Spring fever

We’re having an early spring here in southern Ontario — a relief after what seemed like a long, dreary winter lurking around our homes. Over the past few days I’ve been out documenting any signs of spring, and for everyone who needs a virtual dose of sunshine and fresh air, here are some of the treasures I came across.

Trees on a local farm are coming into bud, creating a reddish haze in the orchard
At a large pond, dried reeds languish in the dark water
A Canada Goose keeps lookout atop its log island
Plump red berries hang temptingly atop a waterside shrub
These Bufflehead ducks were hard to take a clear photo of — they really zipped around the pond (male with a full white ‘shawl’ top left, two females with white cheeks lower right)
The bushy head of one of our most invasive weeds, Phragmites, glows in the afternoon sun
Painted Turtles warm up on a log
Fishing ducks
Tiny grape hyacinths have started spreading at our local botanical garden
Beautiful white crocuses
A lone clump of daffodils, my favourite flower
A bee making the most of some Coltsfoot
A rainbow of crocuses carpets the ground beneath a wide tree still waiting for its leaves
I loved these pretty Variegated Crocuses
Paved pathways wandering through the grounds wait for the return of visitors…
…as does this shady rustic gazebo
Vivid school of goldfish in one of the ponds
Clusters of snowdrops popping out
Fuzzy catkins bursting out all over some of the trees
Even a few tulips breaking ground

All photographs are by me and cannot be used without my permission.

Ice blue and shamrock green

Apologies – I completely lost track of time this week and thought today was still Thursday! It must have been the giddiness from the unusually fine weather we’ve had this week: shining sun and temperatures like a warm spring day, which, coupled with a lessening of our Covid restrictions, drew a lot of people out of their homes into the fresh air.

I headed over to the Welland Canal, the system of locks which transport ships between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Lake Erie is at a higher altitude – 326 feet higher – than Lake Ontario, so beginning in 1824 a series of versions of the canal system were built over the next 153 years into the one we have today.

Residents have a love-hate relationship with the Canal. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that holds up road traffic numerous times every day during shipping season as the bridges are raised to let boats through.

The ships passing up and down the canal are a continual attraction, though, and the waterway is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, which employs a lot of people.

Over the winter, from January to March the canal is almost completely emptied of water, which usually freezes up and would be impassable to ships for several months.

This year the canal is set to reopen on March 31, but I was surprised to find that it’s already been filled back up – this past weekend there was still only a shallow trickle of water along the bottom of the deep canal.

At most of the locks you can park and walk around to get a good close-up view of the system of gates that close to allow each lock to either fill with water to raise a ship upward toward Lake Erie, or slowly empty to lower a ship downward toward Lake Ontario.

There are ships in the Port Weller Dry Docks getting their winter repairs, and tug boats waiting to guide them out when ready.

Despite temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, a thin skin of ice still floated on much of the canal water, raised upward itself as the gates began allowing water to refill the canal like a series of overflowing cups from Lake Erie.

A trail runs along the canal for walkers and bikers, and ship enthusiasts, with handy benches for rest stops or just ship-watching.

On this flat section between Locks 2 and 1, the ice blanket was extensive, but a wide crack had opened up and zigzagged almost all the way from one bank to the other, and some Canada Geese were resting at the edge. It was a great photo op that I had to stop for.

Chunks of ice also crusted the rocky banks, glittering in the warm sun.

It was a great afternoon outing, and then it was time to hit the grocers for supplies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week.

Although I have no Irish background at all, each March this holiday promises that spring is just around the corner. I’m not into the green beer type of celebration, but the Irish love good food and March 17th is another great excuse to cook up something delicious.

What did we actually eat when we were in Ireland two years ago?

It rains a lot in Ireland, and I believe there’s a direct correlation between the weather and the comfort factor of Irish food.

Irish Stew, hearty and filling, is ubiquitous, and also seafood, and fish pies stuffed with a melange that often includes salmon under a topping of mashed potato.

A filling bowl of Irish lamb stew

You can find all the classics in the restaurants, from soda bread (delicious with fresh creamy Irish butter, by the way) to boxty and colcannon, but other cuisines are well represented. One evening in the Temple Bar district of London I had a fabulous Mediterranean chicken dish with lemon and olives, and in Killarney we had great pizzas at a pizza-and-ale joint just across the street from our hotel.

Breakfasts are filling, from scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and toasts to rich bowls of oatmeal strewn with fresh fruit.

Barry’s Tea seems to be the tea of choice for a lot of restaurants, and the Irish make a pretty stiff cuppa indeed – a pot for two people usually held three teabags! Barry’s is hard to find around here, though, so typically at home we’ll drink Twinings Irish Breakfast tea.

Sweets in all their forms are really popular and just the thing to shore up your energy after a few hours of exploring. I had one of the best cinnamon buns ever from a roadside food truck as we zipped from the north to the west coast. Lunch was several hours away as we stumbled upon the little truck miles from anywhere, so we bought cups of tea and buns and perched on a picnic table enjoying the view while we refreshed.

Individual lemon meringue tarts are a common sight, and also Banoffee pie, trifles topped with whipped cream and bread pudding with sauce.

Rich slice of Banoffee pie

So if you’re of a mind to have some cozy Irish food on what, for us, will be a chill and cloudy day just on the cusp of Spring, you have lots of choices to evoke a trip to the Emerald Isle. In fact, I’m making myself hungry just completing this blog. Slainte! 😊

All photos on this site were taken by me (unless otherwise indicated), and may not be copied or used without my permission.

A spring flower refurb

Outside our house the world around is drab and brown still, although the snows have melted and we’re seeing some scraggly grass again. At least the sun has been shining, but this winter has felt extra-long being cooped up at home.

Don’t me wrong, our Covid cases have dropped dramatically since we went into lock-down and I feel it’s been well worth the effort. The number of people who’ve suffered with the illness because so many others couldn’t be bothered to take preventive measures is truly heart-breaking.

Hopefully we’ll continue to make progress, even though all our stores have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity.

in the meantime, bringing some fresh flowers into your home can add some much needed cheer. If you’ve never created your own arrangement from some inexpensive cut flowers that you can buy at any grocery store, here’s how to do it.

I started with a fading Valentine’s arrangement my hubby gave me. Usually he buys me a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses, which are my favourite flower, but this year I asked for a garden-style arrangement to make our house feel a little like Spring. This is what it looked like when it originally arrived:

It lasted for quite a while, but eventually the floral parts began to wither, leaving a scattering of deep pink carnations and some greenery that still looked good. My first refurb was with three bundles from the grocery store: daffodils, a bunch of pretty pale green carnations ruffled with purple, and a thick bundle of thin-leaved eucalyptus that you can see frothing all over the arrangement-in-progress below.

The original arrangement was one-sided, perfect for our foyer table, so I kept it that way. I moved some daffodils around after this to balance the colours evenly throughout, creating a loose informal look.

The daffodils were a mistake, though: in the stiff wet-foam that the florist had used, I had a lot of trouble inserting the delicate stems of these flowers well enough for them to draw water, and they didn’t last very long. The florist had used a piece of foam that rose over the top edge of the ceramic container, with a very tight fit, so I could only pour in bits of water from the top to avoid dribbling all over the table. (When I make my own arrangements, I like to recess the foam below the top of the water receptacle, so that I can pour in more water to easily soak the foam without overflowing.)

Important tip: If you’re making an arrangement from scratch, you’ll need to buy ‘wet foam’, called Oasis, to stick your stems into and to hold them in place. There’s another type of foam, called Sahara, that will not absorb water no matter how much you try — it’s only used for dried/silk arrangements. You can find Oasis at craft stores like Michaels.

The pink carnations also finally reached their limit, so it was time for another change of dress anyway. Back at the grocery store I spotted this pretty pre-made bundle, and I particularly loved the large lavender-tinged chrysanthemum.

Here’s how I incorporated the new flowers:

1) I removed all the spent flowers and greenery. I love big bundles like the one above because they include a nice amount of greenery to fill in the empty spaces and background of your arrangement. We’ll get to those in a minute. Here’s the stripped down arrangement, with a smattering of greenery and all of the green and purple carnations. I began working with the carnations in place, and then tweaked them as I started filling in the new materials.

2) In the same photo, I’m measuring the height of what will be the focal point — the single large lavender-tipped chrysanthemum — against the existing arrangement. You can always shorten a stem further, but if you cut it too short to begin with there’s no going back to lengthen it. I do the same with each stem of flowers or greenery as I work my way through them.

You want to give the focal point pride-of-place in the arrangement, of course. I tend to like my focal points on the right lower side of an arrangement, whether it’s a one-sided arrangement or rounded. I’m not an expert arranger by any means — this is just a style I’ve picked up from watching how the florists do it.

You’ll need to trim all of your stems — they need to be re-cut before they’re added to your arrangement. Scissors will work, but they can pinch the new cut end a little; I use a little guillotine-style cutter that I bought so long ago I can’t recall where I bought it. It has a razor-style blade inside a slot where you insert the stem and make a perfectly clean, slanted cut.

3) You’ll also need to trim most of the leaves below any flowers, as they’ll only clutter up your arrangement. Remove any that are damaged already or are too close to where you’ll be inserting the stem into the foam. In the next stem I positioned, the purple alstromeria, you can see in the photo below where several lower leaves were already crumpled and wouldn’t have helped the arrangement.

4) In the next photo you can see where I placed the alstromeria, close to the chrysanthemum so that the purple colours and the different petal shapes could compliment each other. This placement wasn’t fixed in stone; as I added more stems I ended up repositioning the alstromeria a small amount. Don’t worry about making your arrangement perfect as you go; before the end you’ll look at it from different angles and likely tweak it a bit for the final version.

5) I like arrangements to be three-dimensional — I don’t want my arrangements to look like the floral equivalent of a bowl-shaped haircut. So even for multiple stems of the same flower, or the same greenery, I like to cut them in different lengths so they have some depth within the arrangement.

My bundle of flowers included several stems of a common florist greenery called salal. It has medium to large-sized deep green leaves that set off the flowers beautifully. There are clusters of branches on one main stem, which you can separate and cut to a variety of lengths, as I did below. In a one-sided arrangement, typically taller stems go in the back and the height shortens as you get to the front, so you’ll want at least three lengths to fill in your arrangements.

As you position the different elements, consider how different textures, shapes and colours offset each other. For example, a frothy sort of flower like the smaller white chrysanthemums in clusters below will contrast well with the distinctive leaves of the salal, while the many-leaved thin eucalyptus in a medium green serves as a great filler for empty spots and to dangle over the edges of the arrangement for a more informal look. I also like to let the greenery, and sometimes even the flowers, dangle over the edge of the container to break the container’s visual boundary. A more formal arrangement would keep the flowers and greenery more tucked neatly in.

6) Once you’ve placed almost everything, you may find that you have something large like a palm leaf left — its size and distinctive shape is meant to become the dramatic backdrop of the arrangement. There was also only one fern stem, so I placed that at the back as well, although for a more triangular arrangement I could have tucked it in on the bottom right.

7) Finally it’s time to walk around your arrangement and look for any spots that are too bare, or where the several stems of some flowers (like the green carnations) haven’t been evenly distributed, or where you might want to adjust the colour palette. Don’t fuss too much — the net effect is to make you smile, not to win a floral award. The more of these you do, the better eye you’ll develop for placing things. You can also learn a lot by looking at online photos of arrangements on a florist’s website: how they cluster and contrast deep and light colours, how they create the overall shape of the arrangement (round, triangular, rectangular, etc.) and whether they incorporate a single dramatic focal point as opposed to a less formal look.

Here’s the almost-finished version of my arrangement. I ended up moving the tall green carnation on the far side over to the left to balance the overall shape.

I hope you embark on a little floral adventure of your own. No one can beat Mother Nature for sheer beauty, and to bring some of her artwork into your home can lift your spirits during these times. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you can make yourself a pretty flower arrangement any time you feel like it, at far lest cost than buying one from a florist if you need to be frugal. For special occasions though, it’s a wonderful surprise to have your doorbell ring and open the door to find a beautiful arrangement waiting for you, fresh from the florist and already put together so you only have to decide where to show it off the best 🙂

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.

Lanterns, dumplings, horoscopes

The Lunar New Year is here, and with it another great reason to have a little party in your home.

Chinese New Year, as it’s more commonly known, begins with the date of the new moon in Asia, falling here in the West today, and in the East tomorrow. I’ve always loved the splendour of ceilings hung with dozens upon dozens of bright red and gold lanterns around a grinning dragon in our local Mandarin restaurant, which typically celebrates with a myriad of delectable dumplings and other traditional Chinese fare. Everyone’s horoscope is printed on paper placemats, and you can order a special cocktail based on which animal your birth year represents in the Chinese zodiac.

Unfortunately our area is still in lockdown, so we’re prohibited from dining inside any restaurants and won’t be able to enjoy the festivities. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy them at home, though!

Last week I created my own table arrangement, using materials I happened to have in the house.

Some black branches were propped up in a tall glass vase with a base of black stones to hold them in place, then hung with a variety of Asian-themed decor: red ‘lucky money’ packets that we’ve been given over the years when we dined out for the festival and that were tucked away in a drawer until the idea to turn them into ornaments popped into my head; glass Chinese ornaments I bought a couple of Christmases ago in our local Home Sense store; and an ornament with 3 wooden old yen coins on black cord (picked up when we were in Southeast Asia a number of years ago). I added two stalks of bronze-gold silk eucalyptus, which look a bit like silver dollar plants and seemed to be appropriately auspicious. There’s also a little red plastic lantern on a stem that came with a bouquet of CNY-themed flowers I bought at a grocery store last year.

The little figurine at the base of the vase is a ceramic bull that we picked up in Peru, where they’re found in larger form on all the roofs of the houses as guardians. This is the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar, so I thought this figurine would be close enough.

There are two red votive holders, and a ceramic tea cup for drinking green tea, as well as a black and gold scarf with leopards on it (I don’t have one with tigers yet). It was simple to put together, but I’m pleased with the effect. It’s a small piece of joy in our long, cold winter.

Last year I bought one of the beautiful red ceiling lanterns at the restaurant, and it’s hanging in our rec room, along with a garland that I made quite inexpensively with a gold paper-ball garland and 3 small red paper honeycomb fans that I tied onto the garland. I think the whole thing cost me about $5 at one of our grocery stores, and it looks pretty swagged across our fireplace mantel along with a strand of mini-lights.

Tomorrow I’ll be making Asian food for dinner (I found some great recipes on the Taste of Home website), but for this blog I wanted to offer you an easy Asian-themed meal that you can make at any time. It’s especially wonderful for transporting you to the Far East on a chilly and drab February day.

Satay chicken, yellow rice, rice noodle salad with mango and avocado, and Indonesian green beans — a burst of colour and flavour for your dinner

The recipe for the Satay Chicken with Peanut Sauce is taken from an old cookbook by a great chef and cookbook writer named Sheila Lukins, her All Around the World Cookbook, published in 1994. It’s a wonderful cookbook, and still available through Amazon if you’re of a mind to buy it after you try out this recipe. We had the most wonderful satay in Indonesia, and this recipe is the closest I’ve ever found to replicate what we ate on that journey. There are quite a few ingredients, but the recipe is very easy and you’ll be treated to the best satay you’ve ever eaten.

Chicken Satay

makes 24 skewers

marinade:

3 tbsp peanut oil

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Peanut Sauce (recipe follows)

Soak at least 24 x 12″-long bamboo skewers in water overnight. Mix all marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Cut the chicken along the grain (lengthwise) into strips about 3″ long and 2″ wide. Mix well with the marinade and let rest, covered, at room temperature for 2 hours. Just before serving, preheat oven to 450oF. Thread the chicken pieces lengthwise onto the bamboo skewers and place them on a baking sheet. Bake until just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Serve warm with peanut sauce.

Peanut Sauce:

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp curry powder

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup coconut milk

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

3 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp white wine vinegar

3 rounded tbsp brown sugar

1 cinnamon stick (3″ long)

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup boiling water

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over low heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and pepper flakes; cook 2-3 minutes to mellow the flavours. Stir in the coconut milk and water, then stir in the peanut butter, lemon juice, vinegar, brown sugar, cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Mix together well. Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon and bay leaf. Place the mixture in a blender or food processor and process until smooth, add the boiling water through the lid hole or the feed tube to bind the sauce. Scrape the sauce into a serving bowl and serve with the skewers. (The sauce can be prepared ahead, placed in a small pot and stored in the refrigerator. Warm gently for 10 minutes or so before serving.)

The luscious-looking Rice Noodle Salad with Avocado, Mango, and Chile is from Fine Cooking, and you can find the recipe here. A couple of pointers: I added toasted cashews and used rice wine vinegar in place of mirin (easier to find around here). My packet of rice noodles expanded hugely when cooked, so next time I’ll only use half of the contents. The soft noodles contrast wonderfully with the lush chunks of mango and avocado and the light tartness of the dressing.

I obtained the recipes for the pretty yellow rice and the green beans from a cookbook I picked up on the island of Bali. I like to bring home a cookbook from each place we’ve travelled. Both dishes are easy to make and serve as a nice complement to the star of the dinner. The cookbook is called Indonesian Food and Cookery, by Sri Owen, and amazingly enough is also available on Amazon! Nevertheless, here are my takes on the two recipes.

Nasi Kuning (Yellow Rice)

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

2 cups long-grain rice

2 cups chicken stock

1 tsp turmeric

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 bay leaf

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

Soak rice for a few minutes, rinse and drain. Heat the oil/butter in a saucepan and sauté the rice for 2 minutes. Place in steamer in a cooking reservoir that will hold liquid and add the remaining ingredients. Steam until liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender (about 45 minutes for brown basmati).

Tumis Buncis

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

1 lb French beans

3 shallots

Pinch of chili powder

Pinch of ground/grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground ginger

6 tbsp chicken stock

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

Wash, cut ends off and slice the beans into shorter lengths. Chop shallots finely and sauté in oil/butter for 1 minute. Add beans and spices and sauté for 2 more minutes, stirring. Pour in the stock, cover the pan and simmer gently for 8 minutes. Uncover and continue sautéing for another 2 to 3 minutes until liquid has reduced to glaze the beans.

We shared this meal in our backyard last summer with good friends. For dessert I made a banana-coconut cream pie, for which I don’t have the recipe handy but I imagine you can find a good one on the internet.

Every time I make this aromatic meal I’m instantly transported back to a restaurant up in the hills of Bali, where our driver and guide for the day, took us for a fantastic lunch after he showed us the stunning green rice terraces. The image below was scanned from a slide image I took while we were there, and truly does it no justice at all. I remember standing there with my hubby, entranced, on the roadside next to some jack-fruit trees, as we watched the local farmers harvest their crop. The best way I can describe it was like being inside a massive living, breathing emerald, full of the deafening screeches of tree insects all around us.

I hope you take the opportunity to enjoy this meal, as well as colourful, exciting Lunar New Year! May the Year of the Ox be good to you.