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.

http://faizaali.blogspot.com/2010/01/pasteis-de-nata-portuguese-custard.html

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?

Cheers!

Diane

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.

Cheers!


Diane


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

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/down-home-with-the-neelys/grilled-corn-salad-recipe/index.html

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.

Cheers!

Diane


(Photo courtesy of "www.sailusfoods.com" - 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....

Cheers!


Diane


http://www.hungryhowies.com/menu/ourpizzas.aspx#

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!

Cheers,

Diane


http://www.canadianliving.com/food/mini_falafel.php


http://vegweb.com/index.php?topic=22060.0

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. http://www.quantumbalancing.com/news/lemon%20water.htm)

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!

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/quinoa-tabbouleh/detail.aspx


Cheers!


Diane

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!"

Cheers!

Diane


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:

http://www.presidentschoice.ca

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Don't Mess With Breakfast!







"All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."

-- John Gunther



How often have you heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Do you believe it? Are you someone who religiously abstains from food in the morning? Or are you someone who relishes the first meal of the day?

If you are, in fact, a breakfast eater, then I would be willing to bet that you tend to gravitate to certain dishes or even foods as a default setting. Most likely a nice, hot cup of coffee is high on your list. Then, maybe toast, bagels, or muffins; maybe oatmeal or cold cereal; maybe an egg or two, a bowl of fruit salad, or even a protein-enhanced fruit smoothie.

It is also highly probable that you enjoy one type of breakfast on early and rushed weekdays, and quite another on more leisurely weekend mornings. But within each setting I expect your choices don't vary too much. I know mine don't. I can't count the number of times I have oohed and aahed over a delectable breakfast menu in a restaurant and then gone ahead and ordered my 'usual' -- two eggs scrambled dry, rye toast (also dry), and peanut butter. It is, unfortunately, completely predictable; my only hope for excitement is if the coffee turns out to be especially good.

Over the years I have had endless food-related chats with people from all over the world and I have learned several very interesting things. For one, people will often eagerly try out a new recipe or perhaps a new type of ethnic restaurant for dinner on the weekends when time seems more expansive. But at breakfast time, even the most liberal cooks and diners tend to be more conservative.

People seem to crave comfort in the mornings and few things can comfort us in the way that familiar foods can.

Now, exactly what those foods are will depend on your country of origin, or even your family's homeland. It is a given that people from all over the world love to drink coffee in the morning. It is after the beverage is looked after that the variety begins.

In much of Asia, breakfasts of rice, vegetables and a little meat are the most common. Indians enjoy rice as well, however it is often given a very creative twist as in the case of 'idlis'. Idlis are absolutely scrumptious little puffy cakes made from a fermented mixture of rice and split peas which are steamed to perfection and served with an incredibly earthy and tasty sauce that is so amazing I simply can't find words to describe it. (To be completely honest, I am describing my Indian friend Winona's idlis, as they are they only ones I've ever tried; and why would I ever try any others?)

Europeans for the most part like to eat sliced meats for breakfast, along with boiled eggs, cheeses, and an abundance of fresh breads and rolls along with jams and honey.

Middle Eastern breakfasts lean toward beautiful and very sweet pastries of all descriptions, but also consist of boiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and fruit.

In Britain, morning 'fry-ups' are quite common. Here you will find eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, potatoes and even bread, all fried up to the max in bacon grease. On top of this, in Ireland you would get some Irish soda bread and jam as well; and in Scotland you would find oatcakes, scones with jam, no doubt some nice, thick oatmeal and a few kippered herrings. Of course, the kippers would be fried.

Things are a little more relaxed in Greece where you would be served a breakfast of bread, cheese, fruit and coffee. And they are even simpler in Italy where you could sit at an outdoor patio, enjoying a tasty pastry along with a steaming cup of cappuccino while you read the paper and get a start on your day.

All of these very different breakfasts have something in common; they are all highly comforting to those people who find them familiar -- maybe even something that takes them back to their childhoods.

But I have to wonder this: why is it, exactly, that we all seem to crave such comforting in the mornings? Why not turn this desire on its head and start each new day celebrating the simple, yet amazing, fact that we are alive to the experiences of a new day? As we all know too well, one day (far off in the future, I hope!) this will not be true. But why wait? The time to celebrate is now. And what better way to celebrate than to branch out a bit and try something different for breakfast? You'll do nothing less than broaden your horizons. And who knows? You might even just feel a little bit more alive.

Cheers!


Diane


Both the photo and recipe this week are from a very interesting and fun blog entitled 'Siri's Corner':

http://siri-corner.blogspot.com/2009/07/potato-chip-frittata-muffins.html

When I came across this recipe, I knew it was just the whimsical breakfast treat I was looking for. It is vegetarian, nutritious, and low carb. It also looks exquisitely tasty!

My partner, Mark, is a very big fan of President's Choice ketchup potato chips. And since he worked very, very hard last weekend, and will again this weekend on our latest decorating project, I am going to make these for him. And I expect they will make both of us very happy indeed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Luscious Asparagus! A Sure Sign of Spring





"The world's favourite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May."

-- Edwin Way Teale


The summer my sister, Kathie, and I turned 17 and 20, respectively, we enjoyed a brief but fun holiday together in Wasaga Beach, a small town on the south shore of Georgian Bay, here in Ontario. It was a lively little summer beach town with lots of sun, sand, clear blue water, and plenty of youthful energy crackling in the air.

During our stay, we happened to meet a very pleasant older gentleman who told us he was an asparagus farmer. Looking back, I have no idea exactly how old he was; in fact, he may very well have been only in his thirties! Anyway, he was very proud of his asparagus farm and quite charming in his passion for the vegetable itself. He seemed shocked to learn that I had never ever eaten asparagus and he said he would love to give us some of his crop so we could experience the wonderful flavour. That, however, was impossible as it was now August and the asparagus season is most definitely in the spring.

Well, the very next year, my brother, Bill, celebrated his 16th birthday at the beginning of May and as I was working full-time and earning some money (for the first time), I wanted to treat him to a fancy dinner. Normally our small town and environs had pretty slim pickin's in fine dining, but, fortunately, a new place had just opened its doors. That was 'The Benmiller Inn', a very old former woolen mill on a winding river just east of our town, which had been painstakingly renovated and reborn as quite a posh inn. It also housed an upscale dining room! It was the finest dining establishment in our whole area and everyone was all abuzz about it.

I made reservations way ahead for just Bill and me. Because I was a vegetarian, and so was Bill at the time, I made sure to request special dinners for us when I called. This was back in the mid-seventies, after all, and there wasn't a chance in the world that there would be any vegetarian options on their rather chi-chi (i.e. catering to the 'big city folk') menu.

I wasn't even daring to hope for something delicious. Not back then. I was quite accustomed to being served either a boring garden salad or an even more pedestrian plate of raw vegetables as a main course in restaurants while my table mates got to enjoy the tasty dishes. I was more focused on soaking up some of that rare atmosphere.

I'm sure you can imagine our absolute delight when the very courteous waiter set down before us two absolutely gorgeous warm plates of various coloured and cooked vegetables along with the most perfect rice, all lightly drizzled with delectable French cream sauces.

Now, so much time has gone by since that evening that I no longer remember the exact items that were served. It is a lovely (and precious) memory, of course, but the picture has become quite fuzzy over the years.

What I do remember quite clearly, however, is the asparagus! Both green and white. So delicate! So tender! So 'melt-in-your-mouth with buttery goodness'. I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that a 'mere' vegetable could be so outstandingly delicious. Wow!

At that time of my life I was really, really fond of desserts, especially anything of the chocolate variety. But, incredible as it may be, I retain no memory at all of the particular decadent dessert I enjoyed that night. Over time, most of the details of that birthday dinner have been erased.

But, my oh my, do I ever remember that asparagus!

Cheers!

Diane


For this week's recipe I am giving you "Lemon Asparagus Risotto". This is a beautiful, creamy Italian rice dish which in this case was prepared by a French chef. Both photo and recipe are courtesy of Laura Calder of 'French Food at Home' on the Food Network.

http://www.foodnetwork.ca/recipes/Side/Rice-Grain/recipe.html?dishid=9130

I promise you that when you eat this lovely dish, you will taste the flavour of spring.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary









"Food is not about impressing people. It's about making them feel comfortable."

-- Ina Garten
"The Barefoot Contessa"


It will come as no surprise to you that I love to watch The Food Network. Just this past weekend I happened to see part of a program about the creation of a gourmet supermarket in Toronto. It appears to be enormous in size, that's for sure, but since it is still under construction I can only try to imagine what the finished entity will be like, or what products will be proudly on display.

After all, there already seems to be a plethora of up-scale supermarkets just bursting at the seams with exotic grocery items. And, honestly, even the most basic stores now carry a vast array of foods and products that our mothers (or grandmothers) would never have dreamed of finding on the shelf.

I know that my own children's concept of 'ordinary food' would have seemed outrageously exotic to me as a child. Our small town in rural Southwestern Ontario was pretty much cut off from the delights of international cuisine. Except, of course, for the obligatory Chinese restaurant uptown (always 'uptown', never 'downtown') which sported the not-so-traditional Chinese name, "The Esquire Restaurant'. Even so, dining there would no doubt have at least opened up my mind and my taste buds just a little, however we never ate there. No, my parents were pretty solid on the idea that eating in restaurants was horribly wasteful and needlessly extravagant. Eating was what you did at home.

Flash forward a few decades and my kids grew up thinking nothing of eating Chinese stir-fries, Mexican tacos and quesadillas, Italian lasagne and other pasta dishes, as well as the big favourite - Indian curries. These dishes are so familiar to them that they take them as common and ordinary and not in the least exotic. And I expect the astonishingly extensive offerings of today's supermarkets must seem pretty commonplace as well.

But the world I lived in as a child in the late fifties and early sixties was a very different world indeed. For instance, I spent my entire childhood never once having seen the inside of a supermarket. I had, in fact, never even heard the word 'supermarket' and I'm not sure it even existed back then. What we had in our town was one, and only one, 'grocery store'. It was small, it was plain, it didn't carry any 'fancy-schmancy' foodstuffs; and it was owned by a local couple whom everyone who shopped there knew personally.

So why wasn't I familiar with this essential town business? Because not only did I never have occasion to visit there, neither did my mother. How could that be? Well, my mother never did learn to drive and had five children at home, so her solution was to simply write out a shopping list during the week and then phone in her order on Friday mornings. Then, each Friday afternoon a truck would pull up in front of our house and a delivery man would drop off one, or maybe even two, boxes of groceries.

Our meals were quite plain and extremely predictable. Certainly no herbs or spices were ever used and never, ever any garlic. They were really such a far cry from most of the dishes I enjoy today. But, even so, we always seem to have such an incredibly strong and comforting connection to the foods that fueled our childhoods. I hear this over and over again from all sorts of people, no matter where in the world they grew up. It seems to be a universal truth.

Last week my sister, Sandy, mentioned that she was planning to make an old-fashioned meatloaf recipe that she and Mom had made together about 20 years ago when Mom had travelled to northern B.C. for a visit. Sandy said it had smelled wonderful while cooking and then tasted even more delicious. Plus, it had the extra appeal of reminding her of long-ago childhood meals. Sandy liked it so much she continued to make it over the years, although since she became vegetarian she has used "Yves Veggie Ground Round" instead of the ground beef.

Last Friday, the temperature suddenly plummeted and it was raining as well; a dark and gloomy day more like mid-November than the beginning of May. After work, I knew Mark would be heading out from Goderich to my place in London, through this wretched weather - and on his motorcycle. I knew he would be needing something nice and hot to warm up his frigid bones.

I decided to shop at a supermarket on the way home and pick up the necessary ingredients for Sandy's recipe. When I got home, Mark had just arrived, so while he changed into dry clothes and tried to get his circulation going again, I busied myself with cooking. In no time at all I had whipped up the veggie 'meatloaf', some creamy mashed potatoes with vegetarian brown gravy, some mixed vegetables with cheese sauce, and a bowl of fresh cole slaw. Mom would have been proud!

And, my goodness, it was wonderful! Mark felt warmed and rejuvenated and my son, Daniel, pronounced the loaf delicious and actually surprisingly 'meaty'.

As for me, just before sitting down to eat, I looked out of the dining room window at the cold and the rain and the wind and I shivered. Then, I began to eat my steaming hot and homey dinner and I felt a familiar warmth washing over me. This was comfort food at its best; I just loved it! And although I could still hear the noise of the swirling winds outside, I also came very, very close to hearing the sounds of my dear mother, bustling away happily - way, way back in my cozy childhood kitchen.

Cheers!

Diane


Here is a link to my sister, Sandy's well-used recipe, compliments of "Uncle Ben's".

http://www.unclebens.ca/en-ca/Recipes/RecipeFinder.aspx#RecipeID=2245

I think it would be much, much better with "Yves Original Ground Round", but that's only my opinion. (And Sandy's!)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries




"He who likes cherries soon learns to climb."

-- German Proverb



If you could suddenly transport yourself to Japan this week, do you know what you'd most likely end up doing? Probably a good deal of exotic 'sakura hanami', and loving every minute of it.

No need to blush, now. In fact, if you happened to bring your children along for the trip, they could happily participate as well.

'Sakura' is the Japanese word for cherry tree and 'hanami' means blossom viewing. I think it's quite lovely that the Japanese have a specific word devoted to the concept of taking the time to enjoy the beauty of cherry blossoms. Their incredible beauty lasts only such a short time that it is considered vital in Japan to stop everything and simply observe them carefully, allowing the joy of the experience to deliciously wash over you.

According to an observer, "The Japanese cherry does not have to produce a market crop because it is a born aristocrat and its single mission is to be beautiful. But it does render a very useful service to the people." (www.canada.com)

Shizuko Mishima (www.gojapan.about.com) writes: "Hanami and cherry blossom festivals are held all over Japan in spring. In hanami parties, people have fun, drinking, eating, and singing during the day or night. It is like a picnic under sakura trees. Usually, people bring food, do BBQ, or buy food from vendors for hanami parties."

Well, I have never been to a hanami, but I do have some amazing memories of our family's own 'cherry blossom festival' back when I was a child.

We lived in a small town at the end of a very long street, in a home that happened to have quite a bit of property. And we were fortunate enough to have had five beautiful cherry trees in our yard! Four were in the back yard, and one - the biggest and the best - was at the far corner of the land extending from the side of the house to the road.

We never ate BBQs, or picnics, or even snacks under our cherry trees. As they were prolific producers of baskets and baskets of fresh, ripe, red cherries, we kids just did the sensible thing. We climbed up into the trees and ate cherries.

It was so much fun! Sitting up on branches in the trees, legs dangling from tree limbs, chatting away and laughing with siblings or friends while picking and eating cherries and spitting the pits onto the ground. It was like a private, cool, leafy tree-house - a wonderfully fun and private 'kid world' all our own.

My Dad always looked after the trees; carefully pruning away dried bits and keeping them safe, and healthy, and looking their best. He knew very well that our family could never hope to consume all of the fruit produced and that it wouldn't take very long for the birds to discover such bounty. He encouraged us to eat as many cherries as we liked, and he was also kind enough to encourage the neighbourhood kids to help themselves as well.

In those days, it seems we were outside as much as possible, roaming around the neighbourhood and exploring, making up games and pastimes as we went along. It wasn't unusual for kids to be yelled at by adults for 'trespassing' on their property and one of the games was certainly seeing just how far you could go without being caught.

But my Dad was never like that and I was awfully proud of him for that. He was so kind and friendly to the neighbourhood kids, and welcomed them to climb the trees, eat the cherries, and even take all they could back to their mothers so they could make cherry pies. I could tell the other kids were a little surprised, but absolutely delighted, by the silly things he would say to amuse them. Like: "Now, if you fall out of that tree and break your leg, don't come running to me!" That always produced a roar of laughter.

In the years since my Dad has been gone, I have had several occasions where people have approached me and told me that they were one of those kids back then. And they have invariably gone on to say how much Dad's kindness and generosity meant to them. And that made me feel even more proud.

I mentioned cherry pies just now, and I couldn't possibly end this post without telling you that my Mom made absolutely the very best and most perfect cherry pies in the known universe. That's a fact. I can so vividly remember her standing at our kitchen counter, whipping up the flakiest, most delectible pastry ever, in no time at all. What a fantastic memory! In my mind's nose I can still smell the intoxicating aroma of her cherry pies baking in our oven. Absolute heaven. I never eat cherry pies now. Why would I? The memory is enough.


Cheers!

Diane


As a child, every year at this time the cherry blossoms would bloom - exactly at the time of my brother Bill's birthday - May 5th - which is today. For as far back as I can remember, whenever I think of cherry trees, or cherry blossoms, I think of him. Happy Birthday, Bill!

And now I have a new person to think about as well. My dear friend, Winona, has a lovely daughter, Melanie, who is turning 10 today. Double digits! Cause for a celebration. Melanie is a bright young lady and a very gifted writer. Keep on writing, Melanie! The world needs to hear your voice.



This week's photo and recipe are courtesy of:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/dried-cherry-cake/detail.aspx

It looks like a fantastic cake and I am keen to try it. My long-time friend, MaryAnn, has shared her absolute passion for dried cherries with me and I have to agree wholeheartedly. They are fantastic! And so, for Bill, and Melanie, and MaryAnn - this cake is for you. I hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"And Now for Something Completely Different!"





"It all comes back to the basic. Serve customers the best-tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant, and they'll keep coming back."

-- Dave Thomas




It seems to me that people tend to spend their lives walking a figurative tightrope between two extremes: comfort and adventure.

Some of us absolutely crave excitement and consistently shun the comforts of life in order to chase yet another adrenaline-charged thrill. And for others, the mere thought of such risk-taking behaviours gives us not a thrill, but a chill down our spines.

Between these opposites, I would imagine that the majority of us spend our lives somewhere in the middle; being seduced by the soothing comfort of familiar faces, places, and routines. But every once in awhile, we feel a desire to (however mildly) shake things up a bit.

Well, anyone who knows me personally at all will have no trouble choosing the category in which I feel the most comfortable. And for those of you who have yet to meet me, I have just given away the answer. I put a great value on safety, calm, and comfort, but as I said earlier, sometimes I pine for "something completely different."

This past weekend, Mark and I drove to Port Huron, Michigan, for an outing, really, and to do a little shopping - mostly grocery shopping. We headed out early (for us) on Saturday morning, stopping to pick up a take-away coffee before leaving the city. It was a pleasant drive and it was mid-morning when we arrived, at last, in Port Huron.

We found ourselves very hungry for breakfast by then, so naturally we wheeled straight in to the parking lot of the 'Daybreak Cafe' which I lauded in an earlier post. We were scarcely able to find a parking spot and we were worried that this was not a good sign. It was, in fact, a good sign for the Cafe as the restaurant was completely full and there was a line-up right up to the front door. It seemed as though the wait would be quite long and we would have been happy to endure it, but the woman ahead of us was so heavily perfumed that we just couldn't manage it.

Once outside, we decided that maybe we should, after all, be a little more adventurous and try another restaurant. We spied "Ted's Coney Island Diner" just down the street, so we set off optimistically. It actually sounded kind of cool. As we walked to the main entrance, we looked through the windows at the practically empty restaurant, and our optimism began to fade a bit. And when we walked inside and were greeted by a theatrical exhalation of smoke by a leathery-faced woman, we both turned and quickly walked out again without saying a word.

What should we do now? Well, there was a "Big Boy" restaurant across the street so we waited for the traffic to die down, then trotted across. It didn't look very appealing. And when the hostess asked us if we preferred 'smoking' or 'non-smoking' we hesitated, then chose 'non-smoking' and sat down with sinking hearts. We didn't like the fact that people were smoking just around the corner and it was a little unsettling. But when the waitress told us that there was, in fact, no breakfast menu, but a breakfast buffet over in the 'smoking' section, our decision was made for us and we quickly scurried out the door.

Back over to the 'Daybreak Cafe' where we found the line-up was gone, and we were seated right away. Ah! Familiar surroundings! Familiar great food! Warm and friendly staff! All that and fresh, hot coffee being constantly topped off. A little bit of breakfast heaven.

The rest of the long day we spent browsing through various stores and doing some shopping and were so busy and having so much fun that we didn't as much as stop for a drink of water. By dinnertime we were both feeling dehydrated and hungry and looking to sit down and relax a bit before organizing all of our purchases and heading home.

It was funny, but as much as we both wanted the comfort of the 'Daybreak' at breakfast, we both craved to eat dinner somewhere new. Somewhere different. Somewhere a little more exciting. And we both had the same idea at once. (As we so often do.)

About a year or so ago, when we were staying in Port Huron for the weekend, we had gone out for dinner at an Italian Restaurant on the Saturday evening, and had gone for a long walk afterward before heading back to the hotel. On the walk we happened upon "The Raven" - a coffeehouse, a pub, a restaurant - and it looked wonderfully appealing. We were delighted with the decor, the ambience, and the soft jazz music and were hoping to linger awhile over exotic coffees and soak in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, they were closing soon and not accepting any new customers. We walked out disappointed, but knew for sure we'd be back one day.

And that day was last Saturday. 'The Raven' is an amazing place! The owner took an old, broken-down building from the Civil War era, completely gutted it, and painstakingly transformed it into a 'magical' place that feels somewhere between an ancient pub in a quaint British village, and a cool, hip coffeehouse/restaurant somewhere in Greenwich Village. and it is, blissfully, smoke-free.

This is how their lovely brochure describes the atmosphere: "Adding to the richness of the interior decor are the stained glass facade windows....These are set off by the colorful tiffany lighting, eye-catching gargoyles and statuary, a virtual library of antique and classic books and dozens of eclectic photographic and poster art prints, secured from the poster galleries of Manhattan.....These elements are tied together by architectural designs incorporating an array of angles, elevations and special spaces, including an upper balcony level with a rear outside deck providing a view of the St. Clair and Black Rivers."

They have a seven page menu featuring real food!! Fresh local ingredients served in interesting, creative, and delicious ways. And they don't even have a deep fryer. Hallelujah!

Mark and I had a wonderful time at 'The Raven'. It was absolutely one of the most memorable places I have ever dined. It was incredibly interesting - so much to look at and talk about. Our waiter was superb; perfectly gracious and seemingly relaxed and in such a good mood, even though the place was hopping and he was seriously busy. And the food was absolutely exquisite. Even now, several days later, I can't stop thinking about our visit to 'The Raven.' It was fun, fun, fun!

I think Dave Thomas knew what he was talking about. 'The Raven' seems to be doing everything right. It is like nothing I've ever seen or experienced before. I strongly encourage any of you who are able to go there, to go. You will be enchanted. I know we were. And we simply can't wait to dine there again. And the next time, we will plan to stay over so we can dash back in the morning for breakfast. Sorry, 'Daybreak', but we're on a roll.

Cheers!

Diane


For my meal, I enjoyed a "Grilled Hummus Veggie Wrap". Now, having been a vegetarian for over 40 years now, I have eaten my fair share of veggie wraps, but nothing else could compare with the sheer deliciousness of this one. I don't have an actual recipe, of course, so I can only share the description on their menu:

"Your choice of our traditional or roasted red bell pepper hummus (my choice) with leaf lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber in our sun dried tomato tortilla." They don't say, but my guess is that they also added salt and pepper and some chopped fresh cilantro. The wrap is all folded up nice and neatly, then grilled to perfection. The tortilla has slight char marks making it extra tasty, while the inside stays nice and chilled and crisp. A wonderful combination. I certainly plan to try it myself. And soon!

Please check out 'The Raven's' website for more information, and for more inspiration to make a trip there:

http://www.ravencafeph.com

This week's photos and recipe are courtesy of "The Raven", Port Huron, Michigan.


(The expression, "And now for something completely different" is, of course, from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Now, these were certainly lads who knew how to keep expanding their horizons!)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sitting at the World's Table





"Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."

-- Sophia Loren



For the past six years, since I moved to the city, I have spent most Monday evenings volunteering to help new immigrants practise speaking English. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Each week I have the opportunity to sit around a table at the Central Library and talk, listen, and laugh with an ever-changing group of people from all over the globe.

Over the years, I have noticed the differing patterns of immigration to London. In the early years, most of our newcomers were from Colombia; that was a very broad wave indeed. There are, in fact, so many Colombian immigrants here now that London has earned the nickname "Londombia." French may very well be the other Canadian official language, but you won't hear much French spoken on the streets of London. Our second language is Spanish.

Other years there have been more newcomers from Africa and the Middle East. There are always quite a few Asians, especially those from South Korea. And a few years ago, we enjoyed a large number of highly energized and hilarious young men from Japan. We don't generally have many Europeans, although at the moment we have a couple of great young European women.

I smile whenever I remember a particular European woman who decided to shake things up a bit and move to Canada from France. She had originally moved to Quebec so she could continue speaking her own language but she was quite shocked to find that the Quebecois spoke a very different sort of French. In fact, in her opinion, it was an inferior dialect so corrupted that she had a hard time listening to it without becoming intensely annoyed. She steadfastly refused to speak that way, held firmly to her Parisian French, and as a result succeeded in really annoying the Quebecois in her life who felt she was deliberately trying to sound 'uppity'.

In the end, she decided to solve the problem by moving to Ontario and learning English. At first it was practically impossible to converse with her because she knew so little English, and when six months went by and we hadn't seen her, I thought perhaps she had given up and moved back to France. But, no, she hadn't. She reappeared one Monday evening looking very bright and happy AND speaking English so well it was mind-boggling. I immediately asked her what on earth she had been doing to have achieved such an incredible improvement. Her eyes began to sparkle as she rather coquettishly replied, "O! Mon Dieu! I 'av foun' a English boyfren!"

It truly is a remarkable experience to be able to sit and talk with people who have come here from all over the earth. Every week the mix changes and that really makes it interesting. It feels something like a mini-U.N., but on a very casual and friendly level. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore a bit of the world without having to leave town.

The purpose of our 'Conversation Circle' sessions is simply that - to enjoy conversations with each other. And these conversations are a lot like our lunchroom chats at work. The topics vary widely and they constantly bounce all over the place. There is, however, one topic that pops up again, and again, and again, and never fails to elicit enthusiastic participation. And that is the subject of food.

Everyone loves to eat, and many people love to cook as well. It doesn't matter where people have come from, they always seem to become more passionate in their speech and their mannerisms when talking about their favourite foods and dishes from their homelands. We learn a lot about different food traditions, listen to stories about special occasions or humorous events - all revolving around food.

Sometimes recipes are shared. And on occasion, a few of us have had to dash upstairs to the cookbook section of the library to track down a dish that a newcomer loves dearly and wants to tell us about, but is unable to come up with a description in English. I have also had several participants bring me gifts of traditional foods and that is always a wonderful treat.

Two weeks ago I was at the table with the two lovely young European women I mentioned earlier. Adriana is a Hungarian formerly living in Slovakia, and Alessandra is an Italian, but very proudly from Sardinia. As usual, that evening we talked a lot about food. And what a fun conversation that was! Adrianna and Alessandra are very charming women whose extremely positive energy is quite a joy just to be around. They each have such a sparkling wit - even while speaking English! - that we spend a lot of time in thralls of laughter.

This particular evening, Alessandra was telling us about a traditional Sardinian dish - 'linguine al pesto' - and she was making us all very hungry with her description. She wondered if she could buy a pot of basil to grow at her apartment so she could cook with it, and make this dish. I told her where I had recently seen such pots of basil for sale and then another woman suggested that she could just buy pesto from that very supermarket. To be polite, I turned to Alessandra and agreed that, yes, she could indeed buy ready-made pesto at that store.

Alessandra then opened her eyes very wide in mock horror, and with a smile on her lips she playfully punched me on the arm. And then, with the well-known sweeping arm gesture of dismissal that her compatriots are famous for, she responded. "I would never buy pesto!!" she cried. "I am Italian!" Point taken. Point taken, indeed.

Cheers!!

Diane

This week in Alessandra's honour, I am giving you a recipe for 'Linguine al Pesto'. Alessandra strongly suggests that a peeled and chopped up potato be cooked along with the linguine as it apparently makes all the difference in the taste and texture of the dish.

This post's photo and recipe are courtesy of:

http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/classic-pesto-with-linguine-recipe.htm

I hope you will try it and enjoy the beautiful, fresh, springtime taste of the homemade pesto. And don't, for heaven's sake, even THINK about buying it!!!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Spicy Samosa - A Little Taste of Nirvana



A yoga master stepped up to a samosa stall and said: "Make me one with everything." The vendor fixed a samosa and handed it to the yogi, who paid with a $20 bill.

The vendor put the bill in a cash drawer and closed the drawer. "Where's my change?" asked the yogi. The vendor smiled, "Change must come from within."


-- www.hinduismtoday.com


Last week I celebrated the 7th 'Annual Samosa Day' in style. I even dedicated a full four days to the event rather than the customary one. And, on top of that, I was celebrating well over two months early.

If you are scratching your head and wondering how this food festivity had slipped under your radar, don't worry. You will never have heard of it. To be honest, I, myself, represent half of 'Annual Samosa Day' celebrants. Let me explain.

Back in July of 2004, I began my current position at the university here in the city of London although I was still living 100 km away in a small town. I had been invited to come down for a morning, have a tour of the area, and meet some of my future colleagues. At the time I was very busy trying to keep my house presentable in the hope of selling it quickly, as well as getting rid of a lot of 'stuff' and trying to get organized enough to move. It was so much work! And I'm sure many of you can relate.

My plan had been to zip down to London on the sunny morning of June 23rd, have the tour, meet some folks, then head back a couple of hours later. I wasn't going to take the time for lunch. In fact, I was so stressed out in those days that I rarely ate at all! I had brought along a protein bar and felt that a quick stop at the mid-way Tim Horton's for a coffee would be enough to hold body and soul together.

As it turned out, a very warm, friendly, and funny professor named Dan (now a very close friend) showed me around the place and made all sorts of very gracious introductions. It was a little overwhelming, as it was such a big place with so many faculty and staff about, but I was encouraged by all of the kind smiles.

Suddenly it was noon, the tour was over, and I was all set to leave. Then, Dan suggested that we go to the 'Grad Club' for lunch with some others as it was right across the street from our building. I didn't know what to do! I had slipped only a five dollar bill into my wallet that morning as my only planned purchase was a cup of coffee.

I was a little (OK, a lot) intimidated by Dan's lofty status and I didn't want to be so bold as to ask him if he were footing the bill. I knew I had only $5 and I couldn't imagine what sort of paltry lunch item could be bought with that. I surveyed the menu board carefully and was absolutely thrilled to see this entry: "Samosas - 2 for $3". Great! I couldn't risk a beverage, what with taxes and all, so I opted for tap water.

Well, we ended up sitting on the patio and having a fun lunch, chatting with some other people and having some laughs. It was a very enjoyable time and it became even better later on when Dan, bless his heart, didn't even bat an eye at my $3 lunch and very handily picked up the tab.

Somewhere around mid-June of 2005 I felt comfortable enough with Dan to tell him the samosa story. We had a good laugh at the memory and decided that we should declare every June 23rd 'Annual Samosa Day'. The celebration was really nothing more than enjoying a pint at the 'Grad Club'. And occasionally we even had a samosa, too. I can scarcely believe that the 7th one will be coming up soon.

And now, back to last week. My son Daniel's friend, Richard, and his mother, Christine, were coming to stay overnight last Thursday. They were planning to have dinner at home before leaving, but I wanted to give them something interesting and tasty as an evening snack. I was thinking of samosas because earlier the same day, Winona, an Indian-Canadian friend from work, had brought some in for us to share. They were delicious. They are a wonderful Indian snack food - generally a nice curry of potatoes and peas wrapped in pastry and deep fried. I love to eat them, but I had never made them before.

I looked for a recipe on my favourite Indian food blog (see below) and found a great recipe for baked samosas made with wonton wrappers. I was pleased because it seemed they would be easy to make, much lighter and more delicate, but would still be intensely flavourful. I was right.

Daniel helped me put them together and we had quite an efficient assembly line going on. As we worked, we got talking about all kinds of topics, as we often do. Before we knew it, we had 5 dozen samosas sitting before us. Mind you, the kitchen smelled marvellously aromatic as they baked, and afterwards it was like samosa heaven.

In the end, Christine and I each enjoyed about 2 or 3 little samosas each, along with a nice glass of wine. And the boys, I believe, ate only 1 apiece before disappearing into Daniel's room to play guitar. That left quite a plethora of samosas yet to be consumed.

On Friday, I had samosas for lunch. And, when my partner, Mark, came down to London on Friday, we had samosas for dinner. We had them again for lunch on Saturday, though we did switch it up a bit Saturday evening by having just the (leftover) samosa filling over rice. I decided to freeze the remaining samosas on Sunday as I just couldn't face any more. And today my daughter, Abby, came to visit, so when I got home from work, I whipped up an easy chick pea curry and rice and baked up the remaining samosas.

I have to tell you, I'm actually pretty glad that the 7th 'Annual Samosa Day' is more than two months away. As much as I adore scrumptious samosas, I think it may take every one of those days to rekindle a fitting appetite for them.

Cheers,

Diane


I hope you will try this great recipe. It comes from a fantastic blog featuring Indian vegetarian cooking called "One Hot Stove". The writing is excellent, the photos wonderful, and the recipes more than tantalizing. Enjoy!!


http://onehotstove.blogspot.com/2005/02/experiment-baked-wonton-samosas.html

The wonderful photo collage is courtesy of "www.samosa-connection.com".

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Montreal Bagel? Merci Beaucoup!!





"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight."

-- MFK Fisher
'The Art of Eating'


There wasn't much of a selection of bread when I was a young child back in the Fifties. Not like today when a person could spend a good half hour in a large supermarket's bakery section just trying to make a decision. No, we had no such choice. There was sliced white bread only, which was pretty boring indeed. But the cool thing was that we didn't have to venture out to a supermarket to buy our bread. Back then, our bread came to us.

Every day our family sat down at the kitchen table and had lunch together. And every week day at that time, a white van would pull up in front of our house. The van door would quickly open and shut and then we would see 'the baker' (as we kids erroneously called the bread delivery man). He would always come trotting up the walkway carrying a tray of bread, then would pop open our front door.

His name was 'Harold' and I remember his name so clearly for a reason. Each and every week day, Harold would burst into our kitchen with a big smile and bright attitude and call out to my Dad, "Hello, Harold!" To this, each and every time, my Dad would return, "Hello, Harold!" I remember thinking it was quite funny that they shared a name and I looked forward to this daily ritual.

When I was a young teen, our family suddenly went wildly crazy and we switched to 'brown' bread. It wasn't 'whole wheat' or 'whole grain' back then. It was simply 'brown'. So, really, living in a very small , very non-ethnic town, I had no broader knowledge of bread or bread products than this. Very, very narrow, I'm afraid. And it wasn't until I was 18 that my knowledge was cracked open a little wider.

That year I had become friends with Barb Samuels, a Jewish girl, who had been raised in Mount Forest, another small town in Southwestern Ontario. Because she was the first Jewish person I had ever met, and because I was curious about Judaism, I plied her with all kinds of questions and always got a blank stare in return. She had never even been to a synagogue. Living in this little town all her life had certainly not exposed her to any Jewish culture or community.

One summer day I planned to visit her and so I borrowed my Dad's car and drove to Mount Forest. Unfortunately, Barb was out doing some errands when I arrived, but her mother, Mrs. Samuels, very warmly welcomed me inside. I can still recall her kind, happy smile and her gracious hospitality.

She brought me to the living room and led me to a comfy chair. Next, she asked me if I'd care for a cup of tea. Absolutely. She bustled away to the kitchen to put on the kettle and soon returned with a nice steaming cup. As I sipped the hot tea, she continued to smile. It was obvious that she enjoyed visitors. Then, she startled me with a question that I did not understand. "Would you like a bagel?"

Such a simple question! It seems incredible to me now that I had no idea what she was talking about. She asked me again and I was still none the wiser. I was terribly shy in those days and quite reluctant to speak up. Plus, a few years before I had become a serious vegetarian and I was cautious about what I ate. At last I knew I just had to say something, so I ventured a very timid, "Ummmm......I wonder.....is a bagel.....ummmm.....meat?"

I thought poor Mrs. Samuels was going to fall down from her gales of laughter. She kept dabbing her eyes with the edge of her apron and every time our eyes met she laughed even harder.

Eventually she recovered sufficiently to head back to the kitchen to toast up a bagel and spread it with luscious cream cheese. (I did eat cheese.) I laughed myself when I saw what it was and then we both laughed some more. What a lot of fun, and all from a simple bagel. No, wait, I won't say 'simple' because it was a very special bagel, as Mrs. Samuels explained to me. It was a Montreal bagel - the best bagel of all.

For many, many years there has been a great rivalry between New York bagels and Montreal bagels. I don't even need to describe New York bagels to you at all because they are ubiquitous in these parts. Indeed in most parts.

But in the Montreal-Ottawa area they are precious commodities and many thousands of bagel lovers sing their praises. And rightfully so. Montreal bagels are almost always rolled by hand and before baking are boiled in bubbling cauldrons of water sweetened by pure honey. Then, they are brushed with a light sugar syrup, topped by either sesame seeds or poppy seeds (and, more recently, additional toppings), and baked in large, rustic wood ovens. The flames of the wood ovens cause the bagels to brown in a slightly uneven fashion and this adds a lot of interesting colour as well as flavour.

Montreal bagels are smaller, flatter, with a larger hole and a more irregular shape than the New York bagels. They are also much chewier with a delectable 'mouth feel' and flavour that will make you want to close your eyes and sigh. It's a texture and a flavour that you will remember and that you will crave. What is it exactly that makes a Montreal bagel such a magnificent creation?

Well, the method of preparation described above certainly does contribute to a scrumptious baked good. But anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting one will know that there is something else as well. It's definitely a little touch of 'je ne sais quois'. Of course it is! It's a Montreal bagel, after all.

Cheers!


Diane


Both the photo and the recipe are courtesy of "sevenspoons.net". Thanks to "Seven Spoons" you don't have to worry and fret that you live so far away from Montreal or Ottawa. You can put on an apron, roll up your sleeves, and bake yourself a batch of Montreal bagels in your own kitchen. Even if you don't happen to have a wood oven. Enjoy!!


http://sevenspoons.net/2009/07/not-moments-hesitation.html








Monday, March 29, 2010

As Southern as Pecan Pie


"I just clipped 2 articles from a current magazine. One is a diet guaranteed to drop 5 pounds off my body in a weekend. The other is a recipe for a 6 minute pecan pie."

-- Erma Bombeck


About a decade ago, and just about this time of year, I spent some days having an adventure in the American South. Oklahoma, to be precise. I was there with a small group to attend a business conference. Well, unfortunately, the business never did pan out for any of us, I've completely lost contact with all but one of my fellow travellers, and I don't remember a single thing about the conference. But the rest of my springtime trip to Oklahoma is still a delightful memory.

And speaking of memories, the very first thing we did upon our arrival in Oklahoma City was to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial and pay our respects. It is a beautifully and sensitively created and well kept site - a very serene and elegant tribute. Although the Memorial was outdoors, as we approached it, it felt as though we were entering a majestic cathedral and it was impossible to speak above a soft whisper.

Next we took a bus trip to view the company's future building site. This was a little underwhelming as it was simply a chunk of land in the distant countryside. And, at least from my perspective, the 'rolling green hills of Oklahoma' were neither very green nor very rolling.

Well, after the 'viewing' we were all bussed to a large facility of some sort - like an enormous catering hall filled with simple tables and chairs. Along one wall was the bustling open kitchen with a long counter running across in front of it.

We all stood in line with thick paper plates and each server would ladle out a portion of the various food items. It will come as no surprise to you that the number one item on the menu was 'barbecue'. Great steaming mounds of saucy barbecued pork covered about three-quarters of each plate. That left a small space to be filled with creamy potato salad and bright green cole slaw, along with a soft plump bun slathered with butter.

I found myself suddenly at the end of the line, still with an empty plate in my hands. As a vegetarian, the barbecue was, of course, off limits to me. And as a perennial (although not wildly successful) weight watcher, I didn't fancy the potato salad or cole slaw with all that mayonnaise. And a white bun covered in butter? No, thanks.

A woman at the counter apparently noticed my plight and called over to me, "How're y'all doin' there, honey? Can I get y'all some barbecue?" I asked her if there were, by any chance, a vegetarian option? Well, quite clearly, this was a question she had never been asked before. She turned around to face the kitchen and called (very loudly): "Hey! Billy Bob! We all got us a veg-e-tar-i-an here!!" Suddenly about half a dozen kitchen workers dropped what they were doing and stepped a little closer in order to better eye up such a strange creature.

Some folks around me were chuckling, but my face was as red as the ubiquitous barbecue sauce. In my embarrassment at being centred out in this foreign environment, I found my decision-making skills being sharpened up quickly.

I immediately opted for the boring and horribly fattening meal of potato salad, cole slaw and an enormous white bun with its lashings of butter. And I can't say I enjoyed the cup of coffee in the styrofoam cup that came at the end of the meal.

However, I did rationalize that since my diet had been blown completely, and I was there to experience what I could of the Southern culture, I was jolly well going to have dessert. And it turned out to be a very good decision.

The kitchen ladies served up hearty slices of homemade pecan pie. Deliciously golden slices with the creamiest filling and freshly roasted pecans which had been picked from local trees. It was a little slice of pecan heaven right there in rural Oklahoma.

As far as I'm concerned, the "Okies" can keep their barbecued pork and their various side 'fixins' all to themselves. But I really would enjoy another slice of that wonderfully sinful pecan pie. I may never get back to Oklahoma but I'm hoping to visit South Carolina before too long. I will definitely have to keep my northern eyes open for a sighting of this truly decadent Southern treat. And then I'll be looking for a nap.


Cheers!

Diane


After reading this story, you may just have a craving to cook up a nice Southern pecan pie. But since it's the end of March here in Canada, why not add a little northern touch and make this luscious "Maple Pecan Pie". I hope you enjoy it!


Today's photo and recipe are courtesy of "about.com: southern food":

http://southernfood.about.com/od/pecanpies/r/bl51122b.htm

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

OPA! My Big Fat Greek Weekend


"In many ways we are all sons and daughters of ancient Greece."
-- Nia Vardalos (author and star of the wonderful film 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding')


Over the past weekend the weather was quite a bit cooler than the incredible May-like temperatures we enjoyed last week here in London. Perhaps it was a gentle reminder from Mother Nature that it is, after all, still March - and this is Canada. But I didn't care. I spent the weekend in Greece. Well, sort of.

On Saturday, my partner, Mark, and I enjoyed a delightful evening celebrating the 60th birthday of a colleague from my work. About two dozen of us - coworkers plus partners - met a a wonderful restaurant in the heart of London. It is a Greek restaurant. But please do not spend even a second imagining the typical 'Greek restaurant' that is ubiquitous in small town Ontario. My first job, in fact, was as a waitress at the age of 16 in such a restaurant. And when I remember this brief, hideous experience, a lot of colourful adjectives come to mind. But none of them, I confess, would be 'Greek'.

Thankfully, this place is nothing like that. It is 'Mykonos', a charming island of exotic Greek cuisine in the city of London. 'Mykonos' started off as a humble fish and chip restaurant, opened about three decades ago by Greek immigrants Heidi and Bill Vamvalis. Heidi has become a very visible persona to their many loyal patrons. She embodies such a warm, magnetic personality and she radiates such positive energy as she navigates through the restaurant shining her considerable light on all the fortunate diners.

How can I describe the atmosphere at 'Mykonos'? It is quaint and interesting with an almost completely blue and white decor. As soon as you walk through the door you can feel yourself being transported from a spot midway between Lake Huron and Lake Erie over to the fabulous Mediterranean Sea. You feel as though you've stumbled upon a charming family restaurant on a delightful Greek island where, although you are a tourist, you are made to feel completely at home.

Upon our arrival, we mingled and chatted with the others - reconnecting with those familiar and introducing ourselves to those previously only heard about and imagined. Very soon the time came for all of us to become seated at our very long table and await the entrance of the clearly surprised (and apparently delighted) guest of honour and his lovely lady.

Very soon the table filled with platters of assorted appetizers: feta cheese, olives, roasted red pepper dip as well as the famous tzatzkiki, a fabulous and delicious spread made from butter or lima beans called 'gigantes', along with a dazzling mashed potato and garlic spread served along with sliced of fresh baguette and pita triangles. Delicious!

And as if that weren't enough, later on several servers suddenly appeared with plates of saganaki cheese which they very dramatically doused with shots of Ouzo and immediately set aflame. Wow! That cheese was astonishingly good. Heaven! Oh, my.

For my main course I enjoyed Spanakopita with a Greek salad. Creamy, tangy, spicy deliciousness. Just imagine two dozen entrees coming out one just barely behind the next. My goodness, these people have it all together. Whereas a few minutes before I had been listening to the cacophony of animated conversation, suddenly and swiftly there was close to a zen-like silence as everyone began to dedicate themselves to their main courses. The many full plates became starkly white again, and the various wine bottles and carafes stood empty, leaving the celebrants relaxed, fulfilled, and happy. What a night!

The evening was so much fun that upon our arrival home, Mark and I were inspired to watch the movie 'Shirley Valentine' for about the hundredth time. Always a sheer delight.

And it didn't end there. Our connection with the spirit of Greece was still palpable on Sunday. So I created a Greek-inspired menu and Mark and I went shopping. Later on, Mark and I and Devin (my daughter Eliza's friend) cooked up a tasty dinner: lemon/garlic/herb/almond chicken breasts and vegetarian 'chick'n breasts', roasted lemon-dill potato cubes with chopped red and green peppers, orange ginger carrots, cucumbers and tzatziki sauce along with pita triangles. Yum! This delicious dinner prompted me to remember all things Greek stored in my memory, and I was happy to succomb.

Two summers ago I was visited by both a long-time Israeli friend, Orly, and a new-found Chilean friend, Alejandra. We three went to the cinema together to see "Mamma Mia" and enjoyed it so much that we made a pact to focus on the dream of vacationing together in Greece. What a dream!

Well, a couple of months ago I received a voice message from Orly in Israel. In her thick Israeli accent she said, "Diana. We talked about meeting one each other in Greece and I wonder if you are still planning this trip?" Orly is such an optimist! I love it.

Still planning? No. Not exactly. But still dreaming?? Absolutely! And I sincerely hope this dream will come true. But until it does, there is always 'Mykonos'. It has long been, and remains, a vibrant touch of Greece in Southwestern Ontario. 'Efaristo (thank you), Mykonos!!' Efaristo, indeed.

Cheers!!

Diane



The recipe this week is for the wonderfully delicious appetizer, 'Gigantes'. Believe it or not, I heard several people say this was their favourite dish of all that night. Both the photo and recipe are courtesy of Food Network star, Rachel Ray.

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/baked-gigantes-beans-recipe/index.html