Thursday's Child: Amherst Island, Ontario

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some of our travels take us closer to home than others. Last weekend we visited Amherst Island, a couple of hours east of Toronto, to visit a close friend and to enjoy one of the concerts in the annual Waterside Summer Series.
Andrew’s former piano teacher, Bev Harris, has been director of the summer series for ten years, but this was the first time we were able to go. We stayed in a bed and breakfast on the mainland, then took the ferry across to meet Bev (along with her cousin and husband, and two stepsons) for an early dinner at Stella’s Café, just around the corner from the ferry landing. We enjoyed meeting her family over a casual meal that ended with a slice of delicious homemade peach and cherry pie.


After eating, we drove to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, a lovely church that’s home to the music festival. The building was erected in 1883 by the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Northern Ireland who had immigrated to the island. That winter, they carried the limestone from the mainland over the ice of Lake Ontario, in horse-drawn sleighs. The church has been enlarged and renovated since then, and stained glass windows added, but the exterior dates back 131 years.

The church was completely full for the 7:15 show, which featured cellist Denise Djokic, her brother Marc on violin, and pianist David Jalbert. The performance was stellar, one of the best evenings of classical music I’ve ever attended. I loved the Sibelius pieces for violin and piano, and the Debussy sonata, but my favourite was the delightful “Spring” by Astor Piazzola. (How could I not have heard this wonderful piece of music before?)

After the show, we were invited as Bev’s guests to an after-party, where we met her neighbours on the island, as well as the performers. I was charmed by the friendly, down-to-earth musicians, especially Denise, who I spoke with at length. And I can see why Bev has so many performers that want to return year after year. The festival provides a rare chance to perform for a small, appreciative crowd, and then mingle with the audience after the show.

Bev and her group have done a terrific job putting together the music festival. I’m already looking forward to going back next year!



Double play

Sunday, July 20, 2014
Day 1: The Sauté 
These are the saddest of possible words:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double -
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

- "Baseball's Sad Lexicon" by Franklin Pierce Adams

For those who don't memorize baseball stats from a hundred years ago, Tinker, Evers and Chance were the triple-play combination on the Chicago Cubs teams of the early twentieth century. Although they weren't the most prolific triple-play infielders in history, thanks to this poem they're probably the most famous. The Cubs have not won a championship in 106 years (a record being avidly pursued by hockey's Toronto Maple Leafs).

The only thing better than your team turning a double play on the baseball field, is you turning a double play in the kitchen. I love to cook, but there's no greater satisfaction than getting two different meals from one preparation.

This dish, that uses vegetables available at the farmers' market now, is a great example. We ate it freshly sautéed for dinner a couple of nights ago, and thought it was terrific. The following day, Andrew and I enjoyed it for lunch baked into an omelet with a little added parmesan.

The only way to top that would be making a bigger batch, so I could make it into a frittata for that ever-elusive triple play.

Day 2: The Omelet
Corn and Yellow Bean Sauté with Bacon and Herbs
(from Fresh From the Farm, by Susie Middleton)

Note: For meal #2, I made a two-person omelet and added leftover sauté with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan. Next time I'd try it in a frittata with grated Gruyere.

Ingredients:

2 strips bacon
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup small-diced yellow onions
kosher salt
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups small-diced yellow beans (or green beans)
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 or 3 ears)
1 tsp minced fresh garlic
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 lemon
1 Tbsp chopped fresh chives

Cook the bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until crisp. Transfer the bacon to paper towels and drain off all but 1 Tbsp of fat from the pan. Add the butter to the skillet and turn the heat to medium. When the butter has melted, add the onions and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and are just starting to brown, 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the olive oil, yellow bean, and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are somewhat shrunken and both the beans and onions are lightly browned, 5 to 6 minutes more. Add the corn kernels and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the corn is glistening, slightly shrunken, and slightly darker in colour, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until fragrant and well-mixed, about 1 minute. Crumble the bacon and add to the pan. Stir until heated through and remove the pan from the heat.

Season with a few generous grinds of pepper and a light squeeze of the lemon. Stir in the herbs. Let sit for another couple of minutes, then stir again, scraping the bottom of the pan, and season to taste with salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

*
Andrew suggested I tell my readers if you Tinker with the recipe, you might end up with something you'll love for-Evers. I told him there was no Chance I'd print a pun that bad. However, the blog post ain't over 'til it's over, so here it is.


A day off

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The girls are working at camp for ten weeks this summer, and we’ll see them only on their handful of days off. Yesterday was one of those days, and they came home eager to catch up on their sleep and wash their clothes – and also, one hopes, to see their parents.

When I was a teenager I worked at camp for four summers, so I have a good idea how hard they’ve been working. Being a camp counsellor was one of the most challenging and most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. This year my 19 year old is a counsellor and my 16 year old works in the camp kitchen. When I was preparing dinner last night, I deliberately didn’t ask for help, since I wanted to give them a complete break. My oldest daughter offered to help – she always does – and then my youngest surprised me by coming in the kitchen and asking, “Can I make the salad?” She proceeded to prepare the lettuce so efficiently and so attractively (and so helpfully) that I was tempted to take photos for the blog.

(She’d be mortified to know I was praising her publicly, and I can only do it because she doesn’t usually read my blog. If you see her, don’t mention this post, okay?)

As I write this, they’re on their way back to camp for Session Two. Today’s recipe is one I served for our family dinner last night, and one that I’ve been making for twenty-two years.

After I was married, and cooking for two on a regular basis, I wanted to expand my repertoire beyond the recipes I’d grown up making. And so I started to buy cooking magazines. This one came from the first issue of Bon Appetit I ever bought, in July 1992, long before those daughters were born. Now that I’m cooking for four – or for two, when they’re up at camp – we still love it.

Green Bean Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
(from the July 1992 issue of Bon Appetit)

2 pounds green beans, trimmed
3 shallots, minced
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup grated Romano or Manchego cheese (first amount)
1/3 cup grated Romano or Manchego cheese (second amount)

Cook beans in large pot of rapidly boiling salted water until just crisp-tender. Rinse with cold water. Drain. Transfer to bowl.

Combine shallots and vinegar. Gradually mix in oil. Add basil. Add enough dressing to beans to coat. Gently mix in 1/3 cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 4 hours ahead; cover and chill.) Place bean salad on platter and top with remaining cheese.



Thursday's Child: School and Farm visit, Guatemala

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I've written before that one of our favourite parts of travelling is meeting the people who live in the country we're visiting. That's why a highlight of our recent trip to Guatemala was paying a visit to a small community, to see their school and have lunch in a farmhouse.


Before leaving the city of Antigua, where we'd stayed for two days, we stopped in a local market to pick up soccer balls to take as a gift to the school. We drove about an hour out of the city through winding roads, and pulled onto a dusty lane that led us through small cultivated tracts. We watched as farmers planted and fertilized some of these fields by hand. Horses are expensive, and the farms are small enough that these jobs can be done manually.

We pulled over to the side of the road to see the village school. The classroom was held outdoors, where five rows of desks were filled with hard-working children. I'd told the guide we didn't want to visit a "model school", where visitors are regularly paraded through, and we were pleased that this didn't seem to be the case. The children seemed genuinely excited to meet these odd visitors who spoke little Spanish and brought a couple of soccer balls with them. (To my relief, nobody asked us to inaugurate those soccer balls.)

Although the language barrier meant we couldn't speak directly with the kids, they enjoyed showing us their schoolwork. We loved communicating through smiles and laughter: two of the girls were thrilled to show me the pictures they'd drawn and stories they'd written, while Andrew bantered with the mischievous boys in the back row. They were particularly amused by Andrew counting "uno, dos, tres" before taking their photos - maybe it was his Canadian accent?



Waving goodbye to our new friends, we drove a few minutes further along the road. By North American standards, the farms are basic and the houses are compact. When we arrived at the farmhouse we'd be eating lunch at, we were greeted by our tiny, perfect hostess and invited into her home. We sat at a table in a small room next to the kitchen, with religious pictures and calendars on the walls around us.


When she brought us the meal, I asked our guide if we could say grace - given the sacred atmosphere of the room, I thought she would appreciate it. And sure enough, when we were finished, the first thing she asked him about us was "Catolico?"

Our meal was the best kind of simple, delicious food made by an experienced cook. A mile-high stack of tortillas accompanied our plate of rice, vegetables and chicken. We were each served a bowl of broth, which we ate with the other food as a kind of deconstructed soup. It was more food than I could possibly eat, and yet in this small, welcoming home, surrounded by fresh air and green farmland, I loved every single bite.
Guatemalan cook meets Canadian cook

Guatemalan beauty


Through the Evening

Sunday, July 6, 2014


"So you whisper your arrival walking backwards to the
door, wonder briefly what it is you're hesitating for. All
the streets lie down, deserted in the darkest part of night,
to lead you through the evening to the light. Pulled along
in the tender grip of watches and ellipses. Small request:
could we please turn around?"

- from "Time's Arrow" by John K. Samson


Our summers always seem to rush past us, and we long to appreciate every minute of daylight. In early July, dusk lasts until nearly 9:30. We live five minutes from the Humber River and its beautiful walking path, and ten minutes from Lake Ontario. Most of the year, I enjoy those areas in my daytime walks, but in Toronto's glorious fleeting summer, I relish the extra few hours. And with the girls working at camp for most of the next two months, Andrew and I took advantage of having no particular plans one evening to go for a twilight walk.

I also took advantage of the very hot weather earlier this week to make this wonderful main-course salad. True, there's a bit of advance prep work, and the recipe looks involved, but most of the steps take just a few minutes. That means at mealtime, all you have to do is assemble this salad and eat it - giving you even more time to enjoy your lovely summer evening.


Southwestern Salad
(adapted from Backroad Journal

For the Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup olive oil, 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp salt and two shakes Tabasco sauce. Whisk well to combine.

For the Roasted Chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle one chicken breast with olive oil and squeeze a little lime juice over it. Season with salt, pepper and ground cumin. Roast for 30 - 40 minutes or until cooked. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes, then slice. Drizzle with a little vinaigrette.

For the Eggs: Peel 2 hard-boiled eggs and cut into quarters.

For the Black Beans: Wash and drain well 1 can (19 ounces/540 mL) of black beans and season with 1/4 tsp of oregano, and cumin, pepper and salt to taste. Add some of the vinaigrette, toss well and let rest for 10 minutes to allow flavours to mix.

For the Corn: Remove the kernels from one cob of corn (about 2/3 cup). In a skillet, add 1 Tbsp olive oil and sauté 3 Tbsp diced red onion until translucent. Add 2 Tbsp diced sweet red or green pepper and 1 minced clove garlic, and cook for 1 minute. Add corn, season with 1/4 tsp cumin and salt. Saute for about two minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.

For the Avocado: Cut an avocado in half, remove the pit, peel and cut into chunks. Squeeze a little lime juice over it to keep it from turning brown. Drizzle with a little vinaigrette and gently mix.

For the Cheese: Slice wedges of Manchego cheese, or crumble pieces of feta or goat cheese.

To assemble the salad: Add about 4 – 5 cups of romaine lettuce, washed, dried and cut into bite-sized pieces to a large bowl, season with a little salt and pepper and toss with just enough dressing to lightly coat. Place the lettuce on a large platter and arrange the chicken, eggs, beans, corn, avocado and cheese in neat rows along the top. Serve with any remaining vinaigrette on the side.



Thursday's Child: Kew Gardens, England

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Last week I wrote about the Kew Village Market that we stumbled onto when we visited last May. Today I’ll write about the reason we were in the area in the first place – to see the lovely and impressive Kew Gardens.


George III and his beloved wife, Charlotte, spent their summers in Kew Palace, which at the time was set amid acres of farmland, with their fifteen children. George preferred the country lifestyle to living in the city, and hired several architects to build structures throughout the park, including the orangery and the pagoda.


The beautiful Kew Palace was home to both domestic happiness for the king and his family, and personal unhappiness, as George spent many of his later years here suffering from mental illness. We loved visiting this beautiful building. We may actually have enjoyed it with too much effervescence, as the photo above was taken about two minutes before we were kicked out of the Palace for going ‘up’ the ‘down’ staircase. (Okay, perhaps we weren’t kicked out, but we were scolded in a British accent, and that felt like being kicked out.)




Suitably chastened, we repaired to the adjacent Queen’s Gardens. These immaculate gardens include only plants that were grown in England as of the seventeenth century, and were an excellent place to lick our colonial wounds.



Temperate House, currently under restoration, is the largest Victorian-era greenhouse in the world.

Kew Gardens is so much more than simply a beautiful place to walk and learn about history. It hosts the most extensive collection of living plants in the world, with more than 30,000 different varieties. The Gardens are also home to eight million preserved plant specimens, and well over one million types of fungi samples.

And I've written before about my family's fascination with peacocks. This was an opportunity to enjoy watching peacocks stroll in the wild, with no annoying Ancient Wonder of the World to distract us.





Confessions of a Celebrity Judge

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Yesterday was the culmination, and the ultimate payoff, of all my experience as a food blogger. The many years of testing recipes on behalf of my readers and posting them online paid off in the quintessential perk.

Yesterday, I was a celebrity food judge at Toronto Ribfest.

Here's what happens when you're a celebrity judge: You report to a VIP tent 20 minutes before judging begins. You meet the other judges, maybe even pose for a selfie with one of them. You proceed to a stage where you sit in front of a couple of hundred people who are prepared to watch you eat chicken for an hour. (Okay, maybe a few were there to watch the Colombia/Uruguay World Cup match, showing on the screen beside the stage.) You get samples of sixteen of the best pieces of barbecued chicken you've ever eaten, served up by vendors like Pistol Pete's, or Bad Wolf, or Hawgs Go Wild. You rank this chicken (identified by number only) in terms of appearance, flavour and overall excellence. And you do all of this while trying your best not to cover the table, and yourself, with barbecue sauce.



I had the honour of serving on a panel with Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames (far left in top photo) and Ali Hassan, stand-up comedian and chef (far right). I sat next to Matt Hart (with me in the photo above) of Indie 88, the one radio station everyone in my family loves, and we talked about music between plates of chicken.

But the real celebrities are the people who run Toronto Ribfest, and who volunteer at the charities that benefit from it. People like my friend Hugh, who's a co-chair of the event, and who hopes to raise half a million dollars for charity over Ribfest's five days. People like Jennifer, who sat on my left side at the judging table, and who serves as chair for Stonegate Community Health Centre. Thanks to these dedicated people, and many others like them, our community is a little more welcoming to those who need the help most.
With co-chair Hugh Williams and fellow celebrity judge Maurice Blitz.
There's no recipe for barbecued chicken today, because how could I compete with the sixteen best that Ribfest had to offer? (Also because I may be giving chicken a pass for a couple of days.) Instead, I'm sharing a recipe for risotto, something that will appeal to carnivores and herbivores alike.  This risotto is light and delicious and, contrary to popular belief, doesn't require constant stirring. Just give it a stir every couple of minutes, and you'll be a celebrity in your own home.


Corn, Asparagus and Basil Barley Risotto
(from Eats Well With Others)

Note: This risotto would also be great with sliced cremini mushrooms or garden-fresh peas.

Ingredients:

4 cups vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup barley
1/2 cup white wine
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 1/2 cups corn, fresh or frozen
1 cup basil, thinly sliced
1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Instructions:

Combine the vegetable broth and water in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in the barley and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Ad the white wine and cook until almost totally evaporated.

Pour 2 cups of the heated broth mixture into the pot with the barley. Cook, stirring frequently, until almost evaporated. Then add the broth mixture 1 cup at a time, only adding more after the rest has almost evaporated, stirring frequently. Repeat until barley is cooked through and tender.

Add the asparagus with the final cup of the broth mixture, simmering until almost evaporated. Stir in the corn and cook until heated through.

Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, and serve with basil and parmesan.