Thursday's Child: Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Thursday, May 30, 2013
I didn't know what to expect when we visited Tiananmen Square in March, 2008.  It's one of the largest public squares in the world and, although it has been home to a number of events, most of us likely associate it with the anti-government protests of June 1989.  Anyone who has seen the photos of Tank Man (the lone dissident who stood up against a column of tanks) is unlikely to forget the image, or the tragedy that ensued as hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of peaceful protesters were killed.
Great Hall of the People
Taken from Tiananmen Square
I've always said that travel helps me understand the world, and that is often true.  But it was hard to wrap our heads around this one.  Our Chinese tour guide told us she had no idea those events even happened until her international tourists filled her in.

Here are a few bare facts about Tiananmen Square: it leads directly into Beijing's Forbidden City; it was originally built in the seventeenth century, but was significantly expanded in the 1950's; although we didn't feel unsafe, it had a much stronger police presence than anywhere else in the city.  Also, 'Tiananmen' is translated as 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace'.

Naturally, our views were impacted by its history.  I asked my oldest daughter what she remembered about our visit, and she said, "It was hard to believe the site of so much tragedy could be so unmarked."

I assumed she meant there were no plaques or signs to commemorate it.  She agreed, but said it was more than that.  "I couldn't believe such an ordinary looking square could have been home to such violence.  It made me realize tragedy could happen anywhere."

"If my art has nothing to do with people's pain and sorrow, what is 'art' for?"
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and political activist

Trying something new

Sunday, May 26, 2013
"C'est ton tour maintenant!
Allons, en garde, allons ah!
Toreador, en garde! Toreador! Toreador!"
-from "Toreador" by Georges Bizet

It’s easy, and comfortable, to get in the habit of doing the same old thing.  (See last week’s post.)  But it’s often new activities that give me energy and make me feel engaged.

Over the past week, I got to try a few things for the first time.  Last Sunday, Andrew and I attended a concert put on by our friend Laura, an opera singer.  She and three other soloists sang music from an opera they’ll be performing in Italy this summer, and it was stunning.  Hearing opera music wasn’t new for me, but the audience participation component definitely was.  Lyrics to three of the pieces, including “The Toreador Song” from Carmen, were printed in the bulletin, and we were encouraged to sing with the artists.  I can truly say that singing opera – in public – was a new experience for me.

On Friday night, we attended The Sonnet Show, a fundraiser for my friend Sara’s theatre company. Five playwrights were each assigned one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and had two weeks to write a short play based on it.  Fourteen lines – fourteen days – fourteen minutes.  The actors and directors each received the script on the morning of the performance and had one day to memorize their lines and stage the play.  That night, we walked from room to room in this heritage building, each room being home to a different play (in one case a musical).  The results were spectacular!

This week I was inspired by my youngest daughter to try something new in the kitchen, too.  The year-end project for her high school Graphics Class involved designing a menu and tent card for an imaginary restaurant of her choice.  She decided to create a restaurant that served international soups and stews.  As she created a menu, the food all sounded great but I couldn’t get the African Peanut soup out of my mind.  New, yes, but the flavours (sweet potato, ginger, garlic, peanuts) are ones I love.  When I replicated it for our family, I chose an Ellie Krieger recipe and I was happy with the results, as I always am.  Some things never change.

"So are you to my thoughts as food to life..."
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 75
Sweet and Spicy Peanut Soup
(adapted from The Food You Crave)

1 Tbsp canola oil
1 large or 2 small onions, diced (1 1/2 to 2 cups)
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
2 medium carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
6 cups low-sodium, chicken or vegetable broth
One 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, with their juices
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tsp honey
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/3 cup chopped peanuts

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, bell pepper and carrots and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the black pepper, garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute more.  Stir in the sweet potato, broth and tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Puree the soup in the pot using an immersion blender or in a regular blender in two batches and return the soup to the pot.  Add the peanut butter and honey and stir, over low heat, until the peanut butter melts and flavours mingle, about 10 minutes.  Serve warm, garnished with green onions and peanuts.

Thursday's Child: Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Thursday, May 23, 2013

It can be tricky travelling with a family.  One person might want to see local plants and animals, another might prefer hiking, and yet another would choose the beach.  The great thing about Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica is that you get the best of all these activities in one destination.
The elusive sloth, via telescope

Sloth, just outside of the park
The nature-watching in Manuel Antonio was incredible.  We hired a guide, which was a good decision because he pointed out so many things we would have missed if we were on our own.  We saw sloths through his telescope, we listened to howler monkeys calling to each other, we saw tree frogs, iguanas, geckos, capuchin monkeys, and insects of every kind.  And if you're a Harry Potter fan, you'll be interested in knowing that we kept our eyes open for (but did not see) a Basilisk.

The hike was lovely, and we enjoyed seeing many kinds of beautiful and exotic plant life.  Since it's a rain forest, we came prepared for rain, but it stayed dry as we walked through this biologically diverse national park.  My youngest daughter loved the palm leaf cricket the guide made for her!

And there's little I can say about the beaches that these photos haven't already shown.  Except to say that the water was warm, the breeze was gentle, and two of the three beaches in the park were nearly deserted.  Manuel Antonio was a great destination, and the perfect place to make everyone happy!

The Rut, Redux

Sunday, May 19, 2013
It happens to all of us.  We find a recipe that we love so much we don't want to eat anything else. It's happened to me with this recipe, and I've written about it here.  I occasionally decide I only want to eat one thing for lunch - every day - even if it means I make the same dish back to back (and sometimes to back again).

It has happened again.  I first saw this Rice Noodle Salad recipe on two of my favourite blogs over two years ago.  I thought it looked amazing, and I bookmarked it, only to forget about it for a while. Every time I saw the bookmark I thought about trying it, but didn't think it could live up to the praise that Joanne and Tasha gave it.

I was thrilled to be proven wrong.  This salad is stand-at-the-counter-and-eat-it good.  I changed up their versions a little bit by substituting peanuts at the end instead of using shrimp or tofu.  It's the kind of recipe that you can personalize by adding what you like and eliminating what you don't.  I know I always make a big deal when I find a recipe that everyone in my house likes, but it happened with this recipe - and it is a big deal.

Rice Noodle Salad with Peanut Sauce
(adapted from The Brick Kitchen and Eats Well With Others)

For the peanut sauce:
1/2" piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, smashed and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup peanut butter
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp dark brown sugar
1/4 cup warm water

For the salad:
8 ounces (linguini style) rice noodles
2 medium zucchini, sliced into half-moons
1 large red pepper, sliced into matchsticks
4 small-medium carrots, sliced thin

To serve:
3 Tbsp thinly sliced green onion (white and light green parts only)

Combine the ginger, garlic, peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar and brown sugar in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.  Add warm water a tablespoon at a time, blending until desired consistency is reached.

Bring a large saucepan of water to boil.  Cook the rice noodles according to package instructions.  Keep submerged in cold water until ready to use.

Mist a large nonstick skillet with olive oil and heat over medium heat.  Add zucchini, red pepper and carrots and cook until just tender, about 3 - 4 minutes.  (Carrots will still be fairly crisp.)  Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

Drain noodles and toss with dressing and vegetables in a large serving bowl.  Serve room temperature or chilled.  Sprinkle with green onions and peanuts to serve.

Mother's Day

Sunday, May 12, 2013

For A Five-Year-Old

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it.  You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

- by Fleur Adcock

I love muffins, and I love fruit desserts, so it was inevitable that I'd adore these tri-berry muffins. The original recipe calls for fresh fruit, but I tried them with frozen and the result was great.  Yes, I baked these myself, but one was served to me this morning as part of breakfast in bed!  

"Sam said to me the other day, 'I love you like 20 tyrannosauruses on 20 mountaintops', and this is the exact same way in which I love him."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Happy Mother's Day to everyone who is a mother, or has a mother.

Tri-Berry muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup sugar (first amount)
1/2 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cup mixed frozen berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries)
1 Tbsp sugar (second amount)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line muffin tins with paper liners.

Sift the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl and stir.

In another bowl, combine the milk, egg and melted butter.

Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, pour the wet mixture into the well, and stir until just combined.  Stir in the mixed berries.  Stir gently, just to combine.  Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and sprinkle tops with 1 Tbsp sugar.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean and the tops are nicely browned.

Makes 10 – 12 small muffins, or 8 – 9 large.

Thursday's Child: Breakfast on the Farm, Nicaragua

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
One of the disadvantages of travelling with me is that I sometimes have a strange idea of what's fun.  Case in point:  getting up early in the morning while on holidays to make our own breakfast!

I wasn't sure if I'd get everyone up by the 7 am call time, but we all made it out of our rooms with a respectable degree of enthusiasm.  There were about a dozen intrepid souls that left the tranquility of the lodge to prepare and enjoy breakfast on the farm.  We climbed into the back of a dusty pickup truck onto a series of benches, and took a very bumpy ride to the small farm owned by our lodge.  It was time to get to work.

We started by milking the cow.  We took turns, producing an amazingly small quantity of milk. (Yes, even this farm girl, who didn't grow up on a dairy farm, had to work at at.)  

Next we moved to collecting eggs.  That was a bit daunting, as the hens were reluctant to let these foreigners forage for their own breakfast.  But forage we did, and we came out with our eyes intact, as well as (mostly) our toes.

After taking our turns in the kitchen at making and frying tortillas, we sat at picnic tables in the next room and were served a gorgeous breakfast of eggs, tortillas, and rice and beans.  This was the hardest I worked for any meal on the trip, but it was hands-down my favourite!