Thursday's Child: Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, Toronto

Thursday, November 20, 2014
I've been to the Royal Winter Fair as a kid, both with my parents and as part of a school group. Andrew and I have taken our own girls many times through the years. But with both girls busy a couple of weekends ago, and Andrew and I looking for something to do, we decided to visit the Royal on our own.

We stopped first to watch the goat judging. (I don't know anything about goats. But if you're looking, you can find drama anywhere.)

Yup, "Overall Best Udder" is actually a category.

When I think of livestock at the fair, I think of the beef and dairy cattle competitions that are held throughout the week. But in addition to cattle (and goats), there are contests for poultry, sheep, rabbits and pigeons.

Young 4H members were proud to show off their cattle.

When I was in 4H, girls usually joined cooking and sewing clubs while boys joined agricultural clubs. Now, of course, the fair is full of young men and women showing the animals they raised.

We enjoyed watching the many art students sketch livestock with their classmates.

Produce and fresh baking are probably my favourite part of any fall fair. (When I was a little girl, I was the junior division fudge champion at Rodney Fair more than once. I'm sure that comes as a surprise to no one.)

We came across a cow standing patiently in the middle of a hall. This photo is begging for a great caption. Any suggestions?

Thursday's Child: The Berlin Wall

Thursday, November 13, 2014
Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the most moving elements of our trip to Berlin this summer was seeing the places where the Wall used to stand - because most of it, of course, has been removed. A few sections remain throughout the city, as testament to the 28 difficult years when the city was divided in half.

Following the Second World War, Berlin had originally been divided in four. One of those zones was assigned to each of the triumphant war powers: Britain, USA, France, and Russia. In the post-war years, millions of eastern Europeans escaped to the west through Berlin. By 1961, Soviet authorities decided to stop that flow by erecting a wall around their zone.

On the night of August 12, 1961, barriers and fences were built around East Berlin. In the morning, inhabitants of both sides of the city woke up to a new world, in which movement to the other side was prohibited.

It's sometimes easier to make sense of a tragic situation by reading about individual cases. Hundreds of children were cut off from their parents for political or medical reasons, and sometimes it was many years until they were reunited.

There were a number of checkpoints that permitted movement between the two sides. The most famous was checkpoint Charlie, which separated the American and Russian sectors. Typically, it was difficult and time-consuming for westerners to cross to the east, and the process required visas and special payments to secure approval. Of course, residents of East Berlin were prevented from travelling to the west in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Many easterners attempted to escape to the west and, despite the security, thousands were successful. One young man rebuilt his car so it was low enough to pass under the wall, then hid his girlfriend from East Berlin on the floor of the passenger side (and her mother in the trunk). Other creative refugees found their ways to the west via tightrope or hot air balloon.

Most of the wall has been destroyed. In areas where it has come down, it's still commemorated by plaques that lie along its path.

However, in a few spots the wall still stands. The top photo shows a section of the wall that looks much like it did at the time (save the hole punched through it). The photo above depicts the beginning of a mile-long section of wall called the East Side Gallery. It's been allowed to stand, and has been decorated to become the world's longest open-air mural collection.

Birthday Rituals

Sunday, November 9, 2014
I just celebrated another birthday - or, as Andrew jovially calls it, my "birthweek". It's true that I've had a few days of celebrations with family and friends, and dinner out tonight to look forward to. But that doesn't mean I stayed out of the kitchen.

There are a few things you should know about my birthday:
- I will ask my daughters for the gift of time;
- I will eat arugula salad;
- I will bake my own dessert.

For most bloggers that birthday dessert would be a cake, but I celebrated with a less traditional birthday pavlova. Because I've already posted that recipe, I'll share the recipe for my birthday lunch, a stuffed portobello mushroom. It's surprisingly filling and rich; served beside a salad, it makes a perfect meal, birthday or otherwise. Especially when that salad is arugula.

Today's poem doesn't really have anything to do with birthdays or mushrooms, but I'm hoping you'll indulge me anyhow. I love villanelles, and most of them (Mad Girl's Love Song, One Art) are far too gloomy to post without my friends worrying about me. So let me share this beautiful poem, one that reminds me of the dwindling days of fall every time I read it.

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reason why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

- "If I Could Tell You", by W.H. Auden

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Taleggio cheese
(adapted from Plenty)

5 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
olive oil
1 small (or half a large) fennel bulb
3 Tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 Tbsp parmesan, grated
75 grams taleggio cheese (mozzarella is fine too), sliced
2 Tbsp fresh basil, shredded coarsely (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an oven tray with baking parchment. Place four of the mushrooms on the tray, open end down, drizzle with a little oil, and bake for about 15 minutes, until mushrooms begin to soften. Remove from oven and flip so open end is facing up.

Meanwhile, finely dice the remaining mushroom. Trim the fennel and chop it into fine dice. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan and add the fennel and chopped mushroom. Cook on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft but have not browned. Add sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Cook a few minutes more, then remove from the heat and leave to cool down.

Once cool, add parmesan to the mixture. Pile the fennel filling on the whole mushrooms and top with slices of taleggio. Return to the oven bake for about 10 minutes, until cheese melts and mushrooms are hot.

Garnish with basil, if desired, and serve with a salad.

Thursday's Child: Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Holocaust Memorial, also called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is a collection of  2711 concrete slabs built in honour of the Jewish people slaughtered during the Second World War. Located on a five-acre plot near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, it resembles a field of tombs when seen from a distance. But as we entered the memorial, the unmarked stones gradually grew from a height of several inches, to towering over our heads. The architect has explained that he hoped to create a sense of imbalance and disorientation for visitors. He chose the number 2711 at random, to help depict the senselessness of the killings. As Andrew and I walked quietly through the paths created by these stones, it was difficult not to feel overwhelmed, even claustrophobic at times.

The adjacent Place of Information contains the names of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Over 3 million victims are named.

The following poem was written about the loss of innocence brought on by the First World War. I can't help but imagine there was a similar loss of innocence when the extent of the horrors of the Second World War were revealed.

"Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

"And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoas and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

"And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

"Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again."

- "MCMXIV" by Philip Larkin

Learning to Like Brussels Sprouts

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It’s days like today that I’m grateful for my cache of unposted recipes. I spent most of the week assisting at the annual Humber Writers’ Workshop. It was a great experience – as a writer, there’s nothing more powerful than being surrounded by other writers, sharing experiences and advice. The instructor I worked with, Valerie Martin, was both insightful and generous, and it was a joy to spend a week assisting her in the classroom.

It did, however, mean I had no time for either blogging or cooking this week.

In a way, that was a good thing, because I’m overdue on posting this salad recipe. I received a copy of Donna Hay’s Fresh and Light cookbook from Simone about a month ago, and I promised myself I’d post this recipe the first chance I got.

I’m a big fan of roasted vegetables, but until recently I’ve avoided brussels sprouts, after an ancient and indelible memory of eating boiled sprouts. That all changed when I tried roasted sprouts in my new favourite restaurant earlier this fall, and realized how delicious they could be. So when I got Fresh and Light a couple of weeks later and saw this recipe, it was inevitable that I’d try the technique myself. The outcome was terrific – a mix of strong and mild flavours that capture the essence of fall, served on my beloved arugula.

If you, too, have an ancient and indelible memory of eating sprouts, give them one more try with this delicious fall salad.

Roasted Brussels Sprout and Pear Salad
(from Fresh and Light by Donna Hay)

500 g (18 ounces) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 firm brown pears, cut into thick wedges
1 red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
8 sprigs sage
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp brown sugar
sea salt and cracked black pepper
150 g (5 ounces) arugula
150 g (5 ounces) firm goat’s cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the sprouts (cut side up), pear, onion and sage on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Mix the oil, vinegar and sugar, and spoon half the dressing over the vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 30 – 35 minutes or until the sprouts are golden. Divide the sprouts, pear, onion, sage and arugula between serving plates. Sprinkle with the goat’s cheese and spoon over the remaining dressing to serve.

Thursday's Child: Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Thursday, October 23, 2014
I’ve written before that travel makes the world smaller. That when tragedy occurs in a place we’ve been, we feel the story more personally than if we’re simply reading newspaper headlines.

That’s still true, but those tragedies don’t usually happen as close to home as they did on October 22, 2014.

A lone gunman shot and killed a soldier, Nathan Frank Cirillo, who was standing guard at the National War Memorial. The gunman subsequently entered our Parliament building with a rifle. After exchanging gunfire with police, he was killed before any more lives could be taken.

After a tragedy, our first response is to disbelieve it. To think, things like that don’t happen here. But, of course, they can. They can happen anywhere, even in a country that thinks of itself as peaceful, and that takes pride in the openness of its Parliament building and the surrounding area.

Ottawa is just a few hours drive from Toronto, and we took the girls there over the 2006 Christmas holidays. We did the things many families do when they visit Canada’s capital city. We went to the National War Memorial, we had our pictures taken outside the Parliament buildings, we toured the House of Commons and Senate. On our way into Parliament, we passed through metal detectors. My oldest daughter, then 12, set off the alarm by accidentally carrying her craft scissors in her pocket. We’ve laughed about it for years, but today it just makes me sad.

Cirillo was killed yesterday at the National War Memorial. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier now has a name and a face.

Sending prayers to the family of Nathan Cirillo.

Nathan Frank Cirillo; photo credit The Toronto Star

Recipes Inspired by Musicals: Frozen

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frozen is the Disney movie that charmed everyone who saw it. It’s a story of sisterly love, and if you have a daughter under the age of ten, I’m guessing she wants to be either Anna or Elsa – maybe both. Frozen is officially the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, and the soundtrack is the best-selling album of the year. It features some of the most delightful non-human characters (Sven the reindeer! Olaf the snowman! Rock trolls!) ever to populate a movie screen. And it inspired the most engaging lip sync I’ve ever seen, that to date has tallied over 17.5 million views. I may be responsible for a few of those.

I’ve seen this movie twice, under very different circumstances.

My youngest daughter and I saw Frozen in the theatres shortly after it opened. The timing was appropriate – it was in January of one of the coldest winters we’ve had in years. We stepped from the cold of Toronto into the chill of Frozen’s Arendelle and didn’t miss a beat. Kristoff the ice-man would have felt right at home.

The second time I saw the movie was in the middle of July. When the girls came home from their camp jobs for a weekend off, my oldest daughter said one of her campers sang “Let It Go” at closing campfire. Right before her performance the camper got nervous, and my daughter promised to sing it with her, even though she didn’t know the words. She faked her way through, singing the chorus and improvising the rest with her version of interpretive dance. But she was determined to watch the movie before she returned for session 2. And that’s why she and I watched Frozen on a day more suited to Body Heat. We needed to use our imaginations during “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but we appreciated the hour-and-a-half respite from the heat.

Clearly, today’s recipe had to be something frozen, and so delightful that it makes you smile. Chocolate-Dipped Frozen Bananas take less than ten minutes to prepare, can be made in advance, and can even be considered quasi-healthy since they’re 90% fruit. Making them could be that “act of true love” that would thaw the frozen heart of anyone you know.

Chocolate-Dipped Frozen Bananas
(inspired by Sugar Hero)


3 large ripe bananas
200 grams good quality chocolate (semi-sweet, milk or dark chocolate), coarsely chopped
Assorted toppings: toffee bits, chopped pistachios, chopped pecans, flaked sweetened coconut, etc.


Peel the bananas and cut them in half so you have six banana pieces. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and freeze until firm, about 1 hour. (If you like, you can insert a wooden stick in the end to make it easier to coat with chocolate. Even better, use a plastic knife, which you can then remove after it’s been coated for better presentation.)

Place chopped chocolate in a double boiler, and melt over boiling water. Put the toppings in shallow bowls beside the stove.

When your chocolate is melted and your toppings are ready, remove the bananas from the freezer. Hold one over the bowl of chocolate and use a large spoon to cover the banana section in chocolate. When it’s completely covered, dip it in your choice of topping, moving quickly as the chocolate will start to set as soon as it touches the cold bananas.

Bananas can be served right away or stored in the freezer in an airtight container in the freezer. If you’re refreezing them, let them sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before serving for best taste and texture.