Monday, January 25, 2010

"If it's nae Scottish, it's cr@p!"

"What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance. They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life. And, most importantly, cookies." -- Rudolph Giuliani

I've been thinking a lot about my grandmother these days. Actually, 'Granny' was what we affectionately called her. She certainly provided all of the above 'essentials' - in spades. And although, to my knowledge, she never baked a cookie in her life, she could certainly find her way to a shop or a bakery.

Granny was a very funny lady, although I don't think she would ever have described herself that way. She had so many little sayings that she repeated so often that they became solidly entrenched in our family's lexicon. For example, whenever we dropped in for a visit, we would be promptly offered a hot cup of coffee and some kind of (purchased) baked good. And if we declined because of our waistlines she would invariably reply, "Ach! They're fresh! They'll do ye no harm!" So, apparently it was only stale cakes and cookies that put on weight!

This is certainly one of the expressions that has carried on in my life as well as with my siblings. In fact, we have clearly used them so much that they have been picked up by various friends and colleagues. It always sounds so funny to hear other people repeating Granny's words. But maybe that's because they must be said with a thick Scottish brogue to be accurate.

Yes, Granny was a Scot through and through. Born in 1901 in Uddingston, Scotland, a satellite town south of Glasgow. The men in her family had been hardworking coal miners who rarely saw the light of day, let alone their families. They lived in 'council flats' which provided the most basic housing needs, but not much more than that. But even so, she always spoke fondly of 'the old country' and continued to enjoy many of the Scottish foods that she could find here in Canada.

Like Robertson's Golden Shred Orange Marmelade, McVitie's Digestive Biscuits with milk chocolate, Walker's Assorted Shortbread, and Walker's Highland Oatcakes.

I always have a laugh when I see a package of these oatcakes as it takes me back to my twenties - to a shopping trip with Granny to the Marks and Spencer here in London at the old Wellington Square Mall. She loved that store! I can see her now, bustling about, filling up her basket with Scottish goodies. But she stopped in her tracks when she realized that they were out of her favourite red-tartanned Highland Oatcakes.

I was sent to seek out a salesperson to inquire if there were, perhaps, a stash of them hidden in a back room. The clerk apologized for the lack of stock, but very graciously pointed out another shelf which was packed full of green-tartanned packages of Irish oatcakes.

I can still recall the perplexed expression on the young lady's face when Granny responded by saying, "Ach! Nae! These won't do." Said the clerk, "But, as you can see from the box, they are the very same thing! They simply come in a green box rather than in a red box." I could definitely sense some exasperation coming through, but this was totally lost on Granny.

"Nae, nae," she replied. "Nae. I'll just have tae do without and come back another time when you have the Scottish oatcakes in."

At this point I tried some gentle cajoling because I knew it would be either myself or my sister, Kathie, who would be driving her back to Marks and Spencer (a 200 km. round trip). And, besides, I knew how much she enjoyed an oatcake with some Robertson's marmalade, or a bit of cheese with her favourite beverage - a cup of coffee.

But she wouldn't budge an inch. Granny was like that. Absolutely immovable once her mind was made up. I tried everything I could think of to convince her that these Irish oatcakes were absolutely the same product, produced by the same company, in fact, and that the only difference was the green vs red box.

I was unsuccessful. "But why??" I wanted to know. "Why won't you just try them?"

"They're Irish!" she replied. And that was that.

And so, in memory of Granny and that memorable trip to Marks and Spencer, I am giving you a recipe for 'Irish Oatcakes' this week. I'm sure they will be delightful with marmalade, or a bit of cheese, or whatever else may take your fancy.

And I'm kind of hoping that from 'across the veil' I can make Granny smile. Or maybe even chuckle. Because that would be really funny.



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

Monday, January 18, 2010

You can't eat there just once!

"I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

I live in London, a city of over 350,000 inhabitants who are catered to by hundreds of restaurants, bistros, and eateries representing cuisines from all around the globe. Although I rarely dine out, this week I had the delightful opportunity to do so - not once, but twice. And I chose the same restaurant both times!

"The Vietnam Restaurant" is located on Dundas Street, right across from the enormous Kellogg factory. And with a massive landmark like this, it's easy to remember just where to find it.

This restaurant can be found in an unglamorous part of the city, in a rather industrial neighbourhood. The front of the building is nondescript, the signage quite plain. But when you walk through the extremely modest front door, you will breathe in the tantalizing scents of warm, spicy Asian dishes and your taste buds will begin to dance in anticipation.

When you walk in, you will no doubt be greeted by the friendly owner, an originally Vietnamese gentleman who has worked hard and put all of his children through university here in Canada. He has smiled warmly and welcomed me every time I have been there - no matter what the day or the time. I'm sure he has a home, but it seems unlikely that he spends much time there.

Once your senses have taken in the incredible aromas, your focus can then shift to the decor which is, well, rather outlandish and yet plain at the same time. The tables and chairs are simple and understated and arranged in perfectly ordinary rows. But the walls are painted in a shocking "Pepto-Bismol" pink and here and there will find gold-coloured frescoes of ancient Asian elephants marching the troops off to a faraway war. (When my young son first saw this, his comment was, "Wow! Now, who wouldn't love this??")

As soon as you are seated, you will be presented with a pot of hot green tea and enough tiny cups to go around. As well, you will be given a very extensive menu with each dish nicely described, and a book of photos of some of the more popular dishes which can be quite helpful. You will then write down the numbers of your chosen dishes on a slip of paper and then the menus and photos will be swept up and your choices delivered swiftly to the kitchen.

You can then sip away at your tea and chat with your dinner mate(s) while waiting for the succulent dishes to appear. It is hard to wait, but the reward is great. Everything I have ever seen looks wonderful. The food is presented in a very appealing fashion, without being at all pretentious.

My very favourite dish is the "spicy rice noodles with tofu and vegetables". The rice noodles are cooked perfectly, the tofu is cooked beautifully as well, and the dish contains lots of other thinly sliced veggies, crispy bean sprouts, and crunchy chopped peanuts - all coated with the most tasty, spicy peanut sauce which delights the palate with layer upon layer of flavour. It also comes with a slice of fresh lime which, when lightly squeezed over the noodles, really brings out a "popping" brightness to the dish.

I always eat this meal with chopsticks because it tastes so much better that way. I always have plenty to eat, and I invariably leave with a takeaway box for the next day's lunch. And all this for less than ten bucks.

I would encourage anyone to dine at "The Vietnam Restaurant", but if you don't happen to live in this area, this is a dish you should definitely try at home.

This is an easy, economical, nutritious, and tasty dish to make and the flavours will transport you to another part of the world. I was searching around to find a great recipe that would incorporate all of the above adjectives and I found the perfect one in the most unusual spot.

And I think when you see the website this recipe came from, you will understand why it seemed to be clearly the very best choice.



This week's photo and recipe are courtesy of "Kellogg" - thank you!

Viet Nam Restaurant on Restaurantica

Monday, January 4, 2010

Starting the New Year Off in Hot Water

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” -- Isak Dinesen

For the first two decades of my adult life every New Year's Day was spent in exactly the same way. There was never a decision to be made. It was carved in stone. And it was wonderful.

As I generally stayed up quite late on New Year's Eve, it was natural to want to sleep in a bit. Then, I spent the rest of the morning taking down the Christmas tree and putting away all of the festive decorations. Then it was time to get dressed nicely and head over to the cozy home of my ex-husband's Trinidadian godmother, Ramah. As the years went by, four children were added to our family and four as well to my brother- and sister-in-law's family. My brother-in-law, when he was young, had coined a phrase for these special New Year's Day visits - “Tasty Times” - and that was indeed an understatement.

The whole family and some of Ramah's close friends would arrive in the early afternoon and would greet each other and chat very animatedly over drinks for the adults and a sparkling tropical fruit punch for the kids. And as we talked, our taste buds were tantalized by the incredibly rich aromas of the Indian feast which awaited us.

There would always be two types of curried meat, delicious vegetables, flaky paratha bread (roti), salads and raitas (cucumbers and yogurt), and my personal favourite, chana masala, along with fragrant rice pulao. There was always so much food on the table and it was always incredibly delicious. And Ramah, generous woman that she is, always plied us with the gift of leftovers to take home at the end of the day.

It has been many years since I've had the joy of a New Year's Day feast at Ramah's, but the memories I have are good and warm and rich. And because she so kindly taught me how to cook some of her Indian dishes, they have remained a big part of my family's cooking traditions.

Now, over the past decade and a half, our New Year's Days have been spent in a wide variety of ways, but never more delightfully exciting than this year's experience. My 20-year old daughter, Eliza, had to work on the weekend, so she stayed at home, and my 16-year old son, Daniel, was out of town at his friend's. And so, on New Year's Eve afternoon, my sister, Kathie, and my partner, Mark, and I travelled up north to the city of Collingwood on Georgian Bay to celebrate.

We were fortunate to be able to stay at my nephew's condo on the Bay as he and his girlfriend are currently vacationing in her native Australia. It is a beautiful home and it was very cozy – especially with a nice fire crackling away in the fireplace. We enjoyed a very subdued evening; we ordered pizza and had some drinks and conversation by the fire. Very relaxing indeed. Or so we thought. But the next day would take the concept of relaxation to all new heights.

We spent the better part of the day at “Scandinave Spa” ( – an amazing “four season relaxation experience”, as their brochure explains. We found this to be entirely true because as the afternoon wore on, the weather worsened considerably with the temperature plummeting, the wind picking up wildly, and the snow falling incessantly. And yet we spent our time there mostly outside in the elements, and yet feeling very, very comfortable indeed.

The Spa consists of the following experiences: Finnish sauna, eucalyptus steam bath, thermal and Nordic waterfalls, three different and very large hot baths(about 40ºC.), and icy cold plunge pools (about 12ºC.) The idea is basically that you enjoy each possibility in a prescribed sequence. First, you warm up in a hot pool (apparently salt water) or the sauna or steam bath, then you plunge into an icy pool or under an icy waterfall, then get warm again, then relax quietly in a solarium, or by the outdoor fire pit, or in a hammock – though that would be best in the warmer weather.

It is astonishing how rejuvenated this makes you feel! By the end of our time there I felt at least ten years younger. And it was so much fun. Honestly. It is incredible how enchanting it feels to be relaxing in a very hot pool in the midst of a growing winter storm. It is an amazing feeling – the mists swirling around you, the snowflakes settling onto your face, the lights from the ski runs twinkling softly on the mountain. It was a slice of heaven. And the perfect way to begin a new year.

After dark, we very reluctantly packed up and left the spa – still feeling a delicious core warmth despite having to drive through the storm.

We were feeling ravenous by then and far too relaxed and mellow to want to cook, so there was a unanimous decision to stop at the local “Tandoori House” and pick up some Indian food. Mark chose chicken Madras with basmati rice and chapati bread, and Kathie and I shared a mushroom biryani (a lovely rice dish with mushrooms, toasted cashews, and raisins), saag paneer (Indian cheese cooked with spinach in a tomato gravy), and – my favourite – chana masala (curried chick peas and potatoes).

We gathered up the takeaway curries and scurried back to the condo. We put on the fire and set the table for our Indian dining experience. It was all absolutely delicious. After our meal, we relaxed in the living room by the fire, sipped on some drinks and relaxed even more. It was the perfect ending to an excellent beginning of the new year.

And as I wallowed in all of this mellowness, I was also revelling at the day behind us – a brand new, totally different experience which turned out to be incredible. But I also felt a nice warmth because the day had included a delicious Indian meal which so wonderfully recalled all of the New Year's Day meals I had enjoyed so consistently for so many years. So I raised my glass of wine and deep in my heart there were these words: “Thank you, Ramah. For all the great meals, for all your hospitality, for all your love. And Happy New Year!”



I hope you will try to make Chana Masala. I have chosen this recipe because it is very easy to make. It even has a non-threatening English name, Chickpea Potato Curry. It is a delicious, nutritious, and inexpensive dish that smells amazing as it is cooking. It is the perfect dish for starting a new year or, well, any time at all. Enjoy!

Photo above and recipe courtesy of “”. Thank you!