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.



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

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!



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.

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.



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

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." (

Shizuko Mishima ( 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.



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:

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!