Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Nesting, reconstructed

I can't vouch for the rest of society, but my idea of typical nesting doesn't jive with my personality. When I hear the term, I think of creating a nursery that's fit for a magazine spread, of months spent planning and painting, hanging pictures, and purchasing matching linens to make a cozy space with a chosen theme that's special just for baby. I have gifted friends who've created such rooms, and while the results are just lovely, they're equally not me. My first university summer job proved that I'm a woefully inefficient painter, and a sloppy one to boot. My grasp of home decor extends only so far as to allow me to appreciate someone else's handiwork, provided said someone mentions that they've done it. I left my wedding decorations up to my sister, and it took my husband and I three years to order any wedding pictures. I do enjoy having pictures on my walls, but the decision of what to hang where seems to take up more time and brain space than either my husband or I have at any one time. The result of such lack of skill and attention is that we've left our walls the colour they were painted by the previous owners, hung pictures sparingly, and stuck mainly to plants and candles to make the place feel like our own.

Such small scale decor doesn't jive too well with babies, but my babies have never spent much time in their rooms anyways. They've slept in bed with Mommy, on Daddy's lap, snuggled into carriers, in laundry baskets set on coffee tables, on blankets spread three-thick on the floor - it was months before the crib saw so much as an infant nap. Until that point, the baby's room was merely the place we kept the diaper pail. This time around, we're strapped enough for space that I don't think I'll bother setting the crib up until it looks like we're ready to use it, and with no bathroom upstairs the changing station will best be left on the main floor rather than up in either of the bedrooms. I'll be happy just to set up a dresser somewhere to fill with sleepers and onsies and ickle bitty baby socks. Having tiny clothes clean and ready to dress my little babe has been enough cosy creation for this Martha Stewart-challenged mother.

At least, that was where I sat before we had our wee flood.

It turns out there is one space where this mother desires theme and beauty and order: the birthing room. For our first homebirth, I birthed in the living room, but that was back when we lived on a quiet crescent with an enormous two-trunked pine obscuring our front picture window. There was little to prepare other than making room to set up the birth pool - not unlike rearranging to accommodate the yearly Christmas tree. In our current house, however, the corresponding window faces a fairly clear yard and a very busy street, leaving a living room that feels a little too exposed for such a private occasion. We settled instead on our basement entertainment room; it had become our quiet adult retreat, the one room we kept clear of toy clutter, the space where we came to relax once the kids were in bed and the dishes were done. Its depth kept us insulated from the rumble of traffic; the carpet and the fireplace warded off the chill. The walls were green like the ocean - the womb of the world - and there were plenty of surfaces to house a myriad of candles to create a soothing light. It seemed the perfect place to welcome baby, despite the irony of setting up a birth pool on one of the only carpeted floors in the entire house.

That carpet, however, has gone the way of the dumpster, as have the baseboards, trim, and the bottom two feet of those lovely green walls. The electric fireplace was salvaged, and sits in our garage; the shelving around it was not. And so the room sat for many a month, blessedly dry and disinfected, but a little too cave-like for this mama bear. With no reconstruction start date yet in sight, we made alternate plans. I got the guidelines from my midwives for booking their birth centre. We confirmed that the birth pool we wished to rent could fit in our living room, and picked fabric for heavier curtains to separate us from the roving eyes of pedestrians and the noise from passing cars. Neither accommodation was what I had hoped for, but it was a relief to know we could still make it work. And it was something to do other than wait.

I eventually overcame the discomfort of being a squeaky wheel and inquired with our adjustor on reconstruction timeframes. It turns out a few communications had been missed - a client complaint was the missing link to get the process back in motion. After months of inertia, the carpet was ordered, the hot water tank replaced. Tradesmen came in to do estimates and then came back to work. The walls now extend down to the concrete and half the new trim has been installed. New doors hang in the long-empty frames; one of them even has a door knob. Our mudroom and laundry room walls shine with a clean, white coat of paint - better than new. And our relaxing room walls are ocean-green again - I can stand on concrete and picture it complete.

And so I found myself in IKEA, roaming slowly through Home Decor, picking up tapers, tealights, candlesticks, little decorative lamps to provide instant mood-lighting while searching for the matches. I even framed a print and know exactly where I want to hang it: Eos on the western wall, looking serenely over sky and sea. I have a dresser and a bookcase awaiting space for home assembly, and a mental list of icons I plan to move downstairs. The replacement couch and ottoman have been selected, we'll arrange for delivery when we know for sure the carpet will be in. And I'm giddy at the prospect of setting it all into place.

It feels a little absurd to have items like CD racks alongside blue pads and peri-bottles on the homebirth shopping list, and a copious stock of candles doesn't usually shout "ready for baby." But here I stand, at the corner of home renovation and womb-dweller eviction, and I'll take the nesting instincts in whatever form they come. As my chiropractor keeps reminding me, each birth comes from a different body. Time and circumstance have changed me: muscle and sinew sit a little differently as these bones age. It appears my biases and inclinations have shifted too. Each pregnancy takes a different toll, both in terms of energy levels and psychological outlook. Perhaps this round's combination of hormones have awakened a dormant decorator gene. Perhaps my flooded and gutted foundations are to blame. Either way, I'm embracing the warm "baby's coming" glow, be it born of a tiny knitted cap awaiting a drawer or a framed print ready for the wall.  It's been a wild ride, but we're almost there.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Winter spice beef and beet stew: a recipe for November's snow

We received a rare treat this year: a gloom on Halloween straight out of the movies with temperatures well above freezing. The wind that ripped the last of the leaves off the trees and stirred the clouds into ominous formations was even courteous enough to quiet down in time for trick-or-treaters, who ventured out with sweaters under their apparel instead of snowsuits. I was sorry to have to stay home, but a woefully sore foot meant I was better suited to handing out treats than escorting costumed youngsters, much to my husband's chagrin. He'd never been a fan of the copious people contact and awkward costume questions that comes with door-to-door candy collection. He had volunteered to keep the home jack-o-lanterns burning for much of his youth and has continued in that role throughout our marriage. I, on the other hand, was volunteering to take my youngest brother out on Halloween nights in order to extend the fun of costumes and candy well into high school. Babysitting was a mature enough veneer to justify dressing up and collecting sugar. My Mommy costumes have been much more minimalist (butterfly wings, six years and counting), but I've enjoyed dressing up my littles and taking them 'round to meet the neighbours on All Hallows' Eve, and, naturally, sampling from their sugary bounty. Nevertheless, the kids had a marvellous time out with Daddy, and I suspect my husband may have lost a bit of his distaste for the tradition. After all, standing back and basking in your children's cuteness is rather different than enduring such attention yourself. 

With such an unseasonable treat behind us, I had no qualms about this year's early November snow. Its brightness took the edge off the yearly lurch out of daylight savings, and, this year, the return of winter brings me ever closer to baby - close enough to motivate me into completing the rest of those pesky prenatal preparations. It feels good to check them off. And, after a warm and glorious autumn, I'm ready to hunker down, light my candles, and simmer something warmly spiced for supper. So inspired by the nascent season, and with copious amounts of cow still crowding up the freezer, I found a way to incorporate those mulling spices I so wanted to be smelling with some of the last of farmer's market bounty cluttering my fridge: namely, golden beets, a buttery turnip-like cousin of the deep purple beets that I so enjoy but have so little success in pairing with anything (beyond borscht, that is). It turned out so well that I'm sharing it here, for there's many a chilly winter night to come. 

The veggie mix is limited and reflected the lack of variety in my crisper drawer that week; next time I make this stew, it will hopefully have carrots, red cabbage, and some sort of green to go along with the beets and tomatoes. The seasoning measurements are approximate (obviously); please feel free to season to taste. The Tuscan Seasoning I got at Costco and, for those who'd rather approximate from their own kitchen, is described as "a blend of warm Mediterranean flavors with roasted garlic, bell peppers, aromatic rosemary, basil, oregano and lemon." We received ours as a gift and have found it a wonderfully versatile addition to our spice cabinet. I highly recommend it. If anyone from Kirkland/Costco is reading this, I'm happy to be payed for saying so. Baby needs shoes. And by shoes, I mean a college fund (Costco pays well, right?).

Winter spice beef & beet stew


-1 & 1/2 lb stew beef
- 2 Tbsp flour
- generous sprinkle of sea salt, cinnamon & allspice
- a pinch each of nutmeg & clove
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper 
- a large shake of Kirkland Rustic Tuscan Seasoning
- 2-3 bay leaves
- bacon fat (or butter or olive oil)
- 2 medium red onions, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 stalk celery, roughly chopped
- 3-4 small to medium golden beets, peeled & cut into 1 inch cube
- 1 small red beet, peeled & finely diced
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 2 cup veggie stock
- 14 oz water (to clean out the tomato can)
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed & picked over

Toss beef in flour & seasonings. Brown in bacon fat over medium heat in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Remove from pot & reserve. Deglaze pot with a splash of stock and sauté onions, garlic, & celery with another shake of Tuscan seasoning until onion is translucent. Add rest of stock, tomatoes, water, bay leaves, balsamic vinegar, reserved beef & beets. Bring to a boil and simmer, partially covered for ~30min.

Stir in lentils & add another shake of cinnamon along with a pinch each of allspice & clove. Bring back to a simmer, lower heat & cook, covered, for another hour or so until beef is cooked through and beets & lentils are tender. Adjust seasonings, remove bay leaves, & serve with bread or biscuits. Serves eight (or, in our case, serves four twice). 

Happy simmering.