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.

Swapping drama for fun

I don’t know about you, but over the past year I feel I’ve had enough drama to last me a lifetime. At this start of a new year, I feel the need for more fun in my life.

Here in Ontario we’re back in Emergency Measures and have just been tasked with staying home again except for essential outings (groceries, etc.), so opportunities for fun are restricted, but “fun” is a mindset anyway.

Your idea of fun may not be the same as mine – my hubby and I have the most fun on our travels when things go wrong, for example, while our friends think we’re nuts and refuse to travel with us ;D

One of my favourite ways to engage in a little planned fun while stuck indoors is escapism through movies, and pairing those movies with a themed meal creates a great atmosphere. Planning these ‘dinner & a movie’ nights gives you something to look forward to.

Your choice of movie to escape into is very personal. I’ve read several articles analyzing why horror movies have been so popular since the start of the pandemic. They’re not my cup of tea, though – I like feel-good and adventure movies at the moment.

The other night I stumbled across a great old movie called North to Alaska (1960) – a ribald, colourful adventure comedy starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Fabian and Capucine. My mom and I used to love watching this movie together when I was a teenager, and I still enjoy it.

Plot synopsis: Wayne, Granger and Fabian are three men who’ve gone to Alaska for the Gold Rush and made a rich strike. Claim-jumping is rampant, though, so Granger asks Wayne to go to Seattle to buy some better equipment while he and his younger brother mind the camp, and to also pick up Granger’s long-time French fiancée Jenny to bring her to Alaska so they can finally get married. When Wayne finds Jenny, however, she’s given up on waiting and married someone. Drowning his sorrows on behalf of his friend at a Seattle brothel that evening, Wayne meets Capucine, a lovely and feisty French prostitute named Michelle, and offers her a lot of money to come with him to Alaska to replace Jenny. On the long boat ride to Nome a budding romance develops, although neither will admit it to themselves, and things get even crazier when Capucine joins the men out at their mine. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens after that!

There’s a fun scene where Wayne takes Capucine to the annual Logger’s Picnic in Seattle before they head to Alaska, and they have a picnic meal with spit-roasted pork and sides that made me instantly want to make my own version. I bought some pulled pork at a local deli, and made my own sides: gluten-free cornbread (using the excellent mix from Bob’s Red Mill), homemade coleslaw, buttered corn and Green Giant buttered Brussels sprouts (which weren’t a picnic feature in the early 1900s, but I just like them). It’s not a meal I typically make, so it was as much fun to put together as it was delicious to consume, and for a little while we were virtually transported to the fresh air of the West Coast at the turn of the previous century, eating simple but great food.

For me there was an added layer of nostalgia, as my dad was a medic at a logging camp when we lived in Northern Ontario while my brother and I were kids – eating our meal, I could almost smell the tall pine trees, wood chips and forest soil.

There are all kinds of movies you could do this evening of escapism with. You could make an Egyptian-themed meal to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark – get takeout if you have a good local Middle Eastern restaurant and at the same time support them during these challenging economic times, or buy some hummus, baba ghanoush and pita bread at the grocery store, and make some quick kofta for an easy meal, or a salad with black olives and fresh orange slices, followed by store-bought date and nut confections. These are exactly the sorts of foods my hubby and I ate when we were in Egypt, so it’s a really authentic meal that instantly smells and tastes of that part of the world. It will also work with Death on the Nile (1978) with the addition of a cup of tea, or with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its references to the Crusaders and medieval Middle Eastern locales like Alexandretta, not to mention the great final scenes at Petra in Jordan.

If you haven’t had Italian for a while, make some spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce from scratch to eat while watching a movie like Moonstruck. There’s something special about homemade tomato sauce, and it’s easy: sauté chopped onions and green peppers in a big pot until soft and a little browned, add some minced garlic, and when the aroma of the garlic begins to rise throw in a can or two of chopped tomatoes (depending on how much you want to make), add crushed chili flakes, and salt and pepper to taste, and let simmer for a while with the lid mostly on (tomato sauce spatters a lot). You can also add some fresh or dried herbs like basil and oregano. Let the sauce cook until the aroma permeates your kitchen and the sauce is thick enough to cling to the spaghetti. You can either make your own meatballs or buy some good ones and bake them in the oven until browned and cooked through, then add them to the sauce and ladle over a nice plate of pasta. Make some garlic bread and a green salad, pour a little red wine, and enjoy!

Getting into the many landscapes of magnificent Africa, one of my favourite escapes is available on Prime Video: Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls. It features the great Christopher Lee as a senior Holmes asked by the king to undertake one final task in southern Africa, with Patrick Macnee as the indefatigable Dr. Watson and a host of other famous characters from the time period, including Claude Akins as a jolly Teddy Roosevelt. The movie is set on location, so for about 3.5 hours you’ll be transported to the sun-drenched scenery of the gorgeous African wild and of Victoria Falls. This is the movie that inspired me to include the Falls on our first African safari (they were even more stunning in person).

Magnificent, stunning Victoria Falls at peak water flow

It’s a two-parter and will pleasurably take up an entire afternoon or evening. Safari food is quite eclectic – we’ve had everything from chicken stew to fresh potato salad to chocolate cake with a red wine sauce – but if you want to make something exotic but easy, BBC Good Food has a great recipe for Bobotie, a classic South African dish. Serve with a green salad, and make a banana dessert to finish it off (bananas grow readily in Africa and are common on safari as they keep well). You can drink tea or coffee, or Rooibos tea if you really want to be authentic.

So take a break from all the drama in the news and make a virtual escape to somewhere more fun, whether it’s an engrossing board game, a hobby you haven’t tried for a while (I love Paint-by-Numbers, even though I also paint freehand), or dinner and a comedy/adventure movie. (If you prefer horror, you can find all kinds of Halloween-themed food to make that would suit such a movie perfectly.)

Next week I’ll take you on a little virtual trip as I fill in the remainder of the trip to Peru and Bolivia, journeying through the Altiplano, the plateau that sits high in the Andes, and a brief glimpse of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world.

Until then, have a little fun in whatever way makes you smile.

Autumn Mystery Lovers’ Tea

Poirot straightened up and asked sharply: “What has happened?”

“Linnet Doyle’s dead—shot through the head last night.”

Poirot was silent for a minute, two memories vividly before him—a girl in a garden in Assuan saying in a hard breathless voice, “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and press the trigger,”…

I’ve always had a sneaking desire to be part of a Hercule Poirot mystery. How much fun it would be to attend an elegant soiree or, even better, a weekend house party at a great estate while Poirot questions everyone with consummate charm!

The first time my hubby and I went to England, it was in early November and we fully embraced our mystery-geek sides, dressing in trench coats and flannel trousers, visiting 221B Baker Street and the Sherlock Holmes Pub, and warding off the cool weather with hot tea in cozy little restaurants, so I will admit to being somewhat biased, but Fall seems like the best time to dive into a mystery novel. Something about the chill in the air mimics the shivers down your spine as an astute detective tries to outwit and catch the clever murderer.

England is the honorary home base of mystery stories and novels, but the origin of the genre in a major novel is attributed to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. My favourite authors straddle both sides of the Pond, and farther abroad as well.

I love period flavour and settings that are their own characters in the story. The Victorian setting of the Sherlock Holmes stories enhances the interplay of Holmes and Watson, and created such a powerful aura that to this day some people are convinced that Holmes was a real person. 1930s flavour permeates the stories from my other two favourite British authors, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and it was the movie version of Death on the Nile in 1978 with spectacular scenes of Egypt as a backdrop that inspired me to pursue my long-held dream and actually put together a trip there for our 10th wedding anniversary.

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have a decidedly macabre bent that makes them great to read around Halloween, but I also love the moody film-noir vibe of Dashiell Hammett. I really got into The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories by Alexander McCall Smith after we’d been to Botswana, and through television we’ve discovered the charming Miss Fisher and intricate Dr. Blake mysteries from Australia, and even the Brokenwood Mysteries crime series from New Zealand. Here in Canada, although we haven’t read the books, we’re proud to be the home of the brilliantly-produced Murdoch Mysteries television series set in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century, incorporating cultural and political details of the era as well as a variety of historical figures of the time – Nicola Tesla, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle are just a few.

This month, celebrate Autumn by snuggling up with a cup of good tea (and some delicious treats, of course) while you immerse yourself in a great mystery for a few hours.

One of my favourite teas for fall pleasure is called Russian Caravan: it has some smokiness to it, making it a perfect match for more intense fall flavours that won’t get lost against the strength of the tea.

Here are some suggestions for putting together an easy, atmospheric tea to have with your favourite mystery and a pot of Russian Caravan tea (these can all be made gluten-free if needed):

  • A smoked ham and aged cheddar sandwich with mango chutney
  • Roast beef sandwich with horseradish and black pepper crème fraiche
  • Curried chicken, dried cranberry and pecan sandwich
  • Scones with lush pumpkin butter or plum jam
  • A slice of spiced cake – try the recipe I’ve included below

Back in the 1990s there was a wonderful cooking magazine available called Chocolatier. While it was devoted lovingly to all things chocolate, it also featured a variety of other desserts, along with thorough recipes and interesting anecdotes. I loved leafing through each issue, salivating over the gorgeous photos and deciding which recipes I wanted to try out.

Chocolatier Magazine, June 1998, White House Desserts 1800 – 1998

Recipe from Dolley Madison’s personal collection, wife of James Madison inaugurated in 1809. “in her papers, Dolley left recipes for ginger pound cake and a strawberry roll. Her love of sweets was legendary and she was quoted as saying, ‘I derive my pleasure from my indulgences.’ ”

Her original recipe for the ginger pound cake was written simply as: “2 lbs. flour, 1 pint molasses, 1 lb. sugar, ½ pint sour cream, 1 lb. butter, 1 cup ginger, 10 eggs, 1 teaspoon baking soda (dissolved in warm water). Mix and bake as a pound cake.”  Chocolatier magazine provided a modernized version that produced a deep amber bundt cake which I wanted to try out as soon as I saw the photo. Finally, with my discovery of a great gluten-free all-purpose flour by Bob’s Red Mill, I gave it a shot. It turned out beautifully (photo below), if perhaps not as smooth an outer surface as the original and a little smaller, since gluten-free flour doesn’t rise as much as regular flour. The texture and crumb turned out beautifully. It made a surprisingly light fall cake, not too heavily spiced and perfect with smoky Russian Caravan tea on a cool day with the leaves falling outside.

Sadly the magazine is no longer being published, so here’s the recipe for you to enjoy as well. I substituted my gluten-free flour one-for-one for the cake flour in the recipe, plus an extra two tablespoons to compensate for the difference in flour textures (cake flour is denser). Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before assembling for successful baking. Also, make sure you grease every nook and cranny of your bundt pan, including the centre tube, so it will release the cake completely when it’s done. I find that taking a thin flexible knife (like a small butter spreader) and running it carefully around all outer edges of the cake, including the part around the centre tube, also helps the cake come out better.

(Note: I didn’t use the confectioners’ sugar garnish, so you won’t see that in my photo.)

Fresh Ginger Pound Cake with Cardamom Syrup

Yield: one 10-inch bundt cake serving about 12 to 14

Difficulty: Easy

Preparation: 30 minutes plus baking and cooling times

Ginger pound cake:

3 cups cake flour

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 & 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 & 1/2 cups tablespoons peeled and grated fresh gingerroot

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 cup milk

Cardamom syrup:

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 cardamom pods

One 1/2-inch thick slice peeled fresh gingerroot

6 black peppercorns

Garnish:

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Make the cake batter:

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350oF. Butter and flour the inside of a 10-cup Bundt pan, or coat it with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

2. Sift together the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the 4 & 1/2 quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer using the paddle attachment, beat the butter for 2 minutes at medium speed, or until creamy. Add the sugar and continue beating for 2 minutes, or until the mixture is light in texture and color. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 to 40 seconds after each egg is added. Scrape down the side of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula to keep the batter even-textured. Blend in the grated gingerroot and lemon juice.

3. On low speed, alternately add the sifted mixture in three additions with the milk in two additions, beginning and ending with the sifted mixture.

4. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until risen and a wooden toothpick inserted into the cake withdraws cleanly. Cool the cake in the pan over a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert it onto another rack.

Make the syrup:

5. Combine the water, sugar, cardamom, ginger and peppercorns in a small non-reactive saucepan. Set over medium heat, and warm the mixture, stirring frequently until the sugar melts, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the mixture stand for 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to infuse into the syrup.

6. Strain the syrup through a medium sieve into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, dab the syrup over the surface of the warm cake, allowing it to sink into the cake before reapplying it in the same area. Let the cake cool completely.

Garnish the cake:

7. Sprinkle the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

I really miss this magazine, but a collection of some of the recipes is available through Amazon: Chocolate passion: recipes and inspiration from the kitchens of Chocolatier magazine. If you decide to try the recipe, I’d love to know how it turned out, and please feel free to share the titles of some of your favourite mystery stories! Happy reading 🙂

The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

Feeling Peachy

It’s peach season here in southern Ontario! Beautiful reddish-gold peaches are ripening on trees, ready to eat in all their juice-dripping freshness or – even better to my mind – to deepen their flavour through cooking.

August peach time means a few things to me: the advent of ‘harvest’, with its connotations of gathering in supplies of food to share with family and friends; the approach of cooler weather (hopefully); the upcoming return of my favourite season, autumn, and all that it brings (sweater days, log fires, changing leaves, pumpkins, Thanksgiving meals, and the delightful spookiness of Halloween).

Now the peaches are ripe…

… the grapes are growing heavy on the vines …

… the corn is getting tall and tasseled.

Here we’re blessed to live in a tender-fruit agricultural area, with over 1500 farms growing a luscious selection of bright fruits and vegetables – a special boon for those of us who are garden-challenged like myself. Roadside markets dot the country byways, another great reason to do some exploring in our regional back yard and enjoy milder sunny days in the fresh air while bringing back a splendid haul for our kitchens. I’m happy to support our local restaurants and take-out spots during this time, but there’s something soul-warming in cooking a great meal yourself and then enjoying it out on the patio (or balcony, or a picnic table in a local nature area).

These meals don’t need to be elaborate – in fact, the simplicity of putting together delicious food using a few quality ingredients is the epitome of a more relaxed, down-to-earth lifestyle that this pause in the global rat race is giving us a new chance to appreciate.

After a strenuous weekend adding a new privacy garden to our back yard (with evergreens and shrubs, the two categories of self-sufficient plants I’ve been able to grow successfully) and some new cushions for our patio furniture, my hubby and I chilled out on the patio enjoying the cooler evening air and eating uncomplicated summer food – grilled sausages with corn and tomato salad, and ham and asparagus pasta with Fontina cheese followed by fresh peach and cinnamon cake.

Peaches belong to the “tender fruit” category, a somewhat vague term that I’ve never been able to find a definition for other than that it means cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums – as opposed to “crisp” fruit (i.e. apples), grapes and berries.

We have a provincial tender-fruit board, ontariotenderfruit.ca, that even offers a variety of recipes for each of the different fruits, including peaches.

My primary choice of what to do with a handsome basket of peaches would be a golden peach pie, deep orange-pink pieces of caramelized fruit temptingly peeking out through the slits in the sugary top crust, but I’ve yet to find a gluten-free flour that will allow me to make a double crust.

There are plenty of alternatives, through, so I’ll give you the peach and cinnamon cake recipe I just tried out that worked beautifully with Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour as a straight 1-to-1 substitution. My only recommendation for the recipe, whose provenance unfortunately I’ve lost track of, is to add extra peaches to really enjoy their lush flavour!

As our summer winds down to cozier weather, enjoy the bounty that August brings amid some quiet time away from all the crazy news and frothing global debate. Simplicity and eating good food outdoors are great, low-cost antidotes that we can all use right now.

Fresh Peach Cake

(recipe origin lost) makes one 9” sq cake

¼ lb unsalted butter, room temp

1½ cups sugar

2 extra-large eggs, room temp (not having read this properly beforehand, I ended up successfully using 3 smaller-sized large eggs)

1 cup sour cream, room temp

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose or gluten-free flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp kosher salt (I used fine Himalayan sea salt)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 lg ripe peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (look for ‘free-stone’ peaches, which have flesh that separates easily from the pit)

½ cup chopped pecans (worked well with walnuts since I’d run out of pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350oF. Grease a 9” square baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and 1 cup of the sugar for three to five minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream and vanilla. Mix until the batter is smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until combined.

In a small bowl mix the remaining sugar and the cinnamon.

Spread half of the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Top with half of the peaches, then sprinkle with two-thirds of the cinnamon sugar. Spread the remaining batter on top, arrange the rest of the peaches on top of the batter and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar. Scatter the chopped nuts on the very top.

Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, until a tester or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

All photos on this site are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights are reserved.

How to have a road trip that doesn’t drive you crazy

I’m sure that, at some point on my childhood travels with my family, I must have annoyed my parents. I remember passing the time by playing road games with my brother in the back seat – things like spotting Volkswagen Beetles (very popular at the time), or all the red cars, or red barns, or any other countable item we could think of.

Midway picnics were a welcome break. I also remember having reluctant naps that interfered with my trying to see everything new and interesting. Nevertheless, no doubt at some point we got impatient to reach the end of the journey. Highway scenery can only amuse so much – and that’ just as true for adults as for children.

A good road trip requires:

  • A road-worthy vehicle
  • Some planning around pit-stops, rest breaks and food, and places to stay overnight on multi-day transitions from your point of origin to your ultimate destination
  • Ways for your travellers to keep occupied on lengthy drives, and to stay comfortable
  • A sense of humour
  • A good navigator who’ll stay calm when something inevitably goes wrong

Road trips are special adventures. They feel so much more relaxed, even if you’re flying to another destination to hit the road. There’s freedom in wandering about a countryside that reminds me of the early explorers – getting your bearings with a map or a GPS instead of a sea chart and astrolabe, eating food at interesting ‘ports of call’. We have a cousin in Tennessee, and every time we drive down for a visit we always stop overnight in Polaris, Ohio so that we can have a cozy, delicious meal at our favourite on-the-road restaurant, the Polaris Grill.

Seeing a place from your road-ship is a much more intimate experience – you get to see everyday life, not just the highlights.

At special sites, like museums and historic places, you can build in time to explore at your leisure. Last year we visited Gettysburg, and spent a day-and-a-half following the battle trail with the aid of a DVD guide that we bought locally. The site is huge and so well-preserved that it was easy to envision the different parts of the battle. We also had time to play a round of golf, have Easter Brunch, see some wildlife and take part in a night-time ghost hunt.

Road prep

  • If driving your own vehicle, unless it’s brand new, check it out thoroughly before you leave. While a breakdown on the road isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it will take up valuable time that’s better spent doing fun things, and will cost you.

    Sometimes accidents just happen, though, and you just have to make the best of them. On a high, narrow mountain road in Ireland another tourist car passing us in the opposite direction cut into our lane, forcing my hubby over onto the rocky shoulder on our side. We bounced off a rock and damaged both the undercarriage and a tire. We tried to limp back down the mountain, but the tire completely flattened out before we got more than a mile or so. We found a safe spot to pull over, and put on the spare. The next morning we were able to get everything repaired, at a reasonable price, and we continued on our way without too much disruption.
  • Depending on the bladder-capacity of your travellers, it’s a good idea to look at your route and plan for stops. In North America there are generally plenty of roadside stops, well-marked in advance. Things can become problematic if any of your party have special requirements like gluten-free meals, but there are ways to accommodate different needs.

    Picnic lunches are really fun to do, but here are some pointers:
    • Buy a nice blanket to sit on. That way, you can find cool places to enjoy your meal, like a big rock under maples and pines in the autumn sun.
    • Make food that will keep well, and is easy to transport and eat without making a mess. I like sandwiches, and they don’t have to be fancy. For one of our fall trips, I made fried egg and bacon on baguettes. Just about anything is delicious in the open air. My indulgence was some rather decadent pumpkin whoopie pies with marshmallow buttercream filling. Together with a thermos of hot tea, it was a perfect fall picnic.
    • Have a secure container to transport everything in, some paper towel for small cleanups, cups and plates, even some nice paper napkins if you want the atmosphere. Personally I prefer to pack food that doesn’t require utensils – remember that everything you use will need to be washed at some point on your journey, so keep the mess to a minimum.
  • Comfort is important on long drives. I like to take a lap blanket and small pillow – my hubby prefers to keep the temperature inside the vehicle on the cooler side, so the blanket is perfect to keep myself warm, and I can take short naps if I get sleepy riding along. (He likes to do the driving – finds it boring to be the passenger, although I can easily take over if he gets tired – and I’m a great navigator.)

    Have a pouch handy with bottled water (the air gets dry inside a vehicle), a couple of rolls of toilet paper (for roadside bathrooms that may have run out), some snacks in case it takes a while to find somewhere to eat, and napkins/paper towels/wet-naps to quickly clean fingers coated in potato chip salt or Cheezies dust.

    Traffic jams or spots of bad weather – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into unexpected fogs/rainstorms/short blizzards, and if you’re heading south to Williamsburg VA avoid the vicinity of Washington DC unless you want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours  – can be wearing on the nerves. We’ve found it really helps to distract your mind a little from worrying by listening either to an audio book or a radio play.
  • Common sense prevails – don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. Keep your baggage out of sight while you’re stopped, doors locked, don’t flash large amounts of cash, keep an eye on the people around you. One of the last things you want to be is victim of a crime. We’ve always had good encounters on our trips, but that’s at least partly due to not being an easy target.
  • Be a good guest. Don’t litter, be polite and friendly, obey the rules. When we were driving around New Zealand we’d often not see any other vehicle for the better part of an hour, so the radar warnings on the GPS seemed a bit pointless, until we saw someone pulled over for speeding quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Don’t overpack, but do have gear for different types of weather. I know it may be tempting to just throw stuff in the back of your vehicle, but remember that what goes in must be sorted through while on the trip and then taken back out at the end of it. Also, you’ll want to leave some room for whatever you buy on the trip. Do have clothing handy that you can layer in case of a storm or change in temperature. And footwear that will be comfortable during hours seated inside a moving vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling during peak season, book accommodations ahead of time. We’ve seen people show up unannounced at hotels that we already had a room at and watched them panic when there wasn’t any space to be had. After hours of driving, it’s great to know that you have a place to lay your weary head.

A great sense of humour and ability to not panic will be your secret weapons on any road trip, because things rarely go completely according to plan.

Keep an eye on news and weather reports. No matter how much you prepare in advance, Nature can still surprise you.

When we drove down to Virginia a couple of years ago to see explore the area around Williamsburg, we got a real bombshell. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on our second day there, after we finished our first round of golf we were chatting with one fellow where we turned in our cart and he asked how we liked the course and if we were going to play again. We said we thought we’d do another round in a couple of days, which he advised might not exactly be possible because of the impending hurricane.

The what, now? Usually you start hearing about a hurricane days ahead of time while it’s still a tropical depression, but this one popped up out of nowhere. By the time we returned to our hotel after dinner it was all over the news, already bearing down heavily on Florida and due to head our way in less than two days while still Category Three.

We’ve been in worse, but with more shelter than we had at our hotel in Williamsburg. Luckily we were staying inland as opposed to out along the coast. That evening we did some rejigging to our touring plans for the week and kept an eye on the storm’s progress. Since tornadoes were also in the projected path, I also downloaded the Red Cross app to my phone so we could receive alerts. We made it through safe and sound, and still had an enjoyable trip.

Make a general itinerary but leave room for flexibility

Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens

Often the unplanned things you encounter become highlights of your trip. It’s essential to know opening and closing times of the important things you want to see, and then enjoy time in between for impromptu exploring.

We love to go to upstate New York along the Hudson River Valley in the fall, and we’ve had so much fun meandering around small towns and farm markets, where we’ve had amazing chocolate milk, pumpkin butter, baked goods and great ambience on a beautiful fall day. On a golfing road trip through Alabama, we had fabulous barbecue and southern food based on recommendations from golf course staff.

Based on years of our own road trips, those are my tips to make your own version really enjoyable. Beyond that, safety and comfort are the solid underpinnings, and a little research and planning, plus some common sense on the journey, will go a long way. If you have your own tips or insights, please share as well.