will share their secrets to jarring while standing in the (inevitably) long line-up.  This year we decided to double our usual supply and went for 4 bushels.

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I like to pre-wash the tomatoes.  This gets rid of the sand but also acts as a quality control step.  Any badly bruised or rotting tomatoes are discarded.  The boys like to get in on this step and it does help speed up the process.  Once they are washed, cut them length-wise in half.

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Then boil them on the stove for about 20 minutes.   Some people choose to skip this step and others insist that it’s necessary in order to get the most juice from the fruit.  It’s up to you, but apparently we’re suckers for extra work.

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When the tomatoes are finished boiling, scoop them out with a sieve and push them through an electric tomato-squeezing machine like this one.  In the past, we have done this by using a large food processor.  The downside of the food processor method is that your sauce will end up with seeds and it takes time. It’s tedious.  Very tedious.  The electric machine allows you to push the halved tomatoes through at a much faster pace discarding the skin, seeds and cores while pureeing the fleshy pulp into a juice.  The machine is an investment so if your unsure this is for you, I would suggest renting one first.

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Four bushels of tomatoes yields a lot of tomato juice.  I use every large container I can find in the house – including a toy storage bin!  I’m just going to say it – be sure to wash all containers thoroughly.  No one wants surprises in their sauce.

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While one person (or if you’re smart, you’ll have a team) will continue with the tomatoes, someone else can get started on the garlic.  Many people choose to jar just the tomato juice.  We take it a step further (I told you that we love extra work) and make a nice garlic sauce.  It adds hours to the process, but when it’s 5:30 pm on a Tuesday in February and the three boys are melting down with hunger and fatigue and I have a raging fever with a sore throat that feels like knives every time I swallow, I can rest assured that I have a dinner!  Boil pasta, add the sauce and bingo-bango, everyone is happy and I can resume dying on the couch.

Back to the garlic.

We used 24 heads of garlic.  They were small in size, but we do like our garlic around here.  I spent about an hour peeling and chopping before my brother stopped over and told me his garlic trick.  Slice the top and bottom off the head of the garlic and pop it in the microwave for about 40 seconds.  The cloves slide right out of the “paper”!  Needless to say, the process went much quicker after his visit.

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All burners will be a go now.  Get some pots on the stove (the bigger, the better) and sauté some of that garlic in olive oil along with chili peppers and/or onions (if taste buds agree).  Pour in the freshly pureed tomato juice, add some salt and cook on high heat.  Stir constantly.  When the sauce starts boiling, turn the stove down to medium.  Allow the sauce to cook until it turns a nice orangey-red.  See the difference (note: the picture doesn’t show it as well as I had hoped)?  The red one is not done yet . . . it will take time, and lots of taste tests to ensure it’s perfect.  This is where a fresh baguette comes in handy.

Not quite ready.  It's still too red,

Not quite ready. It’s still too red.

See the nice orangey-red colour of the sauce and the rim around the pot?  It's ready!

See the nice orangey-red colour of the sauce and the rim around the pot? It’s ready!

While the sauce is bubbling away, sterilize your jars in the dishwasher.  The lids need to be done on the stove in a pot of boiling water (See?  More pots and more burners being used).

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Once they are sterilized, pour 2 tbsp of lemon juice into each jar.  Some people add salt.  Some use citric acid.  Those Nonas at the grocery store will all tell you something different but when in doubt check with Google.

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When the sauce is ready, ladle it into the jars, filling to an inch within the top.  Add the snap-lid and ring.

Place the sealed bottles into a pot of boiling water (we’re are using the burner that is attached to our BBQ) for about 15 minutes.  The pot we have can only take seven jars at a time.  Perhaps we should look into renting a second burner and larger pot for next year.

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Remove the jars from the pot and after the jars have cooled check the snap-lid.  If the centre of the lid is clicking it’s not sealed.

Store your stockpile of sauce like a mad-couponer who just scored a deal on toilet paper.

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We made 68 bottles of sauce this year.  I guess we do have traditions after all.

Guest Post: Christina Markham’s Strega Nona Meets Strega Mama

strega_nonaPasta and Magic.  Next to clean air and indoor plumbing, they are two of the most important things in our home.  The only thing better is when pasta and magic meet together in a book.  Then it’s like the holy trinity.  One of our favourite books is Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola.  In it, Strega Nona (Grandma witch) of Calabria is full of potions that heal, and beautify, and help others.  One of her hidden secrets is a clay pasta pot that is very special to her.

When Strega Nona chants to her clay pasta pot, it makes her fresh hot delicious pasta.  When she is full, she chants something different and blows three kisses for it to stop.  She is full and happy, until someone tries to work her pot, with some success……

There is no sauce in the story, but that is where my magic comes in.  I call my magic Strega Mama (Mama witch)….

My kids are good eaters, they will eat most of the meals I make without too much grumbling.  When it happens to be pasta, there is no grumbling.  As they eat, I wonder if there is even breathing.

potWhen we make our pasta, we chant to the pot, but we throw some serious magic words into the sauce pot.  All the vegetables disappear, and what follows would make Strega Nona proud.

The recipe for Strega Mama sauce is very flexible.  The trick is making the good stuff disappear!   My kids love to chant above the pot while I blend away that yucky stuff (vegetables).    I blow three kisses following the sauce’s completion (one for each of my kids).

You will need a medium-sized pot, and a hand blender for this recipe.

Ingredients:  You may want to substitute for your favourite vegetables, or add your favourite ones!

It may look like a mish mash, but it all goes well together.  

Onion (1 medium chopped)

Garlic (4-5 cloves chopped)*

Celery, chopped

Carrots chopped

Zucchini (1 medium chopped)

Red and green peppers ( ½ each chopped)

mushrooms

eggplant (medium, cubed)

one can of crushed tomatoes/bottle of passatta (strained tomatoes)

half a can of water

* we use a lot of garlic in our home, less is fine too.

Spices:

Salt to taste

fresh ground pepper

oregano

cinnamon sticks (2)

In a medium pot, heat 2-3 tablespoons of Olive oil (good quality, first cold pressed always makes everything taste amazing!!!)  Add the vegetables in stages.  Make sure the previous ones are tender before adding the next ones!  My steps can be changed according to your desired tenderness.  Cook over medium heat.

add the chopped onions and cook until tender (2-3 minutes)

(cook the following vegetables for 3-5 minutes or until desired tenderness)

add mushrooms

add the celery, carrots and peppers

add zucchini and eggplant

add salt, pepper and oregano

let the vegetables cook together for a few minutes

add the garlic and stir into the vegetables

add the can of crushed tomatoes or passatta with half a can/bottle of water (passatta comes in glass bottles)

add cinnamon sticks

stir until well mixed and leave over medium heat until it comes to a boil.  Reduce heat and cover.  Let it cook for about 20 min (depending on your stove)

This is where the magic begins:

Get your hand blender out.  TAKE OUT THE CINNAMON STICKS AT THIS POINT

You will be blending directly into the pot.  Have your children make up some magic words, take them from the book, or take the lead and be as silly as you can.  As everyone chants, blend.  Blend away any trace of eggplant, or peppers.  Any trace of vegetables!  When it becomes saucy (no chunks) cover and let it cook for another 10 min (not more)

When it is complete, add a bit of olive oil (2 second pour) and turn stove off.

Serve it over some spaghetti (any pasta and even rice works nicely)  and sprinkle with good quality parmigiano cheese.

Enjoy what Strega Nona brought into our home and make your own magic!

::

Christina Markham is a mother of three by day and a gymnastics coach in the evening.