Thursday's Child: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Thursday, January 31, 2013

This month, I've been writing about some of the wonderful beaches we've had the fortune to visit, and I'll end with one we visited last month: the beach at Morgan's Rock near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

We had loved Costa Rica so much when we visited a couple of years ago that we wanted to go back to Central America.  After doing some research, I kept coming back to the idea of travelling to Nicaragua. It stood out as a wonderful potential destination, with its combination of natural beauty, the lovely Spanish colonial town of Granada, and the friendly people who live there.

Nicaragua met and surpassed our expectations.  If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I love exploring the countries we visit.  I'll be sure to write another day about our adventures around the country, from exploring Granada's islets by boat to hiking around the Masaya volcano, from visiting a local pottery workshop to taking in beautiful views of Apoyo Lagoon.

But today I'm writing about the beach.  We took long walks in the sand and played in the water.  We went kayaking in an estuary just off the beach, and we witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets we've ever seen.  We scrambled over rocks to find a hidden cave that could only be seen at low tide.  We even attended the best New Year's Eve party ever on the beach, complete with an effigy that was burned to celebrate the end of the old year (a Nicaraguan custom).

You probably won't be surprised to hear that we all fell in love with this beautiful country.  On a winter day like today, when the wind is howling outside my window and the snow is drifting, all it takes is a look at these photographs to take me back to Nicaragua and this lovely beach.

Cherries in winter

Monday, January 28, 2013

January's a time for healthy eating.  Looking back over the past month, I've posted two recipes for salad and one for soup.  We've loved them all.

But I think it's time I posted something sweet again.  There's nothing better than fruit desserts in the middle of winter.  These muffins would be wonderful made with fresh cherries in August, but I think they're even better made with frozen cherries in January, when we really need their burst of vitamin C and their joyous sweet/tart flavour.

At times like this, I'm reminded of why I freeze fruit in the warm weather.  It's such a treat to reach into my freezer and pull out a bag of blueberries, raspberries or cherries ready to be baked into something sweet, and to take me back to the summer.

"Oh, my orchard!  After the dark, stormy autumn and the cold winter, there you are again, young, new full of happiness, the heavenly angels have not forsaken you."

- from The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov

Cherry Muffins
(from King Arthur Flour)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups cherries, pitted, coarsely chopped, and drained (either fresh or frozen)
1 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
1 tsp almond extract
granulated sugar for sprinkling

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.  Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Combine dry ingredients and add them to butter/sugar mixture alternately with milk.  Stir in almond extract, then gently fold in almonds and cherries.

Spoon muffin batter into 12 muffin cups (either greased or lined with paper liners).  Cups will be quite full.  Sprinkle each muffin with a little granulated sugar.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until muffins test done.

Thursday's Child: Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Thursday, January 24, 2013
One of the tiniest beaches we've visited - even smaller than the beach at Aarhus that I wrote about last week - is the one by Lake Bohinj in northwestern  Slovenia.  Just a sliver of beach around a large glacial lake, it attracts very few visitors, but we spent an afternoon there four years ago playing in and around the water.

We stayed two nights at beautiful nearby Lake Bled, but longed for an afternoon in an even more serene location.  Hence the 26 kilometre drive to Lake Bohinj on roads so winding, we weren't sure if we'd end up in Italy or back where we started.

Lake Bojinj is protected in more than one way.  The largest lake in the country, it's surrounded by Slovenia's Julian Alps.  But it's also protected from overdevelopment by both the difficulty in reaching it and the fact that it's located in a national park.  There are very few restaurants or hotels in the area, which means you have to be pretty determined to get there.

I understand it's wonderful for fishing, and skiing in the winter is supposed to be great.  But we were there to relax.  Yes, the beach was pebbly rather than sandy, and neither the lake nor the air was warm enough to merit a real swim.  But the crystal clear water, the fresh pine air, and the fact that we had a section of beach all to ourselves meant we enjoyed one of the most tranquil afternoons we've ever spent on holidays.

The Easiest Salad You'll Ever Make

Monday, January 21, 2013
I love to cook, I love to bake.  I love to serve good food to my friends.  I love to write!  So you might think there are no downsides to writing a blog where I record all my recipes.

You'd be wrong.

Here's the downside: when I post a recipe like this, it gives away my secret about how incredibly easy it is to make.

This salad tastes so good, with great flavours that complement each other perfectly, that you'd expect I spent hours putting it together.  Until you read the recipe that I've posted on my blog and realize I assembled the whole thing in ten minutes.

So if I have you over to dinner, you won't be able to exclaim, "Beth, you shouldn't have gone to so much work!"  I won't be able to blush modestly and say, "Your friendship is worth it."

But you'll know in advance how awesome this salad is.  And maybe you'll even serve it to me!

Warm Pear and Hazelnut Salad
(from Canadian Living magazine)

Note: Unless you're making this for a large group, half a recipe will do.

1 Tbsp butter
2 firm ripe pears (such as Bartlett), cored and cut in 1/4 inch thick slices
3 Tbsp sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp liquid honey
1/4 tsp salt
12 cups baby arugula
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) Cambozola cheese, broken in chunks
1/4 cup skinned toasted filberts (or hazelnuts)

In skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat.  Add pears and cook for 1 minute.  Add 1 Tbsp of the vinegar and brown sugar; toss to coat.  Cook until fork-tender, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, in large bowl, whisk together olive oil, remaining vinegar, mustard, honey, and salt.  Toss with arugula.  Divide among four plates.  Sprinkle with cheese, filberts and warm pears.

Thursday's Child: The Beach in Aarhus, Denmark

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote about seeing Aarhus Cathedral in Denmark, and alluded to our trip to the beach that morning.  It may not be the beach visit that appeals in January - even when we visited in August it was cool - but it was a fun way to spend a few hours, and helped us relax in the middle of a very busy Baltic cruise.

This was one of the tiniest beaches I've been to.  A small sandy area next to a pier was backed by changing cabins and washrooms.  But its advantages were many.  It was clean and nearly isolated; other than a few locals who came and went, we had the area to ourselves.  And it was a short walk from both the cruise ship dock and downtown Aarhus.

One of the things I always consider on trips is pacing.  No matter how many glorious sights there are to see, everyone needs some downtime.  We'd seen many glorious sights already on this trip, from Stockholm's Vasa Museum to St. Petersburg's Catherine Palace.  (Actually, everything in St. Petersburg was glorious.)  And we were starting to feel a bit of vacation fatigue.

So our few hours on a tiny beach in Aarhus were perfect.  A chance to run around in our bare feet, collect shells and play in the sand.  And we left feeling ready to see the beautiful ports that still lay ahead of us.


Sunday, January 13, 2013
I'm starting to feel like Rip Van Winkle.  Have I slept through three months and awakened in the spring?  The weather is so unseasonably warm that I've been outside without a coat both yesterday and today.  Because of the NHL strike there's no professional hockey.  That may not be a big deal in some places, but in Canada it's unthinkable.  If it wasn't for the Oscar nominations earlier this week, I'd check to see if I was sitting under a tree somewhere in the Catskill Mountains.

I know this won't last.  There's lots of time left for winter weather and, with the strike settled, the NHL players will be back in the rinks next Saturday.

In the meantime, regardless of what it feels like, the calendar says it's January.  And that means I'm making soup.  This Chicken, White Bean and Brown Rice soup is full of delicious and healthy ingredients.   It'll fill you up whether you're shovelling snow or mowing your lawn.  I think even Rip Van Winkle would approve.

Chicken, White Bean and Brown Rice Soup
(adapted from The Brick Kitchen)

1/2 cup brown and wild rice blend
1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp olive oil
1 large red pepper, chopped
1/2 large green pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 lb ground chicken
1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
1 cup frozen corn
1 can (15 ounces) white beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt

Bring rice and water to boil in a small saucepan.  Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 55 minutes (or follow package directions).  Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.  Add peppers and onion and cook for 5 minutes.  Add celery and chicken, and continue cooking until chicken is no longer pink, using a wooden spoon to break up meat.  Drain any fat off.

Add tomatoes, corn, beans, stock and spices.  Season with salt.  Stir in cooked rice and simmer until heated through.  Adjust seasonings to taste and serve.

Thursday's Child: Costa Rica's Pacific coast

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It's January.  And it may not be cold - at least by normal Canadian standards - but it's still a long time until summer.  What better time could there be to devote a month to some of my favourite beaches?

We visited Costa Rica nearly two years ago, and it was one of our family's most cherished trips.  The country was beautiful, from the rain forest to the highlands, and there were lots of activities to choose from.   But all that adventure didn't keep us from spending precious time at the beach.

Since we stayed in an area that wasn't too built up, we had the beach nearly to ourselves.  We loved walking along the beach, looking for shells, and we loved playing in the water.  But cold-weather Canadians that we are, the real highlight was the surfing lesson.

For many of you, surfing is no big deal.  But none of us had tried before, and the girls were excited about taking lessons.  I feel like I should insert a comment about how gnarly the waves were, but why don't I show you the girls in action instead. 

 Whether we were in the mood for adventure or relaxation, this beach had it all.


Monday, January 7, 2013
After a couple of weeks' blogging break, I'm back!  Although I loved taking it easy over the Christmas holidays, it's great to be blogging again. 

The title of today's blog is Resolutions, which is a bit misleading.  I don't really make New Year's resolutions.  If I decide to change something in my life, I try to do it then and there.  But the beginning of a fresh year isn't a bad time to think about your exercise and food habits, and what you could do to improve them.

Which is why I'm starting the new year with this terrific salad.  The recipe comes from Fast Flavours by Michael Smith.  (Thanks for the Christmas gift, Gwen!)  And this salad is a perfect way to eat healthily without feeling like you're giving up anything.  The recipe couldn't be easier, and the combination of flavours is great.  So whether or not your resolutions include eating more salads -- and even if you didn't make resolutions at all -- give this delicious salad a try.

Arugula, Red Grape and Pecan Salad
(adapted from Fast Flavours by Michael Smith)

For the nuts
1 tsp olive oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 cup pecan halves (he used walnuts)

For the salad
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp hot sauce
2 cups red grapes, cut in half
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 ounces (140 grams) arugula

Start with the candied pecans.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Pour the olive oil into a small plastic bag.  Add the sugar and pecans, and toss everything together until the nuts are evenly coated.  Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet, then bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Watch the nuts closely, as they can burn easily.  Let cool.

Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and hot sauce.  Add the grapes, red onion slices and arugula; toss together thoroughly, evenly distributing the vinaigrette.  Top with the pecans.  Serve.