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 To make that work, I need to pull up enough details from historical references to produce believable scenes that resonate with the readers.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.

Small but not insignificant

I sat in on a really interesting webinar today, hosted by Action for Happiness, whose resources I’ve posted on this blog before. The topic was “Mindfulness made easy”, and although I try to regularly practice mindfulness anyway, there’s always something to learn.

Before I elaborate on the content, I just wanted to comment on the irony of many of the attendees constantly posting messages in the Chat box. If you’re not all that familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it basically means to be fully ‘in the moment’, i.e. to pay attention to where you are, what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Seems to me that the point of a webinar on Mindfulness would be to pay attention to the webinar.

Anyway, there were three great ideas discussed during the session that I thought I’d share with you as we’re all coping with a long, restricted winter:

  1. If you have trouble focusing on being in the moment, break it down into a tiny chunk that you can practice daily. As an example, the speaker, mindfulness expert and best-selling author Shamash Alidina, told us how he’d had trouble meditating, so he changed tactics to doing just one mindful breath each morning. Nothing too tough – just taking a deep breath until your entire lungs are filled, then slowly letting the breath out (it should take longer to let out than to have breathed in). He also recommended doing what he called a “1% smile” along with it, that is, a tiny partial smile which most of us can manage even on days where we really don’t feel like smiling at all. You may even find, as many of us did during the webinar, that trying to generate a teeny smile has the opposite effect – we wound up laughing.

He found that he could easily do that one special breath every morning, and even on bad days he felt good about accomplishing that one thing, which made him feel like doing more of it, and soon he did more than one breath, and so on.

This technique is recommended for incorporating any new beneficial habit into your life. For people with fibromyalgia, for example, it’s really challenging to begin an exercise program because even an amount so small that most people wouldn’t classify it as exercise makes you feel bad. Today, I did 5 minutes at a slow walk on our treadmill, followed by 8 stretches with an ab roller – and this evening, inevitably, I’m feeling beat up. But it’s not so bad that I won’t continue doing it.

I can tell you, though, that for someone who used to play a vigorous match of squash almost every single day when I was in my thirties and healthy, only 5 minutes pf walking feels ridiculous. But that’s my reality and I’ve learned to be okay with it. And acceptance is part of being kind to yourself.

  • When something is stressing you out, apply the “Pearl Habit”: reframe how you react to a stressor by, each time that it happens, using it as a prompt to give yourself some self-kindness. Alidina talked about a woman he knew who was being treated badly (psychologically) by her ex-husband during divorce proceedings, so each time that took place she began treating herself in some way. After a while she found that she wasn’t as sensitive to his attempts to push her buttons because she was dissipating the hurt and anger effectively, and eventually he began to stop doing it so often because she wasn’t reacting.

I really like this idea, since we all have stressors we can’t avoid – noisy neighbours, aggravating co-workers, rude shoppers, etc. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I like to turn an occasional bad encounter around by doing something nice for someone else, but this technique of doing something nice for yourself would be a wonderful resolution to ongoing aggravation, wouldn’t it? The next time something happens to push your buttons, try it out and see what happens.

  • An author called BJ Fogg did some research into the emotional lift we get when we accomplish something positive, even if it’s a small thing like doing that one piece of mindful breathing, and he gave that emotion a name: Shine. And we can cultivate it. We can make a point of celebrating the small things in our lives, the little successes that we accomplish.

This is the perfect time to do it. We can practice gratitude (consciously expressing gratitude for three to five things each day, or when we’re having a bad day), but we can also consciously Shine.

Here’s a personal example I can give you. London (England) has always had a thriving theatre scene, and the first time we visited we wanted to see at least one musical. But it was before the days of the internet and easy online booking. Our travel agent had a list of what was playing at that time, so one day I worked up the gumption to place a call to a well-known ticket agent in New York called Edwards & Edwards. I’d never done this sort of thing before and was also very shy in those days, so I was nervous – but determined. When the call rang through, they were pleasant and helpful, and I snagged two really good seats for one of the big hits, a musical called Chess. (You may remember its hit song, One Night in Bangkok.) When I got off the phone, I was so excited I spent a couple of minutes jumping up and down in exultation and yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” It wasn’t a big thing, but it felt really good to me.

Even if we’re not jumping up and down, let’s take pleasure in the small things we can accomplish during our troubled times.

Here’s something you can do that will not only give you a great feeling of success, but also something delicious to eat: make a pot of home-made chicken noodle soup. Have you ever done it? It’s so easy and so much better than anything you can buy in a store. Here are two ways to make it.

  1. The Quick and Dirty Method

I discovered this when I was laid up with a bad stomach bug a number of years ago. It was highly contagious and spread through a good portion of both staff and students at the college where I was working. The illness manifested really quickly: one evening in January I was feeling perfectly fine, but at about 2:30am I woke up feeling edgy and then had to make a desperate run to the bathroom to vomit. I didn’t make it all the way, so my poor hubby had to clean up a mess on the hall floor, and then hold my head while I vomited several more times violently into the toilet. I was exhausted and couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour at a time, and I couldn’t stomach any food. The only thing I was able to eat for a day and a half was fresh watermelon – my intrepid hubby searched several stores to find me some in the dead of winter.

On the third day, after the hydration and sugar from the watermelon had helped, I thought I might be able to manage some chicken noodle soup, but I was too tired to be on my feet for long. I sent my hubby on another shopping trip, and just threw all of the following items together in a big pot: chicken breasts, organic chicken broth, a package of pre-diced onions + celery + carrots, salt, and a small bag of gluten-free noodles. Then I flaked out on the couch again while the soup cooked for 30 minutes.

It was delicious, and studies have shown that home-made chicken soup has healing properties. I’ve made that version many times since then, whenever one of us has been under the weather, and the only change I’ve made is to use chicken thighs instead of breasts – they hold up better with the boiling/simmering and have more flavour. Here’s the ratio I use to make at least two dinners’ worth: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, 3 litres (quarts) of good-quality broth, 1 good-sized piece each of carrot + celery + cooking onion (chopped), and only about 100 to 150g of pasta (I prefer lots of broth, and adding too much pasta will make it too much like stew); add salt and pepper to taste at the end. I’ve found that a certain amount of saltiness helps settle a queasy stomach, so I like my soup a little on the salty side. That’s it.

  • The Old-fashioned From-Scratch Method

I don’t recall my mom making chicken noodle soup from scratch – she kept a lot of either Lipton’s or Campbell’s around the house because I had an ongoing case of tonsillitis and I was sick on a regular basis. My parents tried to take me for surgery when I was three, but I’d had a bad experience with a doctor as a baby and I shrieked as soon as I saw the hospital. By the time I turned five, though, I’d gotten past that, and I even asked the surgeon if I could see my tonsils after the operation. He was amused and kept them for me in a jar of formaldehyde. They were in such bad shape that to this day I remember what they looked like: a pair of lumpy white spheres with black specks. (There was much speculation at the time that I’d grow up to be a doctor, but I became a biologist instead.)

After my hubby and I began dating, I discovered that his old Polish grandmother, who loved to feed people, made a great chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I promptly abandoned store-bought.

This version too is quite easy, just a bit more time-consuming, but a lot of us have time on our hands these days.

Make the stock first:

  1. Roast some inexpensive chicken that has bones and skin (a pound of wings that you might have sitting around in the freezer will do) in the oven until the pieces brown a bit. Both the bones and the bits of fat under the skin add a lot of flavour to your stock, as does the browning.
  2. In a big Dutch oven or stock pot, put the browned chicken and any juices from the roasting pan, along with two litres of good broth and a litre of water (the broth gives a little extra boost to the stock), one cooking onion with skin on and cut into quarters, the centre 3 or 4 stalks of a bundle of celery including the leafy heart, and a hefty unpeeled carrot cut into chunks (give the vegetables a bit of a scrub first). Add 2 or 3 dried bay leaves, about 12 peppercorns, and a teaspoon of coarse sea salt. You can also add a few cloves of garlic if you want. If you want to add a little zip to your stock, toss in a couple of dried chiles broken in half.
  3. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the stock simmer, covered, for an hour or so.
  4. Strain the stock by either pouring the contents of the pot through a colander into a big bowl, or by scooping out the solids with a slotted spoon. The poached vegetables are quite good to snack on, by the way.

Make the soup:

  1. Put the strained stock back into the pot and add: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, another onion peeled and chopped, a carrot chopped (wash but leave the peel on – it’s full of nutrients), and a stalk of celery sliced up crosswise into about 1/8” thick slices (at the wider end, cut the stalk in half lengthwise to keep the slices fairly consistent in size). Add chopped fresh herbs if you have them (parsley or dill are nice), or a teaspoon of dried. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour.
  2. Cook your pasta separately, however much you want to use (remembering that pasta swells as it cooks).
  3. Once the soup has cooked, drain the pasta and add it to the soup at the end, along with salt and pepper to taste. (In the Quick method, the pasta is cooked right in the soup, which tastes fine but adds some cloudiness to the end product.)
  4. To serve, put a piece of chicken in a bowl and cut up into small pieces, then add the broth, vegetables and pasta. Enjoy!

The idea of mindfulness is to set aside all the detritus we carry around most of the time – worrying about the bills or the appliance that sounds like it’s going to fail soon, avoiding the coronavirus, our kids are fighting, and on and on – for a little while to take a breather, to just appreciate something nice we’re doing at the moment. A lot of the time we forget to do that.

Making a wonderful pot of soup on a cold winter day is the perfect antidote to both the weather and your mind running around in circles. It’s nourishing, comforting, and feels really good to produce. Life doesn’t get much better than sharing that soothing deliciousness with your family or someone you’re keeping in contact with who needs a pick-me-up. Let me know how you make out 😊

If you’re having trouble coping with the heightened state of worry we’re all in these days, check out the many free resources and webinars offered by the Action for Happiness organization. I think you’ll find some really good ideas to help you.

Next week: getting ready for another fun holiday to celebrate: the Lunar (Chinese) New Year coming up on February 12th.

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.

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.