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.

Thursday's Child: Juno Beach

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at five beaches in Normandy to attempt to take back control of France from the German forces. The landings had already been delayed for a day because of stormy weather and high waves that would have threatened a successful beach landing. An unexpected respite in the weather allowed the Allies to push ahead on June 6, preventing a further two-week delay in operations.

Canadian forces landed at Juno Beach early in the morning. Heavy casualties were suffered in the first wave, but within a few hours they had cleared the beach and were advancing inland. This success, in unison with the work of British and American troops at Sword, Gold, Omaha and Utah Beaches, was a crucial first step in the invasion of Normandy and liberation of France.

We were able to pay tribute to these brave soldiers when we visited Juno Beach Centre in August, 2010. This poignant museum allowed us to listen to some of the most famous speeches given in the Second World War, and to watch a film that depicted wartime experience through actual footage and re-enactments. Outside the museum, a Canadian guide showed us areas of the beach that were crucial to the fight, and led us through a German bunker.

Later that day, we visited the grave of a friend's uncle in Bayeux War Cemetery.
Since that trip, Remembrance Day never passes without me recalling these vivid reminders of how much I owe to those who came before me.

"Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget."

- from "Aftermath", Siegfried Sassoon

Creative Dissidence

Sunday, November 10, 2013
As an early birthday excursion, my girlfriends took me to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition. I've mentioned this wonderful artist before and, seeing the show, I was moved by his powerful art. His most meaningful pieces were those created in response to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.  He was outraged at how the Chinese government tried to cover up the number of deaths and failed to investigate the corruption that accounted for so many buildings being destroyed. His most powerful pieces commemorate the 5200 students whose lives were lost in the disaster.

But his sense of mischief is evident in many of the other pieces, including photos depicting him deliberately breaking a 2000-year old vase, or giving the finger to famous world landmarks. All of these works have a purpose behind them, and that purpose is usually to challenge authority and to give a voice to the underrepresented.

Having seen and enjoyed the wonderful exhibition, we then went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. For dessert, we split a sticky toffee pudding, after which one of my friends challenged me to make my own variation at home. Challenge accepted, Karen!

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Makes four puddings, although they’re quite rich and could be shared
(adapted from Annie's Eats)

For the pudding:

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
6 Tbsp warm water
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp pitted dates, minced
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tbsp packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

For the sauce:

4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 – 2 tsp rum


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 4 4-ounce ramekins. Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper. Place the ramekins in a baking dish large enough to hold them all comfortably.

In a liquid measuring cup, combine the water, baking soda and half of the dates, pressing the dates down so they’re submerged. Set aside and let soak five minutes. Drain, reserving the excess liquid.

In a separate medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the remaining dates and the brown sugar. Mix to combine.  Add the reserved soaking liquid, the egg and vanilla. Mix until smooth. With the beaters on low, pour the melted butter into the mixture in a steady stream.

Add the dry ingredients and the drained dates to the wet ingredient mixture. Fold together until all ingredients are well mixed, being careful not to overmix. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared ramekins. Use hot water to fill the baking dish halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the entire pan tightly with foil and bake until the cakes are slightly puffed, about 40 minutes. Immediately remove from the water bath (being careful to avoid steam when removing the foil) and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

While the cakes cool slightly, make the toffee sauce by combining the butter and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the sugar into the butter. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture puffs up a bit. Slowly pour in the cream and rum, whisking just until combined. Reduce heat to medium-low and maintain heat until warmed through, about 2 – 3 minutes.

To serve, invert the cakes onto serving plates. Remove the parchment paper. Drizzle the toffee sauce over the tops of the still-warm cakes.

Thursday's Child: Prague Castle

Thursday, November 7, 2013
When you take your children to Europe, this is the kind of behaviour you hope for:

And this is the kind of behaviour you sometimes get:

Sometimes, even this:

The truth is, even the best-behaved children get tired of hearing their mother read about castles from a guide book. And, when asked for good behaviour, those children may even respond with synchronized devils' horns.

Thus it was that when we visited Prague Castle in 2006, I had to dig deep into my bag of tricks.  I knew it wouldn't suffice to tell them that the castle, founded in the late ninth century, was one of the biggest in the world.

It wasn't enough to show them the stunning St. Vitus Cathedral, or to see the wonderful city views from its main tower.

No, to keep their attention, I had to tell them about the defenestrations.

A defenestration, for the uninitiated, is the act of throwing someone - usually a political enemy - out the window. In 1618, one such incident in Prague Castle incited the Thirty Years' War. More recently, I have fond memories of my grade 12 history class, in which one of my classmates defenestrated himself. (We were on the ground floor.)

What better way to bring history home for your family, and make sure they never forget Prague Castle, than by staging your own defenestration:

And that is how the Pollocks travel in Europe.

Recipes Inspired by Musicals - Annie

Sunday, November 3, 2013

When I was a kid, my dad attended annual insurance meetings in Toronto. Once in a while, those meetings coincided with March Break, and my mom, my sister and I got to tag along.

Visiting Toronto was always exciting. I remember driving into the city, breathlessly seeing Lake Ontario to the south and the huge bank buildings to the north. Shopping in Toronto was fun, and we loved visiting the Science Centre and Royal Ontario Museum. We always stayed in the downtown Sheraton, from whose room window we could watch skaters on the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square.

But by far the most memorable thing we ever did was see the musical Annie.

Annie had opened on Broadway in 1977. The story of a young orphan who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks during the Great Depression was enormously popular. The first touring production had just begun. And in March of 1978, when my parents were checking what was on that night in Toronto, they noticed that Annie had just opened at the O’Keefe Centre.

“We’ll never get tickets,” my mom said.

“They’re probably sold out for the run,” my dad said.

But they called anyhow, and thank goodness they did. Although Annie was indeed nearly sold out for its Toronto run, it was still in previews, and seats were available.

Thus it was, that very evening, the four of us headed down to watch this energetic show.  The musical highlights were “It’s A Hard-Knock Life”, “Tomorrow”, and the wonderful “Easy Street”, but it was the enthusiasm of the young actors that turned it into a thoroughly charming evening.

You might think it’s tough to find a recipe inspired by a musical set in the Depression, but don’t underestimate me. The song “We’d Like to Thank You,” acknowledges Herbert Hoover’s promise to put a chicken in every pot. Substitute a roasting pan for a pot, and you have this delicious chicken recipe. With just a handful of ingredients, it takes longer to heat the oven than it does to prepare the meal. Easy Street never came any easier.

Perfect Roast Chicken
(adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

1 six-pound roasting chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced crosswise 1/2” thick
1 lemon
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
4 – 6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove giblets if necessary, and rinse chicken inside and out. Dry thoroughly with paper towels.

In the centre of a roasting pan, place onion slices in two rows, touching. Pierce the entire surface of the lemon with a fork. Using the side of a large knife, gently press on garlic cloves to open slightly. Insert garlic cloves, thyme sprigs and lemon into cavity. Place chicken in pan, on onion slices.

Spread the softened butter over entire surface of chicken, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, and roast until skin is deep golden brown and crisp, and the juices run clear when pierced, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove chicken from oven and let stand 10 to 15 minutes so the juices settle. Remove and discard onions, garlic, thyme and lemon. Carve and serve.