Winter daydreaming

Generally around February, when I’ve run out of love for snowy landscapes for the season, my mind wanders abroad, to sunnier climes and exotic places.

When I was a child, my father and I loved to watch old adventure movies together on television, usually on Sunday afternoons; he must have had the same wanderlust gene that I do. Two of our favourites, both involving treks through the desert to lost cities, were Legend of the Lost (1957) and She (1965).

Legend of the Lost is an obscure movie now; I rarely see it aired on television any more. The plot revolves around an Englishman, Paul Bonnard, who’s in Africa in the legendary city of Timbuktu, looking for a treasure his archeologist and missionary father was after ten years before. Bonnard’s father never returned, and Bonnard is finally able to secure the services of a rugged American guide, Joe January (played by the ubiquitous John Wayne), to take him deep into the desert on his quest. They’re eventually accompanied by a beautiful, down-on-her-luck prostitute played by the ever-stunning Sophia Loren. Much drama ensues.

The movie She was based on the famous book by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887 after its popular serialization on a magazine. A sensational adventure, the book has never been out of print since then, and has seen many movie iterations. The 1965 version is my favourite, starring Ursula Andress at her most gorgeous as Ayesha, the immortal ruler of the lost city of Kuma, a remnant of ancient Egypt. Two men stumble across evidence of Kuma at the end of WW1, when they meet a mysterious woman in a nightclub in Jerusalem. Leo Vincey, the young and handsome adventurer, his older friend Horace Holly, a British archeologist played by the inimitable Peter Cushing, and Holly’s valet, are lured into a trek through the desert to search for Kuma, putting their lives in grave danger.

The exotic landscapes of both movies imprinted themselves on my imagination and I’ve loved desert scenery of any kind ever since. So when I saw this recent travel deal, I immediately settled in for a little armchair travel and wishful thinking.

from the Travelzoo website: “Every week we search more than 2,000 companies worldwide for their very best deals and compile this Top 20 list.”

It’s posted on Travelzoo, which is a free weekly newsletter (free sign-up required) sending you a list of the Top 20 travel deals they’ve found. It’s completely legit – several years ago I booked a great deal for flights to Tahiti and New Zealand PLUS 3 free nights accommodation in Tahiti (with optional upgrades for a pretty low additional price). Hubby and I had a great trip to a place that had been on our bucket list for a long time – Tahiti – and another place that always sounded really interesting but I never thought we’d ever get to, New Zealand.

The Anantara brand of resorts is famous for their stunning locations and architecture, and the Sahara Tozeur Resort in Tunisia will make you drool. The resort contains 93 suites, villas and pool villas. It offers “Arabian Nights culture and cuisine” and “Saharan adventures and explorations”, including this one that will excite all fans of the Star Wars saga:

Screenshot from the Anantara website of a visit to a Tatooine film set

The rooms are a serene but exotic desert fantasy:

Screenshot from the Anantara website

This image from a visit to the local Bazaar has me envisioning a chic white outfit like the one Ingrid Bergman wore in Casablanca when she and her husband visited the winding bazaar, and I would fill my carry-on with the treasures I’d find among the dusty passageways.

Screenshot from the Anantara web

If these screenshots, and the gorgeous gallery of images you’ll see on the Anantara website, inspire you to subscribe to the Travelzoo newsletter, there are a couple of things to pay attention to.

(1) All of the deals are available for a limited time only. The deal may only available on within certain departure dates, or may not be available on certain dates.

(2) Check the length of the deal and inclusions. This particular offer is for a 4-night stay with some additions:

“What’s Included:

  • Stay most dates through January 2023
    • $1499 … four nights in a Deluxe Sahara View Suite — these 850-square-foot suites come with a king or twin beds, daybeds, rainfall showers, deep soaking tubs and massive windows overlooking the Sahara
    • $2249 … four nights in a One-Bedroom Anantara Pool Villa — these 1,100-square-foot villas have outdoor dining areas and private plunge pools
    • Add extra nights to your stay for $215 or $359 per night (must be used with a four-night voucher for the same room type)
  • Packages are for two guests (not priced per person) and include:
    • Daily breakfast and dinner for two (excludes drinks)
    • A half-day desert excursion for two to visit Nefta city and film locations from Star Wars as you off-road across Saharan sand dunes (once per stay)
    • A two-hour Tunisian cooking class for two, where you’ll learn to cook — and sample — traditional Tunisian cuisine
    • Taxes, taken care of, except for a tourism tax of 1€ per person per night, which is payable on site
  • Not available: March 14-31; Oct. 22-31; Nov. 1-8; Dec. 17-31, 2022; Jan. 1-2, 2023″

You’ll need to activate a membership with Travelzoo to see the entire deal; there are no obligations, and the service doesn’t pester you with frequent messaging.

From North America, I wouldn’t fly all the way to Tunisia for only 4 days, so I’d add this on as a special treat while exploring more of the country for at least another week or more. Tunisia has much to see: desert landscapes, Roman ruins, lots of culture.

Anyway, this is a little inspiration to help you get through the late-winter doldrums, assuming you live in a place that becomes snowbound 😊 I’ll be dreaming of visiting this resort one day when adventure travel becomes more feasible, and in the meantime maybe I’ll cook up a nice dinner of chicken with lemons and cinnamon over a bed of couscous to be there in spirit.

Bread of life

Today’s loaf of fresh bread — the Rapid White product

So, hubby and I are self-isolating for a few days. We’ve only been lightly ill; in any other year we’d just be treating this as a seasonal bug, and it’s strange to have to consider that we might have picked up the coronavirus. Provincial health officials stated a few days ago that anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness has a high probability of actually having the Omicron variant, such is its transmissibility.

I did a grocery run on Sunday, using all the proper precautions — surgical-quality mask, hand-sanitizer after I left every store, then washing my hands for 20 seconds when I got back in the house.

On Monday morning I started getting chills, aches, a headache, some coughing and possibly a mild fever. None of these are unusual for me by themselves (except the fever) — they’re just a fun part of having fibromyalgia. After popping Vitamin C and acetaminophen all day long, and waiting to see what might develop, by the next morning I felt substantially better. The Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period (as low as 2 days), but I had no other symptoms, so I put it down to one of my worse days with a chronic condition.

By Wednesday morning, hubby told me he was so achy he wasn’t going in to work. That is highly unusual; I can probably count on one set of fingers the number of times he’s stayed home over the decades. He spent most of the day wrapped up in multiple throw blankets. When he remained home again today, we decided to do the right thing and follow the province’s protocol to assume the worst and quarantine ourselves.

There’s no way to tell if we have the virus or not; we’re certainly not ill enough to go the hospital (not complaining!), but since we’ve had symptoms we can’t go out and get a couple of Rapid Antigen test kits to see if we even have the antibodies. So we’re ‘stuck’ at home, sitting by the fire with cups of tea and watching television — not the worst position to be in.

Fortunately we have plenty of the two most critical needs in stock: food and toilet paper 😉 We were running low on bread, though, and as a result, today became the day my hubby must stop yanking my chain about how much each freshly-made loaf has cost us so far after we invested in a bread machine last fall.

I began thinking about getting an automatic bread-maker — even though we didn’t really need to add another appliance taking up counter space in our modestly-sized kitchen — after some of my favourite commercial breads started adding barley to their flour mix. For years I’ve had to read ingredient-labels on everything to avoid things like soy and sulfites, both of which give me nasty migraines; after several unexpected migraines I wasn’t happy to be forced to add barley to the list. Barley can add fibre and help the fermentation of the yeast. Neither of those benefits did me any good, and I started looking into making my own bread.

After talking to friends with a variety of machines and conducting online research into features and user reviews, and after hubby suggested we buy a machine as a Christmas ‘house gift’, I made the decision to go for the top-rated brand, the one with the weird name, Zojirushi. The brand has had some negative reviews on Amazon, although most were very positive. I’ve been using it at least once a week for about a month and a half now, and have no complaints at all.

I chose the Virtuoso Plus model for one crucial reason: it makes Sourdough bread, and even makes the starter. My hubby and I were introduced to great Sourdough in California on our first visit. It should be chewy and distinctively sour, and since it’s been hard to find good Sourdough in our neighbourhood ever since, that was the first feature I looked for.

Our machine makes a very good Sourdough. The whole thing takes about six hours: a little over two to make the starter, after which you must directly segue into making the bread itself, another roughly four hours. The bread has a nice crust, good toothsome-ness, and a lovely tart flavour.

I didn’t jump into that at the beginning, though. I tried the easy Italian bread, because it didn’t require dried milk, of which I had none on hand. Carefully measuring the ingredients and adding them to the baking pan in the order prescribed (apparently each bread machine has a specific order it wants you to follow), I keyed in the correct Course on the control panel and nervously pushed START.

When the machine beeped 3 & 1/2 hours later, I was rewarded with a perfect loaf of warm bread.

Here’s how an automatic bread machine works (at least the one I have): After washing and some assembly — basically putting the little beater bars in place inside the baking pan, which mix the ingredients and knead the dough — you put the ingredients in as listed in the handy Recipe Book. If you’re making one of their suggested breads, you enter in which one (with Zojirushi they’re all numbered) and push the Start button. That’s essentially it, until 2 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 hours later the aroma of freshly-baked bread fills your house.

The image isn’t the clearest, but this is the control panel of the machine for today’s bread: Course 9, Rapid White Bread, to be finished at 3:45pm

Some breads have added ingredients, like Raisin Bread; the machine pauses and beeps at you to let you know when to add the raisins. I haven’t tried every single standard recipe, but the Raisin Bread is very nice, pleasantly cinnamon-y and tender.

The machine will also just make dough for you, which you can then take out and shape into a number of other bread-based things, like bagels or dinner rolls. For Christmas Eve I found a recipe online for making buttery Parker House rolls using a bread machine, and they turned out perfectly despite the fact that I messed up and put double the amount of butter in. (There must be a saying somewhere that you ‘can’t have too much butter in a roll’, or there should be.) For the Parker House rolls, I used the “Homemade” course, which requires you to manually enter the timing for each cycle of the process by pressing the Cycle button: Rest >> Knead >> Shape >> Rise 1 >> Rise 2 >> Rise 3 >> Bake. Depending on what you’re making some of the cycles may be set to zero, i.e. they’re not being used for your bread type.

I don’t know what other brands have, but there are several things I like about my machine:

a) The Rest cycle, which the machine uses to bring all the ingredients to the right temperature. When making bread by hand, bakers have to be aware of the temperature of the room at the time, and make sure none of the ingredients are too warm or cold. My machine eliminates that.

b) The default setting for the crust is “medium”, which produces the lovely golden-brown crust you can see in the photo at the start of this post.

c) Although the manufacturer states that the machine gets quite hot during the Baking cycle, I didn’t find it too bad. I still pull the machine out from under the cupboard, where it normally sits, to use it (away from my wooden cabinets), and use oven mitts to remove the hot finished loaf, but otherwise I find it not much hotter to the touch than our toaster, and during the preceding cycles it stays cool.

The only suggestion I’d have for the manufactures is to light up the control panel; it’s hard to read without using a flashlight.

I’ve read that many bread bakers find the kneading process quite therapeutic. All I can say is that I find the simplicity of the machine, freeing you to do something else until the incredible aroma lets you know that your warm, fluffy loaf is ready, is very therapeutic — especially on days when you’re under the weather 🙂

Here’s what the machine process looks like:

Choose the recipe;

Measure the ingredients, using the handy measuring cups that come with the machine, and place them in the Baking Pan in the order listed;

I dump my bags of bread flour into a plastic bin — much easier to measure the flour correctly

Place the Baking Pan inside the machine; mine has metal feet that click into place;

One critical tip: you must place the yeast (the darkest brown in the photo) so it doesn’t contact the salt – otherwise the yeast will be deactivated. I tuck the salt into the back right corner.

Close the machine’s lid and program the bread course that you want (as in the photo earlier in this post);

Take out your beautiful finished loaf!

Using oven mitts (the baking pan is hot when you take it out), you just turn the pan over and gently shake the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Then you’re supposed to wait for it to cool down, but I wanted to show you what the bread looks like inside when freshly cut:

A slice of freshly-baked, pillowy white bread

Your loaf will have indents on the bottom where it baked around the beater bars. They’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, but once you bite into the delicious bread, you won’t care.

Bite into a piece of this bread and then tell me whether you’re worried about how pretty it is 🙂

For breads where you take the dough out, let it rest, and shape it (e.g. there’s a great Party Loaf recipe included where you cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and stuff the balls with something like cream cheese or chocolate), you can remove the beater bars before you put the shaped dough back in, or bake your dough in a regular oven (as I did with the Parker House rolls).

Our machine makes a two-pound loaf, which typically lasts us about a week. The bread is more delicious than anything I’ve ever bought in a bakery, even a really good one (truly). Plus, you can’t beat a loaf that’s still warm from the oven, but even at that our machine-made bread has taken several days longer to begin going stale than commercial bread does.

All in all, our investment has been an unqualified success. As long as I keep stocked up on a few basic ingredients, I can make us bread whenever we want, which will be delightful during our self-imposed quarantine. The machine will also make things like pizza dough, cake, and even jam, none of which I’ve tried yet, but I did order some whole-grain rye from Amazon to use for my sourdough starter, and I hope to try making a full-on hearty rye bread with caraway one of these days.

Today, since I had a turkey carcass left over from having made a turkey dinner on Monday, I decided a good turkey soup was just the thing to go with a fresh loaf of bread — healthy, cozy and nourishing. By my hubby’s cheeky calculations we’re probably down to about $50 a loaf now, but like any new toy the cost will go down the more we use it, and the pleasure we get from having this resource, as well as the comfort of knowing I can both control the ingredients so that I don’t get a headache and keep us well-supplied even as prices in grocery stores rise this year, have already paid for the gadget long before we reach that break-even loaf. And that will likely happen very soon!

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

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.

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 🙂