The Longest Night of the Year

Monday, December 23, 2013
December 21 is the shortest day of the year, and it would follow that its night is the longest. But it was longer than ever this year, because we were without electricity for most of it.

A prolonged bout of freezing rain that began on Saturday morning threatened to wreak havoc in Toronto and the surrounding area. And indeed, we woke up on the morning of December 22 to a very cold house. When I went outside to salt the steps, I made a detour for the car radio, and heard that over 250,000 people in the city were without heat and warmth, and we were four of them.

Our family was scheduled to light the Advent candle in church yesterday, and we had a huddled conference about whether we should try to drive on the icy streets. I think it appealed to the pioneer spirit in all of us and, with Andrew behind the wheel, we set off, not even knowing whether there'd be a service.

When we arrived, the building was in darkness, but the sanctuary was full of light, thanks to our lovely stained glass windows. The decision was made to go ahead with the service for whatever numbers showed up. And it was very much an improvised affair. My youngest daughter and her friends, who sing in the Youth Choir, were asked to help out the three Junior Choir members who showed up. She also gamely took on one of the parts in the bell choir, never having played in the bell choir before. The numbers were small and the church was cold (as the mother of a performer, I attended both services), but the love and joy that were generated filled the building with a different kind of warmth.

(We have been very lucky. Our power came back on at about 3:00 this morning, and our house is starting to feel livable again. According to news reports, it may be Christmas day or later until power is fully restored in Toronto.)

I wanted to share our Advent reading with you, because it seemed particularly fitting for a city that is struggling with darkness:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We are easily distracted by the darkness of isolation and fear.
We light this candle as a symbol of Love.
Source of light, shine in our lives and in your world with your everlasting love."

Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas, and may you receive whatever kind of light you need most.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Bolt and bar the shutter
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

"Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully's open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?

"You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow."

- W.B. Yeats, "Mad As The Mist And Snow"

Yesterday we had our first big snowfall of the year in Toronto. It snowed all day without stopping, and that had its usual impact on traffic and life in the city. We went to Andrew's boss's Christmas party last night and it took us nearly two hours to get home. The blue light of a snow plough led the line of cars ahead of us, and we snaked behind in a snowy procession until we reached the highway.

From the looks of it, we got about six inches of snow. I spent close to an hour clearing the driveway and cars this morning, and greeted my neighbours who were doing the same thing. I had been inside about twenty minutes before I looked out and noticed it was snowing again. Such is life in Toronto in the winter.

On a day like today, there's only one kind of recipe to post, and that's soup. This mushroom barley soup is perfect if you're looking for something to warm you after hanging up your snow shovel.

Mushroom Barley Soup
(adapted from Russ & Daughters, via Epicurious)

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (I used a mix of cremini and button mushrooms)
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
4 cups low-sodium beef broth
3/4 cup uncooked barley, rinsed
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with 2 cups of boiling water. Allow them to soak for an hour. Strain the mushrooms into a bowl, reserving the liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Add the fresh mushrooms, celery, carrot and sauté until mushrooms are golden and the celery and carrots are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour until well-blended. Stir in the mushroom soaking liquid, soaked mushrooms, beef broth, and 4 cups of water. Stir in the barley, salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the barley is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add a little more water. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary.

Thursday's Child: Alton Mill Arts Centre

Thursday, December 12, 2013
Andrew typically takes the first week of December off work, and during that week we take a day trip somewhere in or near Toronto. Two years ago we travelled to St. Jacob's, and this year we spent the day at Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, Ontario.

Alton Mill was built in the late nineteenth century to house a knitting factory. The building survived both The Great Alton Flood of 1889 and a serious fire nineteen years later. The mill was sold upon the death of its owner in 1915 and, under several other owners, remained functional until the early 1980s.

Bought by a developer, the mill remained dormant for a number of years until the owner was approached by a local artist. He was looking for a place to house a studio and wondered if they'd consider leasing space to him and a few other area artisans. The project was so successful that they decided to convert the entire building into an arts and heritage centre.

Now the main floor contains gift shops and a cafe, while the upper floors host studios for photographers, potters, and artists in a variety of media. A dedicated space in the basement houses literary readings and arts performances. We loved checking out the individual studios and talking to the artists about their work.

We visited when the building was decorated for Christmas, and it's hard to imagine a lovelier time of year. But I'd like to go back sometime when it's a bit warmer; the property leads directly to the Bruce Trail, and it would have been great to spend a couple of hours hiking.
Can't believe we missed the chance to pose with the Grinch.

And a trip to Alton wouldn't be complete without lunch at Ray's 3rd Generation Bistro Bakery, with great food and live music.

Christmas Carols and Birthday Wishes

Sunday, December 8, 2013
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. I have much of my shopping done – and wrapped! – and our evenings are filling up with visiting friends and loved ones we don’t see enough of the rest of the year.

Part of the pre-Christmas fun is observing the same traditions every year, like watching White Christmas and reading A Christmas Carol out loud as a family. But this year we did something different – we attended a production of A Christmas Carol, put on by my friend Sara and her theatre company. The story is a true classic, and relates the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from money-hungry miser to a man imbued with a spirit of generosity and love. We shivered at the sound of Jacob Marley’s chains and surreptitiously wiped our eyes over Tiny Tim’s predicted death. After the show, the girls gamely posed with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. We loved this fun, energetic performance and may just have started a new Christmas tradition.

Yesterday was also Andrew’s fiftieth birthday. Rather than celebrating with a party, he chose to spend a quiet day with us. Our oldest daughter gave him song lyrics as a gift (more about Andrew’s music in another post!) and we had dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, Salt. We celebrated with dessert at home. I had offered to make whatever birthday dessert he wanted; like me, he isn’t really a cake person, and asked for this Berry Crisp. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t posted this recipe yet. I’ve made it for years and we always love it. 

Happy birthday to my dear husband!

Mixed Berry Crisp
(barely adapted from Bon Appetit)

6 cups frozen mixed berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), unthawed
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour (first amount)
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup flour (second amount)
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
7 Tbsp chilled butter, diced

Combine berries, sugar, 1/4 cup flour and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to greased glass or pyrex dish. Combine remaining 3/4 cup flour, oats, brown sugar, spices and salt in medium bowl. Add butter and combine. Sprinkle over berry mixture and pat gently into place.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Let stand 15 minutes before serving. Can be served warm or at room temperature.

Light Up the Night

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Today was the first Sunday in Advent, and we celebrated by attending our church's annual Light Up the Night service. There's no better way to start December than by singing carols, hearing the Christmas story, and watching as the outdoor tree has its lights turned on for the first time. Now I'm truly ready to start thinking about Christmas.

We've been going to Light Up the Night since the girls were pre-schoolers. One year, Andrew was asked to accompany the carols on a keyboard that had been carried outside. The plan was sound in theory - what could be lovelier than singing carols around a lit tree? Two minor complications prevented the plan from being perfect: the keyboard had been placed in total darkness; and it was about minus thirty degrees outside that night. The lighting issue was overcome by a quick-thinking worshipper who held up her Blackberry to illuminate the sheet music. The temperature issue was a little tougher for a bare-fingered pianist, and our carol sing was shorter than usual that evening.

Since then, we've gone back inside for carols, and tonight our minister of music accompanied us on the piano in the sanctuary. Both of our girls joined us this evening, as did some of their church friends. It was a perfect first day of Advent.

We ate homemade mac and cheese at the church tonight, but these hearty migas would have been equally perfect. They're warm and filling enough to fill up a group of carollers, whether the temperature is minus thirty or just above freezing.

Mushroom and Leek Migas
(adapted from The New Southwest)

Makes 3 migas; recipe can be doubled

2 – 5 inch corn or wheat tortillas
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
5 large eggs
2 Tbsp heavy cream
salt to taste
1 1/2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
one half of a leek, green ends removed, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 clove minced garlic
3/4 cup shredded manchego cheese, lightly packed

To prepare the corn strips, slice the tortillas in half, then cut into 3/4 inch strips. Heat the vegetable oil, then fry the strips until medium-brown in colour on both sides. Remove tortilla strips from the pan and allow to cool.

In a medium bowl, combine eggs and heavy cream, stirring to mix well. Add salt and set aside.

Return the vegetable oil to the heat and sauté mushrooms for 3 minutes. Add leeks and sauté for an additional two minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté 1 minute. Pour in the egg mixture and combine until set. Add cheese and stir until melted.

Serve immediately with tortilla strips on the side.

Thursday's Child: Essaouira's port

Thursday, November 28, 2013
Last week I wrote about visiting the markets in Essaouira, Morocco. In addition to being a great market town, it's also a fascinating port, and we enjoyed every minute that we spent by the water.

We visited in March, 2007, and March is generally too cool to swim in this Atlantic coastal town. Unless you're under the age of thirteen, in which case there's no bad time to go swimming. The girls eagerly ran in and out of the water, while Andrew and I shivered in our windbreakers. We had the beach completely to ourselves.

Essaouira is also a working harbour, and the next day we walked down to watch the fishermen in action. We enjoyed seeing the boats, large and small, coming inshore with the catch of the day. The best place to take in the action of the harbour - and to look back over the town - was from the ramparts just outside the medina.

A small entrance fee and a bit of a climb took us there. We could have spent the day on these photogenic ramparts, taking in the beautiful views and watching the waves crash against the rocks below. Essaouira is known for its wind, and there was no shortage of that the day we visited. One of the girls' favourite memories of the trip was engaging in a seagull-feeding contest with a couple of French tourists. (You had to be there.)

As with so many cities, Essaouira's history is complicated. First established as Migdol in the seventh century BCE by the Phoenicians, it was subsequently ruled by the Carthaginians, the Portuguese (who called it Mogador), and finally the Moroccans. It was under Moroccan rule in the eighteenth century that the city walls were commissioned, and that the city was named Essaouira, meaning "beautifully designed". If you've watched Orson Welles' Othello, you've seen the ramparts and its cannons in the opening scenes.

A series of stalls at the base of the ramparts featured vendors selling, among other things, wooden recorders and seashells. In short, there was everything needed to make a young person's day complete.

Family reunion

Sunday, November 24, 2013
Last weekend we drove to my cousin's farm near Dutton, Ontario, where we celebrated our annual pre-Christmas reunion. With the exception of a few university and high school students who were in the middle of midterms, everyone made it out. For those of us who live in the city, it was a wonderful chance to get out of town and breathe in the fresh air of the countryside. For all of us, it was a great opportunity to reconnect with the extended family that we don't see often enough.

The cattle were perplexed by the arrival of city slickers:

Tom and Gwen left just before this photo was taken. Here's the rest of the Baker and Woolner clans that attended last week:

I wish I had photos of the delicious food that was served at our reunion. (All of the women in my family love cooking as much as I do. There was great food and lots of it.) Instead I'm posting a recipe for a side dish that would be good at a pot luck meal or just served at home.  I didn't change this spinach sauté at all from the original recipe and it was perfect exactly the way it was. Just like my family.

Sauteed Shiitakes, Spinach and Green Onions
(from Fast, Fresh and Green by Suzie Middleton)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced
1/3 cup green onions (scallions)
4 cups lightly packed stemmed fresh spinach leaves, washed and lightly dried
1 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 tsp sesame oil

In a medium nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butter.  Add the shiitakes and green onions and season with the salt.  Toss and stir to coat with the butter.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shiitakes are shrunken and very lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes.  (Don’t brown too much, as shiitakes tend to toughen.) 

Add the spinach and the soy sauce and stir until all of the spinach is wilted, and it’s well-combined with the mushrooms, about 1 minute.  Remove the pan from the heat, drizzle the sesame oil over the vegetables, stir and serve.

Thursday's Child: Essaouira, Morocco

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Essaouira is a well-preserved fortified town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was an important international port, with goods being conveyed there from southern Africa to be shipped overseas.

Today Essaouira is a UNESCO-protected town with a thriving arts and crafts culture. Its souks (markets) are smaller and more accessible than those in Marrakech. While the Marrakech markets required a local guide with patience and a great sense of direction, we happily navigated the souks in Essaouira on our own.

The market is particularly known for its intricate cedar and thuya wood carvings. But tiny shops throughout the medina brimmed with brightly coloured textiles, fragrant spices, fresh fish and beautiful leather goods.

Despite the allure of the shops, some vendors chose to go it on their own.

The Road Less Traveled By

Sunday, November 17, 2013
The weekend before my birthday, my oldest daughter made it home from university to spend a day with us. (Yes, I know my birthday was nearly two weeks ago. I promise this is the last birthday post for 2013.)

If you know me well, you'll remember how I love my family walks, and it's no surprise that we spent an hour walking down by the Humber River. It was a beautiful day, the leaves were at their colourful best, and the river walk is always a lovely one. But the highlight was witnessing the artistry of inukshuk sculpture - the creation of Inuit landmarks - in person.

Sisters enjoying their walk together:

And how better to celebrate a day together than with a traditional birthday arugula salad?  

Arugula Salad with Pear, Blue Cheese and Apricot Vinaigrette
(adapted from Food Network)

2 cups washed arugula, lightly packed
1 cup Boston lettuce, torn
1/2 ripe pear, thinly sliced
couple of squeezes of fresh lemon juice
4 ounces St. Agur or other blue cheese, crumbled

2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1/4 cup apricot all-fruit spread
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

(note: this makes more than enough dressing for a couple of meals of this salad)

Combine arugula leaves and Boston lettuce in a salad bowl. Squeeze a little lemon juice over pear slices to keep them from browning. Arrange them on top of lettuces. Top salad with blue cheese crumbles. Combine vinegar and apricot preserves. Stream in oil as you whisk dressing. Pour dressing over salad, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.