Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Shopping Storm Before the Christmas Calm

"The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other." -- Burton Hills

For a terrible moment, I feared that my family would have only oatmeal for their Christmas morning breakfast, and left-over Tofu Pad Thai for Christmas dinner. I was all set to let panic overwhelm me when suddenly I thought: Why not do something different and take some action?

It was Christmas Eve, last week, and my two youngest children, Eliza and Daniel, and I had been busy doing our final gift shopping across the busy city. In the mid-afternoon we realized that we had better abandon the stores and drive immediately back to the centre of town if we wanted to watch the Olympic Flame being run into Victoria Park. Which we did.

Not surprisingly – 8,000 other people also thought this would be a grand way to spend the afternoon before Christmas. We eventually, and gratefully, found a parking space some long blocks from the park and we had to walk as quickly as possible to get there on time. Or, rather, the kids walked quickly on their very long legs, and I trotted along, gasping for breath, several paces behind them.

Well, the crowd was very dense, packed all along the walkway where the runners would be coming in, but we did manage to see the flame as it was run exuberantly into the park and up to the main stage. Eliza and Daniel were even able to get their photo taken with a flame runner holding an unlit torch. It was fun, but, unfortunately, we didn't have time to hear the speeches. We still had our grocery shopping to do and time was running out.

I've become a little spoiled by the city and have come to expect stores to be open quite late (by small town standards). I realized that they would close early on Christmas Eve, so I was thinking that I had until probably 7:00, or at the very least, 6:00. It was after 4:00 before we could push our way out of the crowd, then we still had to trek to our car and drive to the grocery store that is nearest to our house, though not, sadly, 'near' to it.

I was feeling quite prepared for the shopping, though. I had made a complete list of items needed, then I had rewritten the list into appropriate categories as I would normally walk through the store. Produce, deli items, frozen desserts, dairy, dry goods, and so on. But, still, I was counting on the kids to help me out by being 'runners' as we passed through the various sections. As a team, I felt we would be able to get in and out of there in pretty good time.

However, as we pulled into the grocery store parking lot, I looked across the street to see a store Eliza and I had been in the day before. I knew Daniel needed one more gift and I thought there was a good chance he'd find something there. So, I suggested that they hop out and dash across to that store, try to find a gift, then dash back to find me in the grocery store. They asked me if I'd be all right and I answered: Yes, of course, you'll be back quickly; I'll just get a little start on things.

I parked the car, hopped out, grabbing some cloth grocery bags, and then a cart and walked through the door. As I was immediately in the produce section, I pushed the cart to the right and began to choose the best red pepper. And then, suddenly, and shockingly, I heard this loud and shrill announcement: “Attention Shoppers! This store will be closing in 15 minutes. Please make your final selections and make your way to the cashiers.” My reaction? Well, as the young people of this passing decade have learned to text - “WTF”???? 15 minutes??? How can I possibly do this??

How could it be that we would have no special Christmas breakfast or dinner? How disappointed would the kids be? So, I decided right then and there that I had no time to shop the way I usually do – pondering each purchase carefully, weighing up sizing and pricing and competing brands. I didn't even have time to consult my list!

Fortunately, I had read through my list several times and so basically had it in my head. I started pushing my cart quickly and deftly around the perimeter of the store, trying my best not to knock over the other panicking shoppers. Peppers, cole slaw, potatoes and sweet potatoes – check. Bread. Sliced ham for breakfast and a turkey breast. Imagine that, a turkey breast, something I have never purchased nor cooked before, snatched off the shelf without even considering the price. (Well, maybe a quick glance.) It was a whirlwind!

I was in the dairy section choosing eggs and cheese for the breakfast menu, but couldn't find the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls which were essential to the main dish. Just at that moment, a store clerk appeared and pointed me in the right direction. I was all set to go on to the next section when I realized with some alarm that I had forgotten to get veggie bacon and vegan cheese – absolutely essential since over half the family is vegetarian. So, I had to turn back! And backtracking was wasting previous time – not what I needed right now.

I had, quite surprisingly, made it all the way to the frozen section when the “5 minutes remaining, shoppers” announcement came bursting through the speakers. Yikes. I grabbed up some frozen peas and hash browns, then remembered the few packaged and canned items I still needed. Suddenly, around the corner appeared Eliza and Daniel at quick pace and eager to help. Quick! Quick! Run over to the corner over there, choose a frozen dessert, and meet me at the checkout.

While they ran off to choose dessert, I pushed my cart at full speed to the interior isles in search of water chestnuts, mandarin orange slices, and shredded coconut. The shrill admonishment of “Attention Shoppers, our store is now closing. Please make your way to the cashiers” was in my ears just as I wheeled up to the checkout lanes. Wow. Then, the kids came running over with a lovely Tiramisu that was the perfect choice for dessert.

While we were waiting in line, I surveyed my cart, scanning quickly and urgently to see if anything important had been forgotten. Oh, no – turnips! It wouldn't be Christmas dinner without turnips. So, I sent the kids off and running back to the produce department where they had some trouble as the sign in front of what they perceived as turnips, said “rutabagas”. After a speedy consultation with the produce clerk, they bolted back to the checkout.

Once we were back in the car, heading home with our groceries all packed up and safely in the trunk, we began to laugh and high-five each other for our astonishing success. What a relief!

And we were all comforted by the knowledge that whatever gifts we would find under our tree on Christmas morning, we knew we would be enjoying the warmth of having our family all together – with nowhere to go and nothing to do but enjoy each other. And, oh, yes – we would be relishing the abundance of our hastily purchased Christmas meals, as well.

Happy New Year, Everyone!



Featured Recipe: "HG Egga-Pinwheels"


We have experimented with various Christmas morning breakfast recipes over the years, and I would say that these were really a big hit. We couldn't find any "Pillsbury Seamless Dough Sheets" here in London (probably only available in U.S.), so we just used the regular "Pillsbury Crescent Rolls" and pushed the seams together to form a rectangle. This worked well. We made two batches: one with thinly sliced ham and grated cheddar, and one with Yves veggie Canadian bacon and shredded soy cheese. Some chose ketchup to dip them in, and some chose maple syrup. There were none left, so that's a good sign.

(The photo above and the featured recipe are courtesy of the wonderful food blog "http:www.hungry-girl.com". Just sign up for a free membership and you will receive countless recipes and tips for losing weight while eating tasty food. And what a perfect time of year for that!)

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Heartwarming Christmas, A World Away

"Mauritius was made first, then heaven was copied from it." - Mark Twain

When I was a child, our family followed very specific Christmas traditions that I enjoyed so much I still follow many of them to this day.

We children (ultimately five of us) would wake up early on Christmas morning as excited as it is possible to be. Absolutely bursting with anticipation. But, did we run madly down the stairs to see what Santa had left for us? No. We did not. We waited at the top of the stairs until our parents gave us the go-ahead to come down.

And how amazing all the gifts looked under our tree! The night before there had been only a few wrapped packages but in the morning there were so many presents that they spilled out from under the branches. They looked wonderful and they stayed looking that way for as long as possible.

We were allowed to open our stockings and one gift each – one at a time – and then there was a break for breakfast. At the time it seemed an impossibly long interruption, but it really was a great way to increase our already sky high levels of excitement.

After breakfast we would scurry eagerly back to the living room where our Dad would hand out one gift at a time and we would all take the time to really notice and appreciate each and every present.

Having had such great memories of Christmas morning, I wanted to create the same for my four children so we followed the same tradition of gift opening. And ever since he was 14 years old, my elder son, Ben, has donned a Santa cap and carefully handed out the family’s gifts one by one.

Except for last year. Ben and his girlfriend, Kim, spent last Christmas in a tropical paradise. They travelled to Mauritius, a tiny island in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean – an island bursting with vibrant colours both from plants and from paint. And what a Christmas Day Ben had! So completely different from any other Christmas including seeing skinny Black Santas in shorts and enjoying an exquisite open-air dinner at a restaurant on the pristine, sandy beach.

Well, back here in London, we were having our traditional day with my younger son, Daniel, filling in as Santa. In the mid-afternoon as I was relaxing between the gift opening and the dinner preparation, the phone rang. It was Ben. Instead of the usual greeting exchange he quickly said, “Please write down this number and call me right back, OK? I’m at someone’s house.” Then, he gave me the number, I wrote it down, and we hung up.

I called him back right away and his ebullient positive energy flooded right through the phone lines to me. His extreme happiness was palpable and contagious. What a treat.

Apparently Ben had bought a long distance phone card so he could call us on Christmas Day. But later in the evening when he tried calling from a pay phone, the card would not work and the operator said he would have to call from a land line.

So, Ben went off on a mission to find a phone and was feeling highly determined to succeed. While walking down a random street, he happened upon a Creole-speaking extended Mauritian family celebrating Christmas with a festive party in their front yard. (Not a very common occurrence in Canada!)

Fortunately, they knew enough English to understand Ben’s request. He wanted so much to call his family on Christmas Day and he had a calling card but just needed a home phone.

They immediately took him inside to their phone, but refused to let him use the card – even though he was a complete stranger of another race and culture who was planning to call a place half-way around the globe.

Once I had called Ben back, he recounted some of the details of his day, then he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, wow! Thank you so much!” He couldn’t believe it, but the man of the house had just handed him a whisky on the rocks, accompanied with a very big smile. After just a few minutes, he paused once again for some more exuberant thank yous as they had brought him a plate of delicious, spicy Mauritian food.

So, we talked for a bit longer and Ben spoke with his siblings, then we wished each other a Merry Christmas and he was invited to join the party with his new-found Mauritian friends. He says they went far, far beyond hospitality. The entire family, in fact, focused their entire concentration on him and treated him like a king.

Astonishingly (as always) the year has slipped by far too quickly and we are once again approaching Christmas. And this year – whether with snow or without – it will most certainly be too cold for our family to do any celebrating on our front lawn. But this week, as Ben puts on the Santa cap and hands out this year’s presents, we will remember to send some good vibes to a generous family in far-off Mauritius whose pure and genuine kindness to a stranger gave Ben an amazing Christmas gift that will never, ever be forgotten.

Mauritian Mocha Spice Squares

Mauritius is a very multicultural island which has created very diverse and delicious culinary traditions. France has had a strong influence on their desserts and many contain such island staples as vanilla, cinnamon and rum. This recipe contains all of these items plus other spices, coffee and chocolate. How could it be anything other than delectable? Since it's the holiday season, I think these squares would be just perfect with a hot mug of coffee topped off with a little Bailey's. Enjoy!


Merry Christmas, Everyone!


Monday, December 14, 2009

Friendship is a Many Layered Thing

" Remember, the greatest gift is not found in a store nor under a tree, but in the hearts of true friends."

- Cindy Lew

My friend, Deborah, has the most infectious laugh I've ever known. Back in the eighties, we both worked in a small hospital in separate departments, but across the hall from one another. Quite often I would hear the lilting melody of Deb's hearty laughter as it wafted across the corridor and into my ears. This sound would always cause me to smile broadly, no matter what thoughts had been in my mind previously.

Deb is a successful business owner, an amazing designer and decorator, a talented artist, a lover of nature in general and, in particular, extremely bird crazy.

One of Deb's favourite things to do is to walk through a forest or sit down along the river and quietly observe and photograph the birds and other creatures in their natural habitat. She has also designed and created the most enchanting garden where in moments of relaxation she can enjoy a little birdwatching from the comfort of her own back yard.

One hot July day this past summer, Deb and I spent most of the afternoon sitting in our respective back yards, each nursing a cold beer and talking our hearts out over the phone. We were remembering, encouraging, laughing, and also describing to each other the various birds and butterflies that were soaring above us and around us as we visited. Even as engaged as we were in conversation, Deb would never fail to notice and appreciate a bird.

This brought to mind the times, years ago, when we had travelled together to Toronto along the hideously busy highway, the 401. Deb would always drive. She would be zipping along, chatting away, while enormous trucks thundered along on either side of us, behind us, and ahead of us. And then, as I sat stiffly with all of my muscles clenched tightly with fear, she would suddenly trill, "Oh, look over there! There's a grey crowned rosy finch!" or "Hey! A chestnut-collared longspur!" Invariably these spontaneous ornithological sightings would cause my already high anxiety level to ratchet up yet another notch.

But after we had arrived safely back home and I was feeling quite a bit more relaxed, Deb's enthusiasm became so contagious that I soon found myself on another road trip with her - this time on a mission to buy birds. I purchased a very pretty little peach-faced lovebird and a rather smallish cage, and Deb bought a couple of very tiny finches and a much larger cage. Well, although my new pet was called a "love bird", the wee finches were much more deserving of the title. It soon became very apparent that they had an insatiable desire to 'be fruitful and multiply.'

Before long, Deb was off to buy an even bigger cage, and then a bigger one still. But the flock of finches kept on proliferating. It came to the point where Deb had an enormous wooden cage constructed in her living room; floor to ceiling and the entire length of one wall.

Now, Deb is very social and enjoys entertaining. I can recall so clearly her New Year's Eve party that year. Her living room was full of nattily clad guests, drinks in hand, unable to focus on anything other than the astonishing 'Wall of Finches'. It was the master of all conversation pieces.

It was only when people realized there was a delicious array of party food spread out on the kitchen table that they allowed their stomachs to tear them away from the tiny birds.

I remember that the most popular dish was the "Mexican 7-Layer Dip" and everyone was enjoying it so much that the party could not possibly be moved back into the living room until every speck had been devoured.

So, now, as the holiday season quickly approaches, I will spend a good deal of time considering all of the many incredibly kind and loving people who have graced, and still grace my life.

And I believe I will whip up a "Mexican 7-Layer Dip", crack open a Corona, and raise a toast to my wonderful friend, Deborah.

(Merry Christmas, Deb!!)

This holiday season, treat your friends and family to a "Mexican 7-Layer Dip" and they will be very happy. The Canadian Living Test Kitchen says they first published a recipe for this dip way back in 1988 and they are STILL receiving requests for it. Say no more.

This week's recipe and photo are courtesy of "SimplyRecipes.com". Thank you!




Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Great "Pie by the Mile" Fiasco

Back when I was about 7 and my sister, Kathie, was about 4, we went to our grandparents' place in Hamilton for a week. During that time, our very Scottish Granny invited her friend, Rosie, over for a visit. Rosie was a Romanian immigrant and we had heard many stories about her over the years. But this was to be the first and only time I ever met her.

We were told that Rosie wanted to show us how to make a famous Romanian dessert which she called 'pie by the mile'. The dish had earned such a title because it involved the laborious rolling out of pastry into a very large and extremely thin sheet. (Thin enough to read a newspaper through it, apparently.) Can you imagine how excited we were? Granny's European friend letting us help her make a fancy pie with such a great name? We were hopping up and down with the very thought of it.

We were so excited, in fact, that we just couldn't wait for her to arrive and we wanted to go down to the street to wait for her. Mind you, our grandparents lived in an apartment above a dry cleaners on a very busy downtown city street and we were small town kids, but we were keen to do it. Amazingly, Granny let us go out, and she would peer down from the window every few minutes to check on us.

Well, we watched and watched and watched every woman walking down the street to try to catch a glimpse of Rosie the Romanian. This was extremely challenging because we had no idea what she looked like. So, here we were, two excited little girls, standing on the edge of the sidewalk, getting jostled by the crowd, on a mission to greet this exotic European woman.

All of a sudden, out of the blue, a rather largish, brusque woman walked up to us with a very stern scowl and a raised finger, shouting, "Get away from those filthy garbage cans, you little street urchins!!" Then, suddenly, she disappeared into the crowd. Of course, we were horrified to have been spoken to in this way, so we ran as quickly as possible back to the stairs and bolted right up them to tell Granny all about it. (And to ask her what 'urchins' were, I imagine.) Our little hearts were beating very fast but, honestly, they nearly stopped when we burst through the apartment door and saw Granny chatting away with that horrible woman. It was shocking and unbelievable to us that this 'nasty old witch' was Granny's friend! How could we tell Granny now?

Well, Rosie surely wasn't about to tell her either! In fact, she glared at us at regular intervals to ensure our silence. And so it was that our exciting adventure in European pastry making ended up becoming an afternoon filled with liberal helpings of nervous tension, coupled with a generous portion of fear. I didn't want any part of it. I can clearly recall eating only the most minimal piece of the much ballyhooed 'pie by the mile' and even that tasted bitter on my tongue. But it's a dish I've never forgotten!

Romanian 'Cere du Mere', or 'Apple Strudel', or (for nostalgia's sake), 'Pie by the Mile'

Fortunately, you won't have to suffer through the tedious process of rolling out pastry to a paper-thin consistency because phyllo pastry is easily available and easy to use. Trust me, you'll feel yourself transforming into a European pastry chef. Romanian, or otherwise.

Please try the recipe below and enchant your family, friends, and coworkers. They all need a treat!


Recipe courtesy Robert Bleifer. Photo (above) and recipe description courtesy of Sara Moulton.

For an endless supply of amazing recipes, tips, and tantalizing menu ideas, please check out: