Things to do when you’re snowed in (or have time on your hands)

The snow was thick on our street on our Tuesday snow day

Snow days are so much fun, even if you’re working from home or retired and don’t need to worry whether you have to try and drive through treacherous conditions to work the next morning. There’s an implicit permission to throw responsibility to the wind and play hooky for the day.

My hubby and I went to bed on Monday night with snow falling thickly and confirming the two days of storm warnings from Environment Canada. I watched from our kitchen window as fierce gusts of wind scooped the snow from rooftops and flung it across the landscape. The small garden we planted along our back fence last summer was quickly disappearing from sight.

By the time hubby’s alarm went off before daybreak, there was already at least a foot of snow blanketing our neighbourhood, clogging our front porch, driveway, the entire circle we live on, and any access to the outside world. He closed the front door, called work to say he wouldn’t be there (a great relief for me that he wasn’t going to try going and run the risk of getting stuck) and we headed back to bed to snuggle under the covers until we felt like getting up for the day.

It was a lazy morning as we watched the snow continue to pile up. A couple of our neighbours have snow blowers and were thoughtfully cleaning all of our driveways. Eventually we bundled up to clean our vehicles off, and my hubby decided to check on the progress of pieces of barn-wood he routed, glued and clamped for a side table for our rec room. Inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives we watched a few days previously, I fished out a package of ground beef from the freezer and assorted vegetables from the fridge to make a pot of minestrone for lunch. This isn’t a soup I normally make, so it was fun to stretch my repertoire – with a big bowl of steaming soup to eat at the end of it.

Then, with a cozy fire crackling in our rec room fireplace, I spent an entertaining afternoon doing research for my novel.

I’m at the point in the story where some of the main characters will intersect with actual history from the wilds of my imagination. To make that work, I need to pull up enough details from historical references to produce believable scenes that resonate with the readers.

And it’s just fun to speculate on what part my own fictional characters could have played in a real event. Finding enough genuine facts – especially if the facts are a little mysterious or unusual – to flesh out the story is like a treasure hunt. There’s definitely a serotonin rush when you come across a curious little piece of information and think, Oh yeah, that could totally work for what I have in mind!

Staying at home this winter is a little like an extended snow day, except that it’s going on far too long. The great thing about an actual snow day was the excitement of watching a storm raise havoc outside while we were safely tucked inside our home.

Pet projects make the enforced down-time more enjoyable as well, whether it’s as simple a thing as making a dish you’ve never tried before, or a virtual scavenger hunt for whatever information gives you a lift. Rather than dwelling on how much time you have to fill, just let your mind wander outside the box and toss ideas at you. They may not all be good ones, but you can’t find the garden under the snow unless you start digging 😀

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.

Celebrating life

Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve survived 2020, and I deeply hope all of the people you care about have as well. There were parts of the past year during which we may have forgotten to celebrate being alive – parts where we may have felt anxiety, frustration, even pain.

But here we are, on the cusp of what we all hope will be a much better year. I’ve always advocated looking forward, not backward. We can’t change what’s passed, although we can learn from it and enjoy memories of the good times. I believe that, on our journey through life, we should create as many good memories as we can, to balance out the bad memories that come along without our choosing them. We can choose to be a good person, to be our own person, to laugh as much as possible, and to do the right thing.

We can choose to make the best of things instead of the worst, or at least to give it our best shot.

My late mother-in-law travelled with my hubby and I on several occasions, and she used to remark on our capacity to stay calm when things didn’t go according to plan. Part of that ability developed through long experience – something always happens on our trips, and often more than once – but mainly we’ve always tried to make the best of things, because that just feels much better than the down side.

Life is pretty amusing if you’re willing to look at it that way. Case in point, and the reason for the photo for this week’s blog: our first trip together involving flights, the year we got engaged. We flew to visit friends in California, over the Christmas break because I was still in university and that was the only time we could go together.

I was excited about flying on a big plane, but nervous and a little queasy the entire time. The snow storm we had in Ontario the day before our departure hadn’t boosted my confidence either. But four and a half hours later we were landing in LAX on a balmy night, and not long after that our friends pulled into the driveway of their tile-roofed Spanish-style bungalow in Santa Monica.

The next morning the hazy air smelled of the sea and of eucalyptus. I spent the week falling in love with California, from the fresh oranges on the tree in our hosts’ back yard to the famous places like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood and Disneyland. My first sight of palm trees, lining the street our friends’ lived on, and of the ocean, crashing in rolling waves onto the wide sand beaches just like it did in all the movies, was absolutely thrilling – this was the first time I’d been outside my home province. We passed swathes of red poinsettia growing wild on hillsides, not confined to little plastic pots.

We had a late New Year’s Eve, and about two hours of sleep before we all got up early to take a bus to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade. I also had a lingering case of strep throat, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my favourite parade live and in person! I remember waiting impatiently in line on the grounds of Pepperdine University to get on the bus, and climbing up the bleachers lining the parade route with my 35mm camera at the ready. It was chilly at 8am, but the sun was shining and across the street the mountains surrounding the city were lavender in the morning haze.

The parade was wonderful and the floats even more glorious when you’re sitting just a few feet away from them. When the Rose Parade returns in the future, I recommend it for your bucket list.

Since that day it’s become an annual ritual in our home to get up on January 1st, put on the kettle and a bit of breakfast, and watch the year’s beautiful flowered floats in their bright colours wind past the television cameras.

But on that day, by the time the parade finished, our short night and my illness caught up with me on the seemingly interminable bus ride back to Pepperdine; I fell asleep before the bus even left Pasadena and woke up just long enough to get in our hosts’ car to return to their house. Everyone else camped out in the living room to watch the Rose Bowl, but I made a beeline for the bed, stripped down, crawled in, and promptly fell fast asleep.

I remember waking up at one point with the bed shaking, and thinking groggily ‘Oh, we must be having an earthquake’, but falling fast asleep again – which tells you how out of it I was feeling. Until about a minute later when my hubby – then fiancé – burst through the door yelling, “Get up, we’re having an earthquake!!!”, with everyone else close behind him.

The problem was that I hadn’t bothered to put pyjamas on, so while he was urging me to get up I was clutching the sheets up to my chin and trying to point out to him that I couldn’t move until everyone left the room. After some confusion around that, I finally got the opportunity to get dressed without an audience, and joined the crew in the living room.

Looking back, it was a hilarious, if completely anxiety-riddled day. The original quake was 4.6 on the Richter Scale, so nothing serious, but while you’re in the middle of it you have no idea of how it’s going to end. Fed by Hollywood, I was having visions of the earth splitting open and houses falling in.

Some of the aftershocks were worse than the quake. One felt a giant had come along and kicked the house – the whole building just gave a sudden jerk. Others trickled along, evidenced only by the ornaments jiggling slightly on our hosts’ Christmas tree. At a couple of points our hosts ran over to their china cabinet to keep it from toppling over. Another aftershock caught me in the bathroom, with my hubby pounding on the door for me to come out while I tried to explain that I was “in the middle of something at the moment”.

An announcement about the quake was aired right in the middle of the football game, so we had to call home and reassure everyone that we were okay. That would be the first of many such calls over the years.

By dinnertime, after several hours of ongoing aftershocks, my hubby and I were pretty twitchy, so our friends decided to distract us by taking us to Olvera Street, the very first street of what would one day become the sprawling city of Los Angeles. At that time Olvera wasn’t as structured as it is today, but I remember lots of stalls selling colourful decorations and food, and we had our first taste of Mexican cuisine. We had enchiladas that were an explosion of flavour in our mouths, and we craved them intensely for years after we got home because we simply couldn’t get it anywhere around here.

The earthquake spooked us so badly that it took us thirteen years to return to California, but we’ve been there many times since, enjoying the sun, the scents, and the food! We laugh about that first trip a lot; it was a wonderful introduction to travel for me, despite the quake. When I learned that there wouldn’t be an actual Rose Parade this New Year’s Day, I had to run out and get flowers to make our own small homage to the parade and to California – the end result is what you see in the photo. It also celebrates Nature’s artistic mastery, which will be the theme of many of my blogs in 2021 because that’s something we need to preserve.

We hope to get back to California again one day, to Africa again, and to all the other places we still dream about, but in the meantime we will enjoy life to the fullest, even if it’s via small floral celebrations perched on our coffee table. I think that’s a good way to live.

Always moving forward

My hubby and I don’t generally make much fuss about New Year’s Eve. We’ve had some great celebrations over the years, some wacky ones, and quite a few quiet moments at home.

I remember the great Y2K fizzle on NYE 1999, when nothing happened as the computer clocks ticked over to a year ending in three zeros. Quite a few people globally had freaked out over the big changeover, including a friend from high school who, with her hubby, sold their super-successful business and went to live completely off the grid somewhere on a farm. We had our parents over for a special meal with a premium bottle of champagne, which I snagged months ahead of time based on predictions that the world would also run out of the fizzy beverage. Even though none of the doomsday predictions came true, it was a strange feeling to enter both a new century and a new millennium, and we wondered what lay ahead.

There have been highs and lows since then, as there always are. My parents lived through World War II in Europe, and carried the after-effects of that experience through the rest of their lives. Although they talked openly about it, I still can’t even imagine what it must have felt like to watch each new year tick by without resolution for six long years. They were resilient, though, surviving incredible hardships and emigrating to Canada afterwards. They met in a hospital in Windsor, where my dad was a patient under my nurse mom’s care, and went on to build a new life together.

Life always moves onward, and some New Year’s Eves are more cause for celebration than others – today will be one of those. We’ll all be happy to put 2020 to bed.

Inspired by a recipe for making Won Ton Soup from scratch that I stumbled across, I’ll be cooking Asian food for dinner. Our local best option for takeout Chinese food hasn’t been as good during the pandemic, but I’ve got easy recipes to make at home. (I have a vast collection of recipes for all occasions, in cookbooks and gathered from magazines as well as the internet.)

Over the past few months there has been a noticeable rise in food prices, although I was at the grocery store yesterday to pick up a few fresh vegetables and noticed a lot of sales as well to help buyers out. For this meal I’m using up a lot of ingredients we’ve had stocked up for a while instead of splurging on expensive new foods as we would have in other years – 2020 became the year we spent our money more wisely.

Along with many others, we tweaked our home nests to make them nicer places to spend a lot of time in, explored the joys of slow and deep cooking (our niece started making her own sourdough, and I spent a day and a half earlier this month making demi glace from scratch to give rich flavour to a goulash soup my hubby wanted for his December birthday), and found new ways to share quality time with friends and family safely.

As Canadians we hope for a less tumultuous four years of politics in the U.S., and to reconnecting with our American friends and family in person down the road. The entire world has been our home for our entire marriage, and we really miss it.

While we spend the limbo of these winter months waiting for our vaccine and nicer weather to arrive, the Action for Happiness website has a Happier January calendar full of daily actions that you can download and follow.

Tonight we’ll toast to new adventures in coming years, and to all my readers I wish you peace, health and resilience for 2021. To smoother waters ahead!

A holiday wish

We will look back on this holiday season as one that tested us. But we are marvelous human beings who can transcend challenges. This year has shown that to us – dedicated front-line workers, many acts of kindness to counteract the people who can’t think in terms of the greater good, a massive global effort to make vaccines.

This season, be compassionate to yourself and others. According to neuroscientist Daniel Levin, generosity, compassion and gratitude actually change our brains, including those parts that govern our own immune systems.

My entire province is going into lockdown on Boxing Day for several weeks to curb the rising number of Covid cases that are pushing our hospital system to its limits. Today I sent my hubby over to our senior aunt’s with a box full of Christmas food – it’s a safe way to share a bit of the holiday with her and let her know she’s cared for even if we all can’t be together.

Tonight we’ll eat the same food ourselves, watch Disney’s A Christmas Carol, and snuggle in as a big winter storm heads our way tonight. For the next few weeks, we’ll spend our time at home as peacefully and wisely as we can, and we’ll make a point of appreciating what we do have.

I grew up in northern Ontario where storms were always extreme. It didn’t just rain, it came down in torrents so heavy that my dad would often have to pull our car over to the side of the road to wait for the storm to clear. Fogs were similarly dense. Snow was always heavy and could block the roads for days, and keep us trapped inside our farmhouse with our wood stove and wood-burning furnace, but my parents always made sure we were well-stocked with food and essentials. Survival meant making the best of things, and I grew up loving storms for that feeling of hunkering down inside, safe and snug.

For this holiday season, I wish all of you a sense of snuggling in to wait out the pandemic storm.

Be kind to yourself and others, and do simple things of comfort and peace.

Light candles – the real kind, because fire has represented comfort and safety ever since our early days living in caves and we feel its cultural influence even today.

Do something different – eat a different meal, read a new book – to combat cabin fever, and enjoy the traditions that give you a sense of stability.

Give yourself an emotional break – watch shows that make you smile, play games, take walks, let the news run along without you from time to time.

I wish everyone all the serenity and joy you are able to find this year. Remember that this is a season of hope, and of light in the darkness. Keep looking toward the light.

Repacking your holiday boxes

The holidays are going to be really different this year, aren’t they? We’ve all had many years planning to spend them with family and/or friends in some format, whether we necessarily wanted to or not 😉 But this year that grumbly, sometimes overwhelming option isn’t even on the table, and it’s easy to fall into a state of sadness about choices that have been taken away from us.

I’d like to suggest something more uplifting. Gatherings at any time are at their best if they’re about spending quality time with people we care about. They don’t have to be elaborate, or expensive, or perfect. So this is the year to think outside your usual holiday box.

Maybe the best gift you can give someone is to keep them safe. That may mean rethinking what you expect out of the holidays. In Ontario there are quite a few outdoor light displays, so this year instead of meals inside someone’s home, my hubby and I will be getting together with small bubbles of family members to enjoy time together in the fresh air where we can keep a safe distance and appreciate the beautiful lights. The meals will be simplified for tailgating – one of them will include a hearty beef stew kept warm in a hot-air turkey fryer, of all things, with some crusty bread, and chocolate squares for dessert.

Next week the college I worked at is hosting a president’s get-together for everyone who retired this year, via the Zoom platform. It’s not the easiest way to assemble, but it works, and when you consider that ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been possible, this year it’s great to have that technology so that you can chat and see people’s faces.

I’ve been busy planning lots of meals to add some sparkle to the quiet season that my hubby and I are having in between our two family outings. They’re not elaborate, just yummy.

We have a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery puzzle to exercise our brains on over the holidays when he’s home from work, and I want to write more chapters of my novel. We still have to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Disney’s gorgeous animated version of A Christmas Carol, as we do every year. He’s seen The Sound of Music so many times, though, that that one is a flat no 😊

On days when I’m not feeling so great, the best remedy I’ve ever found is to do something nice for someone else. Check on a friend – they might be having a bad day too and a chat, or a coffee out of doors (bundled up with layers and a lap blanket), could be great for both of you. Donate groceries to a food bank, or chat with someone in a grocery store. Be kind to others – we’re all having a stressful holiday, no matter where we are

Help someone else to feel better, and you’ll feel better yourself. That may be one of the best forms of self-care.

The days will pass, the world will move on, we’ll all quietly celebrate the end of a crazy year and look forward to a new one that has the words “vaccine” and “heading back toward normal” in it.