Thursday's Child: Ljubljana, Full of Grace

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Everything you need to know about Ljubljana is written on the front of this church - in Latin. "Ave,
Gratia Plena!" it reads. "Hail, full of grace!" I'm sure the inscription was written with the holiest of intentions, but it's easy to imagine that it refers to the whole of this lovely city.

Probably the best-known church in the city is St. Nicholas Cathedral, also known as Ljubljana Cathedral. The frescoes on the walls date back to the early eighteenth century, and the fresco on the dome interior was painted in 1844:

One of the most beautiful pieces of artwork in the church is the door relief on the main exterior door. The pope visited Ljubljana in 1996 to commemorate 1250 years of Christianity in Slovenia. To celebrate his visit, artist Tone Demsar was commissioned to decorate the door with scenes depicting the history of Slovenia:

If you look up from anywhere in town, you'll see the castle that dominates the entire city. Ljubljana Castle served primarily as a defence against attacks from the Ottoman Empire. After its importance waned, it served as a hospital, a prison and low-cost housing for impoverished citizens. In the late 1960s, a project began with the purpose of refurbishing the castle, and later a funicular was built to facilitate visiting it.
Above, the city view from the Castle grounds. Below is the view back down the funicular that transported us to the castle.

Here's what I loved most about Ljubljana Castle: its coat of arms bears the symbol of a dragon, just as dragon statues appear throughout the city. According to myth, the Greek hero Jason and his band of explorers, the Argonauts, founded Ljubljana. After stealing the Golden Fleece from King Aetes, they sailed from the Black Sea through the Danube, finally reaching the Ljubljanica River. When they stopped, they were threatened by a fierce dragon. Jason fought with, and eventually killed, the dragon. The city of Ljubljana was built upon that site.
One of the guardians of the Dragon Bridge.

Enjoying dinner by the side of the Ljubljanica River.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Every so often, I print a recipe that I've fallen deeply in love with. You'll remember my Black Bean and Smoked Cheese Quesadillas, or my Rice Noodle Salad, or even my Stuffed Peppers. Every one of these is a dish that I secretly hope nobody else is around to eat, because it means more meals of leftovers for me.

I've found another recipe to add to that pantheon, and that's these Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Reduction. It was a simple recipe I took from the newspaper, so simple they didn't even include amounts. I was dazzled at how incredibly these few simple flavours worked together. Andrew, who cheerfully samples every new recipe I try, enjoyed it, but perhaps wasn't smitten to the same level as me. Which might actually be a good thing, because it means more meals of leftovers for me.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Reduction
(from Sue Riedl of The Globe and Mail)

2 heads of garlic
2 sweet potatoes, sliced into wedges (6 to 8, depending on the size of your sweet potatoes)
olive oil
salt and pepper
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 1/2 ounces (70 grams) goat cheese (I used herbed goat cheese, but regular would be nice too)

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Roast garlic for 40 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare sweet potatoes. Toss the wedges in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Lay them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and roast for 20 minutes. (Put them in the oven for the last 20 minutes that the garlic is in.)

Allow garlic and sweet potatoes to cool slightly.

For the sauce, bring balsamic vinegar and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, and simmer for a couple of minutes to thicken. Cool slightly.

Drizzle balsamic reduction over warm sweet potatoes and top with goat cheese. Serve with mashed and seasoned roasted garlic.

Thursday's Child: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One of the joys of travelling is discovering new places about which you know very little. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, was one of those places. I knew nothing about it, other than a conversation with a family of tourists we met in Munich, who told us Ljubljana was their favourite European city.

I was immediately curious about this hidden gem, and we were fortunate enough to visit it a few years later.

The centre of town is a pedestrian-only area, named Preseren Square after France Preseren, Slovenia's most-beloved poet. The lovely Franciscan Church sits on one of the corners of the square. A monument there is dedicated to Preseren, and it faces the window of his beloved Julija, the woman with whom he fell in love, and for whom he longed the rest of his life:

The Ljubljanica River flows through town and charmingly, has artwork posted upside down on its embankments, so you can view it right side up in the water.

With the river winding its way through town, Ljubljana is of course a city of bridges. The Dragon Bridge, guarded by four dragon sculptures, is probably the most famous and photogenic.

The photo above was taken just a short walk from the city centre. How many European capitals have this pastoral a setting so close to the centre of town?

Next week I'll be revisiting this beautiful city, with photos of Ljubljana Castle and St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Literature or Chickens?

Sunday, February 16, 2014
"I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens."

I loved this E.B. White quote when I heard it, not knowing it referred to the flock of poultry he was raising at the time. I always pictured him fussing in the kitchen with a chicken recipe, and being so frustrated, he'd go back to his writing.

I don't often get discouraged in the kitchen, but it's been hard to find a good recipe for baked chicken that isn't soggy and tasteless. Frying is the way to go for crispy chicken, but I'm reluctant to fry, for both dietary and safety reasons.

That's why I was so happy to receive The Lemonade Cookbook, and try the recipe for Buttermilk-Baked Chicken. If you don't mind waiting 24 hours while the chicken marinates, you'll be rewarded with one of the most flavourful chicken recipes I've ever eaten - and it's crispy, too!

I won this cookbook from Chocolate Shavings, a beautiful blog written by Jennifer, a food specialist for the magazine Canadian Living. Thanks, Jennifer! I'm looking forward to trying so many other recipes from this cookbook, too.

And (this isn't news for anyone who's seen me wrestling with my latest book) right now I'd have to say literature is more frustrating than chickens.

Buttermilk-Baked Chicken
(from The Lemonade Cookbook by Alan Jackson and Joann Cianciulli)

2 cups buttermilk
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp hot sauce, such as Tabasco
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1 onion, coarsely chopped
5 garlic cloves, smashed
4 (6 ounce) skinless boneless chicken breast halves
2 cups panko bread crumbs
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp canola oil

To prepare the marinade, in a large bowl whisk the buttermilk, mustard, hot sauce, paprika, salt, onion and garlic together. Put the chicken in a plastic storage bag, add the buttermilk mixture, and thoroughly coat the chicken in the marinade. Press out the air, seal the bag, and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, preferably up to two days.

When ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the chicken from the marinade, wiping off any excess buttermilk. Discard the marinade. Season both sides of the chicken breast lightly with salt and pepper. Spread the breadcrumbs out on a flat plate. Press the chicken breasts into the bread crumbs to completely coat all sides, shaking off the excess.

Put an ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the pan with 2 Tbsp of oil. Once the oil is shimmering, lay the chicken in the pan (you may have to do this in batches). Sear for 3 minutes per sides. Nestle the seared chicken breasts side by side in the skillet.  Transfer the skillet (and chicken) to the oven and bake for roughly 20 to 25 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the crust is golden.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Jack: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

- from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

I don't butter my muffins, so I don't have to worry about getting my cuffs greasy. And I hope this doesn't make me heartless, but I think muffins are always a good choice, regardless of whether I'm calm or agitated. Somehow they've acquired the guise of a quasi-healthy food, and I'm sticking with it.

This muffin recipe is a perfect example. The pears and chocolate chips add sweetness, but not as much as if I'd made cookies. I wouldn't eat cookies for breakfast (okay, I might, but I try not to make a habit of it) whereas eating muffins for breakfast - or snack, or dessert - seems perfectly legitimate. And while it's important to be earnest, it's even more important to eat your muffins with pleasure. In fact, it is the only way to eat them.

Pear Chocolate Chunk muffins
(adapted from The Jewish Week

1/4 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 – 2 firm, ripe pears, diced (to make 2/3 cup in total)
1 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine oil and sugar in a medium bowl and mix well.  Stir in the egg, and add diced pears and vanilla. Combine well. Stir in both flours, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and stir just until combined. Add chocolate chunks.

Divide the mixture between about 8 lined muffin cups. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool for five minutes and remove from the pan to cool completely.

Thursday's Child: View from a Gondola

Thursday, February 6, 2014

In some ways, Venice is the city that every other city wants to be. When we visited Ljubljana, that town was described as "The Venice of the Balkans". Similarly, both St Petersburg and Bruges were called "The Venice of the North". They are all wonderful cities, with their own enchanting qualities. But there's something special about Venice. Whether it's the history (gateway to the Orient), the art (Titian, Tintorello, Murano's glassmakers), or the romance of those beautiful canals, there is no city like it.
One of the highlights of our visit in 2009 was a gondola ride so we could explore those beautiful canals. Our gondolier was Adriano and, like his father, he made his livelihood from helping travellers explore the place that Lord Byron called "a fairy city of the heart".

We travelled up the Grand Canal, admiring the glorious palazzos that lined its sides, including the magnificent Ca d'Oro. The Rialto Bridge, built in the late sixteenth century, remains the focal point of any trip along the Grand Canal.

But the labyrinth of canals that lead throughout the city were just as enjoyable. We saw La Fenice, Venice's famed opera house, from the gondola entrance, and many smaller bridges and paths. Although these buildings didn't have the glory of some of the regal structures along the Grand Canal, our slower pace made up for it, as Adriano regaled us with stories of the city and his life. The crumbling bricks and peeling paint on some buildings only added to their sense of mystery and antiquity.

A Portuguese Sonnet

Sunday, February 2, 2014

One of the ways to survive a long, cold winter is to imagine yourself in a warmer place. And if I can't actually be there, perhaps the taste and aroma of food from a more temperate climate can take me there.

It must have been with that in mind that I picked up a Portuguese cookbook this week. Every single recipe sounded delicious, from the Green Onion mini-omelettes to the Corn Bread to the enchantingly-titled Cream From Heaven. But in the end, the recipe I had to make was Chicken with Sauteed Mushrooms and Cream Port Sauce.

As I had hoped, this recipe took me to a country I've never visited but often imagined. To Lisbon's medieval Castelo Sao Jorge, a Moorish castle whose oldest sections date back to the sixth century. To Sintra's fairy-tale estate, the Quinta da Regaleira and its gardens. To Evora, with its noble Roman Temple and gothic Cathedral. All under a blue sky and an ebullient sun.

Just imagine the inspiration I'll get when I make Cream From Heaven.

Chicken with Sauteed Mushrooms and Cream Port Sauce

Note: my favourite part of this recipe was the garlic, salt and thyme mixture that's rubbed on the chicken and under the skin. Next time I'll double the amount and use it all.

2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts, skin on and bones in (about 4)
2 cloves garlic, minced (first amount)
1 tsp kosher salt
6 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped and thick stems discarded
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp olive oil (first amount)
2 Tbsp butter (first amount)
1 Tbsp olive oil (second amount)
1 Tbsp butter (second amount)
2 cloves garlic, minced (second amount)
1 pound mushrooms (such as oyster, shiitake and Portobello caps), thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chicken broth
3 Tbsp port or brandy
2 tsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp whipping cream
Kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste

Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Combine the garlic, salt and thyme and rub into the skin, tucking some under the skin. Refrigerate for 4 hours or, if time allows, overnight. Bring the chicken to room temperature for 30 minutes before using.

Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off any excess. Discard the remaining flour.

In a heavy, large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil and 2 Tbsp butter until the butter has melted. Cook the chicken for about 4 minutes on each side, until browned. Reserve pan juices.

Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet or ovenproof pan and bake for 13 to 15 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven, until the chicken is tender and no longer pink inside. Transfer the chicken to a platter and keep warm.

Drain and discard all but 1 Tbsp of the pan juices from the skillet. Add 1 Tbsp oil and 1 Tbsp butter and heat over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until golden and softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the white wine and bring to a boil. Simmer until the wine sauce is reduced by one-third and clings to the mushrooms.

In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, port and mustard, and whisk to combine. Pour over the mushrooms and increase the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and reduced by one-third. Add the cream, whisk to combine, and cook for 1 minute or until the sauce is well blended and heated through.

Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve chicken with the mushroom port sauce.