Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pasteis de Nata/Portuguese Custard Tarts

"Life is uncertain.
Eat dessert first."

-- Ernestine Ulme

I found the last month or so to be a lot of fun with all of the excitement over the World Cup. I am not a soccer fan, personally, although I have quite an appreciation for both the skill and passion that is the sport. Basically, I just enjoyed feeding off the enthusiasm of others and that is always a good spirit-lifter. Besides, such an international spectacle makes for very easy banter at coffee break.

But, which team should I cheer for, to make it more interesting? Canada wasn't even close to being in the competition and I had no ties whatsoever with any of the countries who were involved. However, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, just as the World Cup was beginning, my dilemma was suddenly solved.

Mark and I had taken a break from gardening and were cooling off on the front porch with a cold beer when my next door neighbour, a Portuguese gentleman, sauntered over. He was carrying a flat of tomato plants and--even better--a bottle of nice, red Portuguese wine. We welcomed him gladly. He simply wanted to thank Mark for cutting their front lawn each week and told him how much he appreciated this kindness. Mark has always cut their lawn when he does ours as that is the only small patch of lawn they have; the entirety of their large back yard is a vegetable garden. Apparently this is a very Portuguese thing to do.

Our neighbours straight across the street are Portuguese as well. Two older women live on the main floor of the house and a couple and their young son live in the basement. I have yet to figure out what the relationships amongst them are. The man, I believe, is a baker-- probably at a Portuguese bakery--as he leaves for work about 11:00 at night dressed in whites and returns early in the morning. The older ladies across the street spend all of the warm months sitting on the sofa and chair on their front porch. When I told my friend, Dan, of their seemingly constant porch-sitting, his reply amused me to no end. He said, "Of course they spend as much time as possible on their porch! They're 'Porch-uguese'!" Wonderfully witty is Dan.

Well, with all of these very likeable neighbours around me, I felt I should throw my support behind Portugal. I was really hoping they'd do well. I think they did OK, but not nearly as well as their neighbours.

I was thinking of all of these kind people again this weekend when I went to Sunfest. There is always such wonderful food there and it is a big part of the weekend. And I was delighted to find an abundance of a particular food at the Portuguese booth, from the "Aroma Restaurant" here in London. What I saw was 'pasteis de nata' or Portuguese custard tarts. As you can see in the photo, these absolutely delectable tarts are beautiful to look at, but trust me, they are even more magnificent to eat.

The puff pastry is cooked perfectly until it is just slightly crisp, giving it a tender flakiness. And the custard itself is so soft and creamy that the mouth-feel is absolutely heavenly. Honestly. You have to close your eyes and sigh when you bite into one. They were selling 'like hotcakes' and it is easy to see why.

I am not a dessert lover, and really don't have a sweet tooth any more. But what I love about these tarts is that they are not very sweet at all. They are delicious, that's for sure, but it's not just sweetness. It is layers of delicate flavour and such a luscious texture, with a perfect caramelization that brings everything together into bliss.

I am giving you an easy recipe for these custard tarts, courtesy of Ms. Faiza Ali, who writes an excellent food blog ("Faiza Ali's Kitchen") as you will see. (Photo courtesy of her blog, as well.) I hope you will take the time to make these for a special occasion.

Your friends and family will be so impressed that they will throw up their hands and exclaim loudly what a great baker you are! They will embrace you heartily and kiss you on both cheeks from pure joy, and you will feel you have been swept away to Portugal. How could you not enjoy that?



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oh, The Lazy Days (and Meals!) of Summer....

"Summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

-- Henry James

Summer, glorious summer. We wait so long for it to arrive, and then we start complaining. Not hot enough/much too hot; not enough rain/much too wet. We want to spend as many hours as possible in air-conditioning and whinge pathetically when we must go outside.

For the past while our temperatures here in London have been either approaching or over 30 degrees. This week, we have been sweltering in the extreme humidity with the air outside closer to 40 degrees. Because this isn't a tropical country and we haven't built up a tolerance to such intense weather, we sound a lot like the wicked witch from 'The Wizard of Oz' crying, "I'm melting! I'm melting!"

Nothing like extreme temperatures to dictate your menu options. Suddenly, soups and stews, casseroles and pasta dishes seem way too heavy, way too hot, and way too much effort. We want to conserve our energy, not expend it. We look for simple, quick, fresh and cool foods that can be prepared and eaten with a minimum of fuss.

I can so clearly recall the very hot summer days of my childhood - most especially Sunday afternoons. That was when my Dad would typically gather up the kids and take us on some kind of outing, and they were always outdoors. Sometimes he took us for hikes in the woods, or for walks along a beach. He was also very fond of driving in the countryside until we spied some nice cows, horses, sheep, or donkeys to watch. I can't count the number of times we drove to a little pond on a country road and stopped to throw pieces of stale bread to the voracious ducks and geese. Occasionally, though, a swiftly moving fish would leap out of the water and snatch the morsel out of the air. What a lot of fun I had, and yet it couldn't have been a simpler pastime.

When we got home, we'd be quite hungry and Dad would invariably decide it was a great day for a barbeque. Of course, I thought he meant we'd be eating right away, and I felt just as ravenous as the waterfowl we had just been feeding. My dinner, however, never came quickly enough for my satisfaction; there was always a 'process'.

First of all, Dad would get out our round tub of a barbeque and the giant bag of charcoal, then he would carefully light the charcoal, making sure to get the flame just right. Then, he would crack open a cold beer, grab whatever book he was devouring at the moment, and sink down into a lawn chair to relax and wait for the charcoal to burn down to perfection. He worked hard all week and spent Saturdays cutting our large lawn, tending the fruit trees, as well as weeding and maintaining our vegetable garden. I think Sunday was the only day he ever felt relaxed.

Meanwhile, Mom would be at the kitchen counter, making hamburger patties by hand, husking corn, scrubbing baby potatoes, and cutting up tomatoes - all of the vegetables having just been picked from our garden. Once the charcoal was deemed perfect, Dad sould begin to grill the hamburgers. The wait always seemed impossibly long to me but, eventually, to my great delight, it would all come together.

We would all sit outside at our wooden picnic table near the cherry trees and enjoy our very summery meal: barbequed home-made hamburgers, with boiled sweet corn and baby potatoes, and thickly-sliced, juicy red tomatoes. Everyone in the family loved butter and salt on the corn, and everyone enjoyed salt and pepper on the tomatoes, except for Mom. She preferred a sprinkle of sugar on her tomatoes, which I felt was very strange indeed. She said it was a Scottish thing.

I was looking for a modern twist to this long-ago meal and I found the perfect recipe: 'Grilled Corn Salad'. It has scrumptious grilled corn, luscious fresh tomatoes, and peppery arugula. It has terrific colour and texture and a nice, smokey, layered flavour. Easy to make and yummy to eat. It looks like the weather is going to stay hot for awhile so I believe I will whip up this salad and serve it along with tasty veggie burgers, cooked to perfection over charcoal in my cute little tub of a barbeque.

Thanks for the great memories, Dad.



This week's photo and recipe are courtesy of "The Neelys", featured on The Food Network:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Summertime...and the livin' is easy..." (and thirsty!)

"When one has tasted watermelon he knows what the angels eat."

-- Mark Twain

Here in Southwestern Ontario, summer has hit with full force. We have already had so many very hot and humid days that it makes many of us wonder how on earth people living in the tropics ever survive. It's hard to find the energy to get anything done, our appetites look to simpler and cooler foods, and we are always thirsty.

I can remember the hot, hot summer days of my childhood and how we spent much of it looking for shade, or a breeze, or something cold to drink. As my parents were dead set against 'pop' or soda, that was never an option. I could count the number of glasses of pop I drank as a child on my fingers and I think there would be some left over. (I was grateful for semi-indulgent grandparents.)

Our main source of hydration back then as good old-fashioned tap water. I'm sure we wouldn't have believed that water would one day be bottled and sold in stores! If we ever had fruit juice, I don't remember it, and I'm pretty sure we didn't.

However - how exciting!- we generally had a glass jug of 'Freshie' in the fridge. 'Freshie' was the Canadian equivalent to the American 'Kool-Aid' with which we are all familiar today. Poor old 'Freshie' went by the wayside decades ago, but we loved it back then. It came in five flavours: orange, grape, cherry, lemon, and lemon-lime. I seem to remember orange more clearly than the others, so perhaps that was my mother's favourite choice. Maybe she had an idea that it was more nutritious because of its orange-juice-like colouring. Who knows? It was hardly that, with at least a cup of sugar for every quart of water.

Sugar is still a big problem when it comes to summer hydration. Sodas and energy drinks, and even natural juices, contain a lot of glucose. And as for the ever-popular iced cappucinos, I don't know how people can drink them and stay conscious.

Well, this past weekend, Mark and I were doing a lot of gardening and it was hard to stay ahead of our thirst. Water got to be pretty boring after awhile. Fortunately, I remembered a drink from an old cookbook called a 'Pink Poodle'. Our neighbours may have thought us reckless, stopping every hour or so to drink cocktails on the front porch. But, no, even though we served them in elegant martini glasses just for fun, we could have happily served one to a small child.

To make a 'Pink Poodle', you simply chop a seedless watermelon into cubes and pop them into a blender with a couple of ice cubes or crushed ice. Whip it up until it is nice and smooth and pour it into an elegant glass. What a delicious, refreshing drink it is! Lightly (and naturally) sweet, and full of nutrients and anti-oxidants, and very low in calories, as well as being extremely thirst-quenching. And for young children, what a great way to let them enjoy watermelon without getting all sticky.

While thinking about watermelons this weekend, I came upon an even more elegant, yet still refreshing, drink which I call a "Parisian Pink Poodle". Simply put 2 cups of watermelon chunks into a blender and add: 1 cup of crushed or cracked ice, 1/2 cup of plain yogurt, 1-2 tsp. of sugar, 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger, and 1/8 tsp. of almond extract. Blend it all up and enjoy in a tall glass through a straw. Delicious!

So, when the 'dog days' of summer threaten to wilt you, go buy a seedless watermelon. It will set you back only about $2-$3 and you'll have cold, refreshing, nutritious drinks for the family all weekend. It's a smart way to slake your summertime thirst. And, as a bonus, you'll cut a better figure on the beach.



(Photo courtesy of "" - thank you!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cool River, Warm Evening, Hot Pizza

"There's a pizza place near where I live that sells only slices. In the back you can see a guy tossing a triangle into the air."

-- Stephen Wright

I love weekends, I really do. And they are never long enough. Even the long weekends somehow fall short. We try to make plans in advance so we can get the most out of these precious days. But we also don't want to be such slaves to our plans that we miss out on a chance for some fun.

This past Saturday it was supposed to be very hot so we planned to do housework in the morning, errands and shopping in the early afternoon, then gardening in the cooler late afternoon, followed by a BBQ dinner outdoors and relaxing in the garden afterward. But it didn't happen. Not even close.

Even the morning was so extremely hot and humid that it was hard to summon up the energy to work. And so, we were sitting on our rather kitschy front porch (which we have dubbed 'our cottage') when my son, Daniel, called from Goderich. His older brother, Ben, wanted to take him to a Detroit Tigers' baseball game, but Daniel didn't have his passport with him.

We originally offered to drive to Grand Bend to meet them with the passport, then Mark suggested that, instead, we simply meet them at the border in Sarnia, then slip across to Michigan to do a little shopping. I thought this was a great idea as I needed a dress for an upcoming wedding, and because I enjoy grocery shopping there.

We sat under a large tree just before the bridge and waited for the guys to appear. It was very, very hot and we were extremely thirsty but there was wasn't a drop of water in sight. So, as soon as we had given Daniel his passport and headed across the bridge, we drove immediately to The Thomas Edison Inn - a charming old inn on the St. Clair River, right by the Bluewater Bridge. The lounge area was nice and cool and relaxing and we felt even better once we had got ourselves around two very cold and refreshing pints.

It was really quite late when we started shopping - about 5:00, I think. We made a lot of stops and had a great time, even though I couldn't find a suitable dress. As we left the last store we were shocked to see that it was already dark. Where had the time gone?

We were absolutely starving by then as we hadn't eaten since breakfast. And because we had just spent so much time indoors we didn't want to go to a restaurant. Fortunately, we had noticed a "Hungry Howie's" pizza place earlier. We had had their 'thin and crisp' pizza before and loved it, so we made our decision and hurried over to the shop. We ordered a mushroom, green olive, pineapple, and jalapeno pizza and then tried to calm our growling stomachs while inhaling the tantalizing aromas of the pizzeria.

Finally, it was ready, so we grabbed some napkins (very important!) and the pizza box, jumped into the car and drove over to the river. We lost no time in diving into the wonderful, tasty pizza while watching the boats on the river, as well as all of the people sitting, walking, biking, and fishing along the waterfront. It was amazing that there was so much outdoor activity so late in the evening. There was a great energy present, though - a real old-fashioned summery feel.

After we had eaten all that we could manage, we went for a stroll along the river since we just weren't ready to leave. We were delighted by the friendliness of these Michiganders - so many strangers along the waterfront were quick to smile and to say hello that we almost felt we had been transported back to a gentler time.

In the end we had to get going so we headed back to the bridge. It was nice and quiet and there were only a few cars waiting to cross. We casually pulled up behind a car, then Mark suddenly noticed that, amazingly, that in that car were none other than Ben and Daniel - heading home after the ballgame in Detroit. What a coincidence! I just love stuff like that.

In the end I'm glad that we had been willing and able to go so easily to "plan B". We helped Daniel out and allowed him to have a great baseball experience with Ben. And we also got to have a really fun day in another country, with "Hungry Howie" cooking up a delectable dinner for us. What a great way to kick off the summer....



Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fabulous Falafels!

Homer Simpson (on the phone): "I was wondering, do you deliver falafel to the top of Mount Zion? Great. I'd like a large falafel with pepperoni, sausage, and extra cheese. Yes, I do know what a falafel is."

--"The Simpsons"

Earlier this week my son, Daniel, had an appointment at the Sport Medicine Clinic here on our university campus, so I walked over with him. The appointment was for 12:15 but it became obvious that he would be waiting quite awhile. Because it was noon, Daniel was starving. Actually, because he is a 17-year old boy, Daniel is always starving.

I knew that there was a small food court a couple of buildings away, so I decided to walk over there quickly and pick up something for the lad to eat. As I glanced over the various menu boards, I saw all of the 'usual suspects': pizza, sandwiches, wraps, burgers. Ho hum. But my decision was made immediately when I saw one of my very favourite fast foods: falafel.

As we saw in the above quotation, Homer Simpson quite clearly doesn't have any idea what a falafel is, but I expect most of you will. And you've probably enjoyed a few as well - in a mall food court, or at a festival, or a fair. And those of you who have travelled to the Middle East will know that they are ubiquitous over there; falafels are by far the most popular street food.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this delicious item, they are basically a sandwich in a pita. The pita is cut across the top, filled with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and cucumber, with a tahini (sesame seed) and yogurt sauce. But the most important ingredient of all is the 3 or 4 fried falafel balls. These are made from ground chick peas, mixed with garlic, onion, parsley, cumin, and lemon juice - formed into small balls, then fried in vegetable oil.

When you bite into a falafel, you immediately taste the warm smokiness of the chick pea balls, along with the cool crunchiness of the vegetables, enhanced by the velvety earthiness of the tahini sauce. This really is a perfectly well-balanced summertime meal that you can eat with your hands. And who doesn't love that?

I was pleased that Daniel really loved his falafel. I think he was quite surprised that it was vegetarian since the chick pea balls really are so earthy and 'meaty' tasting. I had to laugh to myself because I had the same reaction to my very first falafel. I was 19 years old and my friend, Bernie, had taken me to 'The Jerusalem Restaurant' in Toronto and had ordered falafels for both of us. He promised that they were vegetarian and that I would love them. When they arrived, however, I became somewhat suspicious of the 'meatiness' of the falafel balls, so Bernie (outrageous guy that he is) went back and got the chef to come out and swear to me that they were indeed 'kosher'.

The traditional recipe calls fo soaking dried chick peas in water for 24 hours before grinding them up. So, I have included a nice recipe from 'Canadian Living' (photo as well) for those of you who are keen to try this out. And I have also decided to give you the recipe for 'Lazy College Kid's Easy Falafel' in honour of my two (non-lazy!) nephews - Mark and Owen - who have just become our family's newest university graduates. (Congratulations, guys!)

This latter recipe really is quick and easy and healthful and I hope you will try it out on a hot summer day. And you can use the time you will save to simply stop, and breathe, and revel in this wonderful time of year. Enjoy!



Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When Life Hands You Lemons.....

"When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade."

-- Dale Carnegie

"When life gives you a lemon....squeeze it, mix it with six ounces of distilled water and drink twice daily."

-- Jethro Kloss: 'Back to Eden'

I have been thinking about lemons a lot lately. For one reason, last week I suffered from a very sore and swollen throat and for several days I lived almost entirely on lemon herbal tea. I found it very soothing to my poor throat, and also very tasty.

Of course, I have always loved lemons - even if not always in their purest form. In particular, I have a very fond memory of my mother making lemon meringue pies. As a young child I was enchanted by the way the simple mixture of egg whites and sugar could be transformed into such billowy mounds of meringue. And I was also very impressed with Mom's ability to cook the meringues (so effortlessly!) into such a golden brown perfection.

Speaking of my mother, she apparently experienced an insatiable craving for lemons while she was expecting me. And, curiously enough, I had exactly the same cravings with all of my children.

Although lemons grew first in India and China, and then in the Middle East, it was in Italy in the 1400s that they became widely cultivated. And so, the existence of lemon groves in the Americas is largely due to the expansive efforts of Christopher Columbus.

It is really quite a blessing that lemons do grow so well here on our side of the world because their use has become ubiquitous. It would be rare indeed to watch a Food Network show where the flavour of lemon wasn't used at least once. Because of these shows I now know that to get the maximum juice from a lemon, you must roll it back and forth on the counter; that an average lemon contains about 3 tablespoons of juice; and that the addition of lemon zest (but never the white pith) adds a big burst of intense flavour to any dish.

In my reading I have also learned that, apart from being a delicious ingredient, lemons have so many astonishing therapeutic qualities. Lemon juice is apparently a tonic for the liver and digestive system, nourishes the brain and nerve cells, eases rheumatism and gout; and treats sore throats (as I discovered last week). As well, I was pleased to learn that the regular intake of lemon juice during pregnancy does wonders for building very strong bones in babies. (Thanks, Mom! And I hope my four wonderful children will read this blog and thank me, too!) ("The Amazing Health Benefits of Drinking Lemon Water" by Ann Heustad, R.N.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to start incorporating the drinking of lemon water into my daily routine: half a lemon in water upon rising, and again before dinner. I am fascinated to see what amazing benefits lie ahead for my health. I could use some help with my rheumatism, that's for sure; and I'd be quite happy to avoid any more annoying sore throats.

On top of drinking lemon water, I am also going to use even more lemons in my cooking. In fact, this weekend is supposed to be extremely hot, so I am going to make a large batch of 'Quinoa Tabbouleh'. This dish is based on a traditional Middle Eastern recipe, but uses quinoa instead of bulgur wheat. This way, you can enjoy a tasty cold salad which provides you with not only lots of vegetables but protein as well. And, oh, yes, let's not forget the lemon juice!



Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bodacious Bite-Sized Burgers

"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients."

-- Julia Child

I absolutely love watching The Food Network. It is, in fact, pretty much the only TV I ever watch. Some of you may remember back when - just prior to commercial breaks - the TV announcers would warn viewers: "Don't touch that dial!" Well, that pretty much sums up my position.

I don't like to watch everything on the channel, however. I am not a big fan of all the competition-type shows. I don't like programs that feature a lot of screaming, swearing, and berating; they just jar my senses and leave me feeling anxious in empathy for the victims. And, as a vegetarian, I really dislike the plethora of grilling shows because of their almost sole devotion to the barbecuing of large slabs of meat.

Speaking of such things, I am really surprised that the Food Network executives have yet to come up with a vegetarian-themed show. The numbers of people following such diets is increasing constantly and it is also clear that even omnivores are consuming more vegetarian dishes than ever before.

There are many programs, of course, that feature all types of food and they often include vegetarian offerings. But is it so annoying when I am curled up on my couch, relaxing and enjoying one of my favourite programs when suddenly they choose to prepare something atavistically meaty. After over 40 years of vegetarianism, meat simply does not appear to be food to me.

So, I was really quite surprised last weekend when I started to feel a strong craving for one of the foods I saw being praised to the heavens on 'The Best Thing I Ever Ate.' The show's topic was 'food you can eat with your hands' and the most appealing item was called a 'slider'. They cooked up tiny little meatballs, squished them together and topped them with fried onions and a host of other possible toppings, then popped them into a tiny bun. Each order contained four of them and the chef eating them (and praising them) simply couldn't resist their allure.

Later that afternoon we were shopping for dinner at 'No Frills' and everything I looked at seemed to fall flat. They were all things I enjoyed, of course, but that particular day they just wouldn't do. I knew I had my dinner chosen when I spied the cutest, thin little President's Choice 'slider buns' in the bakery section.

The rest was easy. I picked up some old cheddar which happened to be on sale, and also a small tin of pizza sauce. Then, I scuttled over to the frozen section and tossed a box of President's Choice 'World's Best Meatless Meatballs' into my cart. I could hardly wait to get home.

I was really, really famished when I arrived in my kitchen, so I was thankful that the sliders were so amazingly quick to prepare. The meatless meatballs are pre-grilled so they need only about one minute in the microwave. But before putting them in the oven, I set 6 balls on a small plate - three sets of two, nestled together. Over each set I spooned a little pizza sauce, and over that I grated a little old cheddar.

When I took them out, the meatless meatballs were cooked through, the sauce was hot, and the cheese was nice and bubbling. I then scooped up each set with a spoon and placed them on the three little buns I had separated beforehand. They smelled amazing and they tasted so earthy and scrumptious. I treasured each and every bite and afterward I licked my fingers.

Were they 'the best thing I ever ate with my hands'? Well, this week, with this wonderful memory still so present, I would have to say they are a serious contender. As Rachel Ray is so fond of saying, "Yum-O!"



I hope you will try these little delicacies some hot summer day when you crave something more substantial than a salad but don't want to turn your stove or oven on.

There are SO many more great products and ideas on the 'President's Choice' website:

Personally, I have never met a PC product I didn't love!