September 25, 2015

Fall classics

It's started. That thing. That bulking up thing. Where I need more of everything - cake, candy, chips, chocolate. Well the chocolate was that really, really good stuff with caramel and sea salt - so, you understand.

Obviously we have entered, the appropriately named, fall. And preparing the waistline for winter. No judgement.

One of my graces has a 93-year-old mother who lives across the pond. She's so alive and sprightly and an inspiration in so many ways (last year she and her daughter went on a hiking trip through the national parks in the US southwest and she didn't want anyone on the tour to know how old she was because they'd make a fuss). She had been visiting for the past month, and on her last night here we finally gathered to share a meal with her.

It was the first day of fall. It did not feel like the first day of fall but I planned a fall meal - roast ham (yez, the bourbon ham from a recent post), leeks with a béchamel sauce, mashed butternut squash and carrots (which was lacking fresh ginger since we both thought we had some, and nope), roasted potatoes, and of course the sprouts from Brussels. It was 450° in the kitchen/dining room. Still we sweated our way through it all.

It all started with soup. Tomato soup. And I have to share that with you now.

I wanted to use a jar of the tomatoes I had canned a few weeks ago. And found the perfect, simple recipe for them on Chowhound. They call it Classic Tomato Soup. In fact, the recipe demands that they be San Marzanos. Their wish, my command. Bring on the immersion blender.

Classic Tomato Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
kosher salt (I didn't use salt as there was salt in my jarred tomatoes already)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
1 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes, I used 1 litre because that's what I had. I wanted to scale up a bit
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (or you can use water)
1/3 cup heavy cream
freshly ground black pepper

Put a medium-sized pot on medium to low heat and add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onions. Let them cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and taking care not to brown them. Turn the heat down if necessary. (If you have to leave the stove, make sure you put the lid on the pot, it helps prevent browning.) Then add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Increase the heat and add the tomatoes and their juice. Break down the tomatoes with the back of your spoon and cook for 10 minutes or so, until they're hot and starting to soften. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Let it cook at a medium simmer for about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup with an immersion blender (one of my favourite kitchen tools ever). You can do it in a blender, but let the soup cool for 10 minutes and then carefully, carefully blend in batches. Put the soup back on the heat to warm up over low heat. Add the cream. Add the black pepper.

Now taste for seasoning - I'm glad I did, because there was salt enough from the tomatoes.

Portion the soup into bowls. You can then drizzle with olive oil and place a nice bunch of julienned fresh basil on top. And then finish with a little more black pepper. You can also shave some parmesan on top if you like.

It was a lovely meal I have to say. There was something in all of it that I'd made, the soup, the béchamel, the glaze for the ham - we even had our canned peaches with pound cake and cream for dessert.

And now that tomato soup is going into the repertoire. Because it is, as Chowhound promised, a classic.

September 17, 2015

Bourbon, ham, what could go wrong?

This is a family recipe. It comes from dear friends, well, family, in all but biology. They live in Florida. And about 8 years ago, while I was in the middle of chemo, they invited us down for Christmas. My Mum was going down. My second Mum, Auntie Joan was going to be there. The thought of a roadtrip for Christmas, and heading somewhere warm, that wasn't a hospital, was like a banquet of riches. I was more than grateful. I was overwhelmed.

So, the oncologist shrugged her shoulders and said, "go for it." Steve got lessons on how to flush and check a PICC line from our public health nurse (that's an intravenous line that stays in your upper arm throughout the six chemo treatments - and we only had to do it once during our stay), I donned a head scarf, packed some tshirts with longer sleeves, and we headed south. I don't even remember thinking about medical insurance for the trip. Wow.

I was on steroids at the time. I took them a couple of days before, then a couple of days after a treatment. That meant I ate like a lumberjack. Maybe two lumberjacks. Okay...three. And then I discovered Bob Evans. The restaurant with meatloaf sandwich screaming from the menu. I have never, for the record, ordered a meatloaf sandwich before. We stopped somewhere on interstate 79 for lunch the first day on the road. I ordered it. It came. Meatloaf sandwich on a plate. That's it.

"I thought this came with fries," I said with a tad of aggression or annoyance, in a voice that wasn't entirely my own. The waitress jumped back almost imperceptibly. "I didn't think you'd want fries," she said. "Oh, I'll let you know if I want fries."

Steve was staring at me. And looking strangely amused. I didn't take the time to notice...I dug in. And within five minutes I called the waitress over. "I'll take the fries," I said. She brought a platter-sized portion.

We'd stopped for a big breakfast about four hours before that. But at the time I was eating double meals: two breakfasts, two lunches. I ate the sandwich. I ate the fries. People kept their hands away from me. It's one of the best kept secrets of breast cancer treatment. I gained weight. Like...10 pounds.

We arrived in St. Augustine the next day. Anne and Keith, his Mum, my Auntie Joan, my Mum welcomed us - even draped a huge Canadian flag on their garage door so we'd know which house was theirs. They encouraged us to walk along Micklers Beach, and relax. I felt embraced, at home, and Anne made this fantastic ham with a glaze that smelled of bourbon, cloves and oranges. It was perfect. And no, I didn't eat it all myself. And now I make it for almost every holiday meal I cook. It is more than bourbon, cloves and oranges. For me, this is a family recipe, cooked with love.

Bourbon glazed ham

1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup bourbon
1 cup sugar
6 bruised cloves
2 tbsp grated orange peel

Preheat the oven to 350°. Bring the ham out of the fridge to warm up.

Whisk together the glaze ingredients. You can increase the amount of wine or bourbon (if you have a large ham), but I found that at the smaller quantities it kept its truth as a glaze. Sometimes it gets too liquid-y.

Skin the ham, but leave a nice layer of fat. Make a diamond pattern by scoring the fat in 45 degree parallel lines, being careful not to cut through to the meat. Then cross hatch the lines by scoring the opposite way. Poke a clove into the intersection of each line or in the middle of the diamonds. It looks beautiful.

Brush a small quantity on the ham.

Bake at about 18-20 minutes per pound. For a partially-cooked ham you're looking for an internal temperature of  155°F. If you are heating up an already cooked ham (not spiral cut), you need to reach an internal temperature of 110° to 120° - any higher and you risk drying it out.

Baste the ham a couple of times - but don't use the juices that collect at the bottom of the pan or you will make the ham too salty. In the last half hour start basting more frequently. And if you like, at the end, turn on the broiler and brown the top to your liking.

Let it rest for about 15 minutes. May you share it with those you love.

September 14, 2015

Fast-beating chicken wings

You know how the tag line on this blog is thoughts on food, love and life? Well, I think I should add weather. Because I realize a lot of my food, love and life energy goes to what's happening outside.

I love outside. Well, except this weekend when a cold front swept in and vacuumed up summer in a whirl of wind, rain and blasts of cold. Admittedly, I think I heard all the plants sigh with relief. The grass relaxed and the dried up straw that had replaced the grassy park hills were re-invigorated this morning when I walked the dog.  And the collected puddles of water at the bottom of the hills were a perfect target for some doggy swirling and mud bathing. Sigh.

This morning summer is back for another gentle phase. Which put me in mind of another summer recipe, or actually two recipes at once - although it's perfect for any time of year.

I am synthesizing two recipes today. Oven roasted chicken wings - and my husband's spice rub that elevates the wings to a new height. Get it? Wings? Height?

Earlier this year I was looking for a faster way to cook chicken wings rather than my go-to maple-ginger-garlic chicken wings, which are fantastic, but need three hours in the marinade. As usual, I had hit the end of my work day having lost track of time and needed to cook up the planned chicken wings - which in my go-to mode would have had us eating with the late night news.

To google! And up came Michael Smith's roast chicken wings on the Food Network Canada site.

The key is cornstarch, mixed with your favourite rub. Of course do not do what I did the first time - I read cornstarch but reached for the baking soda. And no, I didn't notice until they were on our plates. Fortunately, I dug my teeth in first. And choked. It was like eating sea water. I grabbed Steve's plate and mine and headed for the compost bin. Wing fail. Low altitude crash and burn. We ordered pizza.

Next time I got it. And I've gotten it ever since, multiple times.

You can use any spice rub or even an herb mixture if you prefer. But I'll give you another round of Steve's spice rub (which I'd take to a desert island) that was one of the first recipes I posted 9 years ago (wow!).

I'll give you ratios and you can make the batch as big or small as you like and you can store whatever you don't use. This works on chicken, but also anything else from beef and roasted potatoes.

Steve's Rub

1 part chili powder
1 part brown sugar
1 part black pepper
2 parts kosher salt
Healthy dose of paprika

Mix together. Done.

Now...for the chicken wings

12 chicken wings
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp sugar (feel free to adjust this as there is sugar in the spice rub)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp favourite spice rub (I added more rub mix - the recipe calls for 1 tsp)
1 tsp pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix the dry ingredients in a big bowl (big enough to add the wings). Add the wings to the bowl, a few at a time, and toss. Place them on the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn the wings over. Bake for another 30 minutes.

I always think it's going to be all cornstarch-y and can't believe it's going to work this time...but it always comes through - unless I've used baking soda. Duh.

While they're in the oven I usually strain some yogurt to thicken it and add whatever flavours I like - lemon zest, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. That becomes a dip for all the vegetables I cut up as finger food.

This is a perfect football dinner. And yes that other chicken wings recipe was written for the Super Bowl a few years ago when the Ravens won.

And this year, I got to try on Cameron's Super Bowl ring - they gave one to every employee (not all of them choose to do that). Yet another highlight of 2015.

September 10, 2015

Finding Fido

I thought I wanted to adopt a dog. Then I became convinced. Then I became obsessed. I wanted to adopt a rescue, a stray, an unwanted animal. It turns out in the world of pet adoption, I had to wait for the dog to adopt me.

Back in my younger days, puppies were available like ripe tomatoes in late summer – in the classified ads in newspapers, on street corners, at farmers markets. People would be grateful if you just grabbed one as you rode by on your bike, slowing down only to scooch it comfortably into your basket. I know they were terrible times. I know about the abuse, neglect, stupidity of my fellow humans.

But here’s the thing.  One year ago today, our pup finally found us. We’d passed the application process, passed the home inspection (the first and only one we made it to). After 14 tries.

Before that, there was Kenny, Maddie,  Remy, Cassidy, Lya, Sansa, Tex, Robby, Sheamus, Benji, another Benji, a schnauzer whose name has vaporized in my head, Pixy, and then, finally, Morgan. We’ve dubbed him Captain Morgan – Terrier of the High Seas.

If you had plotted my emotions on a graph during that nine month search, I looked like a parabola. Websites like petfinder and adopt a pet probably thought I was some kind of computer virus. I checked their sites daily, sometimes more, in case a new little guy had arrived. I’d get excited. I’d email. I’d fill in an application. And I’d wait. I ended up sobbing more than once. And more than once I just said to myself, “forget it. It can’t be this hard. I quit.”

It wasn’t like we were on some dogland security list or anything. We both grew up with dogs, and when I moved into an apartment I had a cat – then she had kittens – and I kept three of them – and they all lived to ripe old ages and nursed them through their final illnesses. And then we took in my mother in law’s dog when she went into a home. So we had some pedigree of experience.

Granted, some of the 14 just weren’t for us – one was a ‘nipper’, one had medical issues (kidneys, been there, done that). Another was so crazy we knew we couldn’t handle him, so we turned into rescuers ourselves, researching and sending info to the owners about how to surrender a dog you no longer want or can care for.  One agency will not adopt anywhere outside their region, even though we’re a mere half-hour from them. Two of them needed another dog in the house to give them some lessons on how to be a dog. At a pet adoption fair we filled in an application and then the dog was withdrawn as we stood there next to her waiting for our interview because she hadn’t been assessed yet. Many were adopted to other people. Dog #13 we were approved for, but when we tried to arrange a visit, our emails went unanswered. The only way I knew our girl was gone was when I went back to Petfinder and looked her up. I just stared at the screen in disbelief. It said ADOPTED! In upper casing, with an exclamation mark like it was a celebration or something.  I tried to confirm it with the rescue agency and they just never, ever responded.

Then last September 10th, after the application process, and after the home inspection, we headed 3 hours to the southwest, plowing our way through a storm system so bad I was leaning forward in the car to see if that dark swirling cloud that had descended onto the highway was, in fact, a tornado or just a rainpocalypse – and yes, thinking that, yet again, this was a sign that this dog wasn’t for us – we finally met Morgan. He was at CK Animal Rescue in Chatham, Ontario.

He comes from Alabama – a lot of rescues come from the US up to Canada through a sort of canine underground railroad with rescuers, foster homes, and convoys, bringing the dogs here to avoid what is, apparently, a very high kill rate in shelters across the US (one report in Maclean’s from 2013 put the number at 60%, compared to Canada’s 14%). And CK Animal Rescue founder Nancy Ball takes more than her share. CKAR also fosters dogs of military personnel who have to go overseas, they give free dog food to anyone who is at risk of having to give up their pet because of economic hardship, and they help anyone living in an abusive household who won’t leave because they don’t want to leave their pets behind. They find temporary shelter for the pets – it’s called the purple leash campaign. And something I never, ever thought of.

And, they answer their emails. They were lovely, efficient, caring and determined to find the right home for Morgan. He'd been in Canada for a couple of months, and his Canadian fosters were with him when we arrived. Nancy told them to go for coffee because she needed to see Morgan’s reaction to us without them there. “I’ll know in 15 minutes if this is going to work,” she told them.

He sniffed around us. His ears back, his eyes pleading for us to be kind – he has the most amazing eyes and under his scruffy fur, enormous inch-long black eyelashes which he uses to full effect.  He sniffed around the floor and Steve crouched down to hold out his hand. Morgan lifted his paw and put it on Steve’s hand. Steve scratched his chest. Morgan licked his hand. Then he did the same
thing to me.

Finally, I went to sit on the couch and Morgan crawled under the coffee table and stuck his head up at my knees. I patted my lap to encourage him and he jumped up into my arms.

“That’s what I was looking for,” Nancy said as she snapped photos of the whole process.

Now that I know him so well, it’s absolutely amazing he did that. He is so shy and timid of strangers he is only now after a year willing to come out from behind my legs when we meet people on the street. And just barely. He might, on a good day, sniff people’s outstretched fingers, and on the best days will allow a scritch under his chin. It makes that first evening with him a bit of a miracle.

Within a few minutes we had the papers signed, the money transferred (the cost included all his shots, his neutering and a microchip) and we had a little dog curled up in the back seat of our car. As we headed east again, we drove straight back into the rainstorm and the dark, and it was so bad that we (neither of us timid drivers) pulled off the highway for the night. Morgan took it all in stride. We found a hotel, he decided that was the life for him, and he slept all night curled up against my stomach.

Captain Morgan, terrier of the high seas had adopted us. He is smaller than we expected, hardly sheds, doesn’t bark much (except at our landlady…sigh…and not even at the mailman when he comes to the door), and is smarter than a fifth grader. He’s still timid but getting better, he loves us to bits, and he makes me howl with laughter at least once a day. His character has just blossomed. His best bestie is the cat next door who has always considered our casa his casa.

I can’t believe Morgan has been in our lives for a whole year already. He turned two in the summer and I know what will happen, I’ve lived through this movie before – it will flash by. But in the meantime I guess, I will just put up with the demands for cuddles, and the early mornings, and the blast off into mud puddles face first, and the fearsome tearing apart of stuffed bears, dogs, ferrets and gators, oh and a living room full of sticks and snowballs, and the standing between me and the kitchen cabinets as I cook, and the rocket sled chases of squirrels and raccoons, and the stretching bravado of confronting the badass black cat in the alley. Because, after all, he is the terrier of the high seas. And he’s mine.

September 08, 2015

Thai twist on gazpacho

Quick, before summer blazes out tomorrow - this heat wave is unbelievable and I kind of love it - we need to cover another hot weather recipe.

During one of the best long cottage weekends of this summer, my friend Carol made this gazpacho as a starter for a hot Sunday evening (which ended up a pouring-rain evening). We stayed indoors, had drinks, did crosswords, read the paper, pulled out magazines, and had a lovely, peaceful, contented evening with each other - all five of us, plus our dog.

Carol is our go-to person for gazpacho. She make the beautiful, classic tomato-based Spanish soup (or liquid salad as I saw it called on one website - ugh) which turns out exactly as it should every time - fresh, spicy, cold, delicious.

Its origins are from Andalusia, southern Spain and various opinions say the Romans or Greeks had a similar bread and garlic based soup. But I like to agree with those who say it was the Moors. It is a great thirst quencher - and women in the fields used to make it in big wooden bowls called 'dornillos' and feed it to the farm workers.

This time Carol tried a new recipe that we loved and can now be firmly in her repertoire: Thai Gazpacho Verde. It blends the Andalusian classic with Thai flavours. Carol found the recipe in the summer issue of the always excellent Food & Drink from the LCBO (liquor stores in Ontario are run by the government). The recipe is by Toronto food writer and recipe developer Eric Vellend and he brings a great twist to gazpacho, no tomato. It's all about the cucumber and avocado and the great Thai flavours that slip in there. And cucumbers are bursting out all over the grocery this is definitely the time. There is apparently a saying in Spanish, 'de gazpacho no hay empacho' which means 'you can never get too much of a good thing or too much gazpacho.'

Thai Gazpacho Verde - serves 4

2 large English cucumbers, peeled
1 small avocado, halved, pitted, peeled
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup water
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp thinly sliced shallots
1 thinly sliced hot red chili pepper
1 cup loosely packed mint leaves (you have me at mint)
1/4 cup finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts

Cut cucumbers into medium chunks. Dice the avocado. Put them into a blender and add garlic, water, lime juice, fish sauce and salt. Blend til smooth. Cover and put in the fridge for at least two hours. (Recipe says it will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.)

Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Cover and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Drain and pat with paper towel. Place in bowl with chili and mint. Toss.

Pour the soup into serving bowls. Put a mound of the shallot/mint/chili mixture on top and then sprinkle with the peanuts.

September 04, 2015

Ultimate flank manoeuvre

Summer has pitched a fit in this last week before Labour Day. It's so hot and muggy here in Toronto that we broke the temperature record for the hottest day all year...and also the hottest nights.

We live without air conditioning in our 1-bedroom apartment. We live with two ceiling fans. And this week we live with them rotating full time, all the windows closed, the door shut. It could be the middle of winter out there for all I know. Amazing how at a certain temperature, at opposite extremes of the thermometer, you're trapped in your house the same way the drifting, blowing, wind-chilled air keeps us huddled inside, warming ourselves on the glow of the tv.

The dog, who hails from the state of Alabama, and looks a bit shocked that the dog days of summer are so dog dang hot up here, has surrendered to the comfort of the bed under the ceiling fan and looks both scruffy and pathetic.

So...anyway, under the heading of eking out a little more summer grilling time, (we've grilled twice this week to avoid the heat of the oven - and waiting for the heat to dissipate has meant grilling in the dark) I have to share this gem of a recipe for the best marinade for flank steak. I love flank steak.

I discovered this early in the spring by googling 'best flank steak marinade'. I came up with Kelly Senyei's post on her blog from a couple of years ago, appropriately titled "The Ultimate Asian Flank Steak Marinade".

So, looking at the ingredients list, and looking in the pantry I said, right...that looks like the ultimate flank steak marinade. I've now made it so many times and it has turned out beautifully each time. The mark of an ultimate recipe.

My only revision of the recipe is the time she gives for marinating. She recommends marinating overnight or at least 10 hours. I don't marinate meat for more than 90 minutes since a marinade especially made with acid (as this is) will break the protein bonds in the meat making it mushy rather than tender. But the flavours are beautiful in this, and in 90 minutes the meat does take on that lovely aroma of the out your big ass ziplock bag.

Best Flank Steak Marinade

1 flank steak (1-2 lb)
1/4 cup soy sauce (I use gluten free soy sauce for Steve)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (Kelly calls this her secret ingredient)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp honey
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
3 spring onions thinly sliced

Start by placing the open ziplock bag in a bowl. Fold down the top. It will stand better in the bowl as you put the ingredients in. Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, vegetable oil and whisk in the honey, garlic, ginger and spring onions. Put the meat in the marinade and close the bag. Mush it around to make sure all the surfaces of the meat are covered in marinade. Now put it in the fridge for 90 minutes.

Preheat your grill and pull the meat from the fridge. Take the steak out of the marinade. Throw away the marinade. Cook the steak to your liking. Let it rest and slice til your heart's content - try not to eat it all before it gets on the plate.

I noticed that Kelly also sprinkled some toasted sesame seeds and freshly sliced spring onions (not the ones from the marinade!) on top of the slices when serving, which looks beautiful.

Here's to the last long weekend of the summer of 2015.

September 02, 2015

Smoke On, Now.

The Snowbirds - earlier this year in BC - courtesy DND/CAF
"Sign it," he said, throwing a blank form on my lap. I was busy looking down, writing notes, trying to keep track of what was going on. But frankly, I had lost track of what Mike was saying because it didn't matter. I wasn't going.

I looked up at him - his eyes were sparkling, and he was grinning a little. "Sign it," he said again pointing at the form and then moving on to hand out waiver forms to the other seven or so people in the room. I gulped. I was being offered a ride with the Snowbirds, the Canadian air force's aerobatic team. And Mike Lenahan, the communications officer, was in the middle of the safety briefing.

Here's the thing: I'm a terrible flyer - especially if it involves detailed safety briefings - which if you remember I wasn't listening to. I'd rather not, thanks. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself pulling my spine into the back of the seat hoping it and the wall behind me would give way and I could back flip out to the parking lot.

I know, what the hell was I doing there then? Well, in my not-so-infinite wisdom, I had pitched a story on the Snowbirds and their first female technician, Corporal Marlene Shillingford. I was doing research. And that's what I told Mike, who had invited me down to watch the process. "I'm just here to watch and do research," I said, and the sentence disappeared into meekness. "Sign it," he said. I looked at the form and my ears opened up just in time to hear Mike say, "when, not if, you regain consciousness..." My head started spinning..."Wait, did you just say 'ejector seat'?"

It was 22 years ago. And I can still feel it. It was exhilarating, nauseating, nerve wracking. This week those beautiful birds will be flying over Toronto again for the Canadian International Air Show. And I'll be jumping out of my skin and out onto the deck every single time I hear their unmistakable engines. And remembering.

Suddenly I was putting on the navy blue flight suit, the helmet with the mirrored visor, the oxygen mask dangling off to the side. Very. Top. Gun. Then I was climbing into the cockpit of plane #7, to the left of Capt. Frank Bergnach, the pilot. Marlene strapped my shoulders down, hard. I couldn't move. The oxygen came on. Frank explained how the radio works and how to talk to him - and that if I threw up in the mask, it would be up to me to clean it up later. The canopy started closing over our heads as the engines geared up. My mouth was dry. And when I looked down, my knees were knocking together. Literally. I tried holding them with my hands so Frank wouldn't notice.

Frank noticed. The brakes were released and we were gliding out with 8 other planes to the runway. All at once. Doesn't that seem dangerous? Shouldn't we go up one at a time? Why am I here? What was I thinking? As we taxied I could hear Frank through my headset telling me about his vast experience flying: a bazillion hours in the Tutor jet, a bazillion hours in F-18s, a bazillion hours landing on aircraft carriers with the US Air Force...and I felt myself finally breathing in. Which was good. This was an experience, and I - was - not - going - to - miss - it.

All nine planes lined up on the runway in a diamond pattern. The radio squawked to life as we heard the Major in plane #1 just ahead of us, give the command to start rolling. Damn, I was holding my breath again. As we picked up speed on the tarmac, suddenly the Major was off the ground, then us, then the rest, and we unzipped ourselves into a three-dimensional diamond. These planes were flying close together - we were on the far left side of the formation and Frank spent practically 100% of the time looking to the right and watching our neighbour's left wing which was unnaturally close. The plane above us didn't look more that 20 feet away - every rivet, every panel, every detail, visible.

Some perspective
from a shot this year by DND/CAF
The turbulence pushed and pulled us. While Frank looked to the right, he maneuvered the plane, fighting to stay in formation. I could hear him through his mask, grunting, and gasping and holding his breath and then letting it go. All adrenaline, all cardio. All the time.

We were doing banking turns in unison, this way, that way and then heading vertically into the sky. The G-forces bent my head into the shape of a football. At various points the Major's voice would break through and I'd hear him say in his slow drawl (which I still imitate), "Snowbirds. Smoke onnnnn....Noooow" and from underneath the planes a stream of smoke would bleed out behind us into ribbons of white - and then, "Smoke off. Nowwww."

At one point all the planes broke away from formation into their own part of the sky. Frank asked if I was okay and I told him, "Totally. Totally okay."

"Want to go upside down?" Well of course. I'd come that far, and I wasn't even aware I had knees anymore. He told me he was going to throw the stick to the right a little and then all the way to the left. Was I ready? "Just do it," I said.

And he did. And I kept my eyes looking up and through the clear canopy over my head, the world spun around like it does when you're passing out. When he righted the plane, I was whooping. Like a kid. No seriously, whooping, hollering, giggling all at once. And then I topped it off by slapping my legs (since I couldn't jump up and down) and saying, "Again, again, again!"

I had just turned 30 by the way. Three days earlier I had been in Belize on a research trip for another documentary and we had had a "wrap party" which involved celebrating my big birthday - and getting me (for the first time in my life) totally drunk. Drunkety drunk drunk, as one of my friends likes to say. Many shots of tequila, followed by a couple of hours sleep, then a boat ride, then 2 planes to get home. Ugh. But there I was, in the plane, acting like a four year old. And he spun us around again.

Just when I thought it was over, Frank asked me if I'd like to fly it. "Fly what," I asked, trying in vain to turn my helmet towards him. "The plane. Wanna try it?" What? Why hells bells. Yes. So I did. Sort of. I took the stick that was in front of me and starting moving it around. Do you know what it's like to ride a horse that knows you ain't the master of this situation? The horse that either just munches on the grass or heads straight for the barn? That's what the Tutor felt like. It responded. And it was thrilling. But when Frank broke in about a minute later and sped us up and away from the earth, I was relieved.

We all came back into formation and headed back to the airport. The wind had picked up so the order was for the planes to land in formations of three instead of all at once. I was so high I have no idea how Frank held the plane to the ground. We got back to our parking spots, the canopy opened and Marlene was there to unstrap, peel, and extract me from the seat. My feet hit the tarmac and I started jumping up and down like a lunatic. I hugged Marlene, I hugged Frank. What a spectacle. I do not know how people keep their shit together when life offers you an opportunity like that. They do keep their shit together...but I am not one of them.

It was a two-hour drive home. But I think I did it in about an hour. The car's wheels barely touched the highway. I was high for about a week. I dreamt about it. I couldn't stop grinning.

And to think I could have missed that by being too scared. I can make myself crazy with this stuff. I'm so grateful that voice in my head told me to remember that life is an experience, so live it. As I get older that voice diminishes. Among the top experiences I've had so far the snowbirds flight is right up there - along with hiking in the Himalayas, diving with a whaleshark, and my wedding day. Our adventures have tamed out a bit. Life has kicked us about a little and I find myself looking back at the last few years and sensing how gun-shy I've been.

My adventures have been more internal than external. And I think it's just been time for that. I'm grateful - despite all the pollution I've dug up from my depths. It's exhaust - and exhausting. But it's getting done.

And I find myself looking out again at the moment. And the experience. Bring it on.


Addendum, Marlene is still in the air force and, in fact, went back to the Snowbirds a few years back to do a stint as their crew chief, the first woman again to have that job. She flew with the team lead. That was unthinkable when we did that story. Bring it on.

Photos from the CAF image gallery and as per the terms of use -  they are official works (IS2009-0352 and FA03-2015-0001-15) published by DND/CAF and they have not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of, DND/CAF. 

August 31, 2015

Canning hope

Every once in a while I get to spend the day cooking. I live in wonder of those days - they come along only a few times a year. Last week I had two in a row. For the first time in my life, I spent the better part of Thursday and Friday canning. The sun came in through the bay window, I turned on my 'fun' playlist, and I canned. And I canned. And I canned. And I got more and more tired...And happier and happier.

st. jacobs market haul
For a couple of days, sitting on my floor were huge plastic bags of loot - the haul we brought back from St. Jacobs Farmers' Market...carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets, leeks, peppers, plums, blueberries, pickling cucumbers, garlic, dill, and of course peaches and tomatoes. A half bushel of peaches. A bushel of tomatoes. And not just any tomatoes. San Marzanos.

I felt the urgency of getting going - before the rot set in, and on my floor. For the first time in a long time I fell into a planning frenzy. I bought a canner, a jar lifter, a funnel, and a dozen jars. A whole dozen. Yes, they were wide mouthed (you only buy the others once - unless you're making jam). I bought 12. And right now my kitchen table, counter, pastry worktop are covered with 23 jars - and that's just the tomatoes. So while I was up to my elbows in tomato skins, Steve made a midday run to the store for two dozen more.

Starting Thursday with my Mum, and continuing Friday on my own, I washed, blanched, peeled, stuffed, and processed 23 quarts of tomatoes. Nine litres of peaches. Five litres of dill pickles.

There is something about preserving food at its best. There's an optimism, a resilience, a sense of self preservation, a sense of being capable, a sense of independence, of worth, a sense of capturing something at its peak of life and suspending it there - a sense of magic.

Yes. Sometimes a tomato is just a tomato. But I wouldn't have a blog if I couldn't find meaning in it all, would I?

I have wanted to put up tomatoes on the shelf for years. And I've always let the chance slip by.

Even this many days later I can't actually move them downstairs. The jars are sitting on the kitchen counter because I am marvelling at the beauty of them.

Maybe I'm asking too much of the preserves but they feel like they're filled with hope. The art of the possible.

Here are some of the things I learned that I didn't expect:
I have a lot of dishtowels - and I'm glad.
I am glad I have a big roll of plastic and cut a piece to cover our dining table.
I am glad to have had my big cutting boards out to let the hot jars rest on.

I used more pots than I expected - the canner, the stock pot to blanch the fruit, another pot to sterilize the seals and rings, and another with spare water kept on the simmer in case the canner didn't have enough water once I put the jars in.
I also filled the electric kettle and boiled that.
I LOVE my dishwasher's sanitize setting. It meant sterilizing a pile of jars all together. And once they were done, I just left them closed in the dishwasher until I needed them. 

This was also about grit. I took a personality test once that determined your grit score - and I didn't do very well...and yes I think I'm fairly gritty...and yes, I think we can fade in and out of our gritness - and perhaps that was a low point. But looking at the bags on the floor I knew I had to follow through. They hadn't been alive and grown and blossomed and matured, only to rot on my kitchen floor. True grit. And I paid homage to buddhism too - When I peeled the tomatoes, I just peeled the tomatoes. When I stuffed the jars, I just stuffed the jars. I was in the moment. I did it with joy. And I hope that comes through whenever we start opening those jars. 

August 24, 2015

Pomodoro, you make me 10 again

I am ten years old again. You know why? Tomatoes. The poisonous red fruit, the golden apple, the edible wolf's peach...I don't care what they thought of you in centuries gone by, I can now eat tomato sandwiches 'til they come out my ears. Because it's time. It's August.

I went through a phase when I was a kid when all I wanted for lunch was a sliced tomato on white bread. A little butter, okay...although I freaked out if the butter was hard and tore at the bread. Freaking freaked out. And okay to a little salt and pepper. That was my lunch. Day in. Day out. With a glass of milk.

And that's what I had yesterday. And today. And will do until the basket of tomatoes in the kitchen is gone. 

That said, we're off on a family adventure tomorrow to St. Jacobs Farmers' Market to buy a bushel of tomatoes. Because I'm tired of the canned thing and would rather can my own, thank you very much. 
I had the dust kicked off my canning butt a few weeks ago thanks to my friend Cheryl who had us up to her farm to make her mother's recipe for dill pickles. My jars are so pretty I can't actually put them away, so they're sitting on my kitchen counter...waiting...until Thanksgiving to be opened!

But Cheryl inspired me to get a canner, a jar lifter, a funnel and a dozen one litre jars. Tomatoes it is. Not sauce...tomatoes. Tomatoes that I can turn into anything through the long winter. Soup, pasta sauce, chili...whatever. We tend to make something out of a 28-oz. can every week, sometimes more. And frankly, I'm a bit irked by the concept of BPA lining our cans of food - and the more acidic the food, aka tomatoes, the likelier the BPA liner. In a world (say that with the movie trailer voice) where I'm trying to minimize the estrogen that enters my body for no reason, BPA is a persona non grata in my life.

I know most of you will already have your jams and preserves well under way and on the shelf. I don't praise myself as a planner, although I do praise myself as a late bloomer - because in the words of Sandra Shamas, at least I bloom. So this is new for me. Credit please. Thank you.

So on Saturday I was digging back into Genius Recipes, by Kristen Miglore - a fabulous cookbook from the fabulous Executive Editor of the even more fabulous Food52. And I stumbled on this, tucked in a corner on page 68. 

A tomato recipe that was so simple, so elegant, it brought out the poetry of the gorgeous tomatoes we had. Kristen got the recipe from Marcella Hazan and quotes the incomparable Italian icon's facebook page about this recipe: "It has the potential to eclipse every other experience of tomatoes you may have had."

Così vero, Marcella. Così vero.

Garlic-Scented Tomato Salad
adapted by Kristen Miglore, from a recipe of Marcella Hazan's

4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1-2 tsp salt
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 lbs ripe tomatoes
1 doz. torn fresh basil leaves
Olive oil

Steep the garlic in a bowl with the salt and vinegar for at least 20 minutes.
Slice tomatoes and lay out on a platter. Just before serving, sprinkle torn basil leaves over the tomatoes. Holding back the garlic, pour the vinegar over the tomatoes and then drizzle with your best olive oil. You can adjust the flavourings - maybe more salt? Or more vinegar? Should serve 4-6.

I cut up two huge tomatoes (about 1 lb.) and used the proportions above for the steeped vinegar. Two of us gobbled the whole plate down in one go. 

Enjoy. While you can. And this weekend, I will can, while I can can. More to come...

August 18, 2015

Slaw Days of Summer

It’s been kind of a remarkable summer.

Last August, for the first time, we spent some precious dollars renting a cottage for a week, only to have the weather turn into a not-so-impressive impression of October. With no heat source in the cottage, and after a few days of using the oven, and boiling big pots of water on the stove to put on the table, we surrendered on Tuesday night and headed home Wednesday, having made it in the lake once.

The view from my friend Cheryl's farm.
That first row of trees is where the coyotes live. The moon is the setting Blue Moon.

This summer, I’ve been in Ontario’s beautiful lakes far more often than I have the right to expect. Thanks to my generous friends sharing their space with me and letting me breathe – smelling the overwhelming scent of pine needles on the forest floor…hearing coyotes chatter the night of the Blue Moon, then wolves the next, and loons the night after…and tasting summer food – coleslaw, bbq corn, gazpacho, and marinated flank steak on the grill.

I had s’mores for the first time (yes, that took more than 50 years), and got pulled around a lake on a big, fat tube, for the first time; laughing so hard I was pretty sure my bladder and I would part ways. And I laid on a dock one night and watched shooting stars carve their way across the Milky Way.

Sunset at Bitter Lake, which, by the way, is next to Tedious Lake. Seriously.

I noticed last night we turn on our lamps a little earlier. The cicadas are still around but slowing, now crickets have picked up their chorus – they’re a late summer thing, the sunflowers are in full blush, and the corn is piled up at the farmers’ markets. A sense of mild panic is running through me as I face facts – summer is coming to an end. Because, that is what it does.

I thought I’d share some discovered recipes I’ve tested enough this summer to say with confidence, yup…good food. And if you think about where you serve it, like outside preferably, it transforms into good food karma - meals married to setting – amplifying both the taste and the experience.

Even the s’mores. Though, I have to say s'mores have more to do with setting than taste…it’s a mixture I think could be seriously improved. Smore karma needed.

The karma is up to you. Set the table outside. Or make this stuff and take it to a park and set out a blanket and dishes and napkins and wine, and just breathe. Enjoy the moment. Because all good things come to an end…but so do bad things. And living well is the best revenge anyway, right?

This coleslaw recipe is excellent. It comes from Bobby Flay and the Food Network and is called Bobby’s Creamy Coleslaw. I can eat the bowl myself.

1 head of green cabbage, shredded
2 large carrots, shredded
¾ cup of mayonnaise
2 tbsp sour cream, I used thickened yogurt – and when I don’t have time to thicken it, so be it.
2 tbsp grated Spanish onion, I used red onion
2 tbsp sugar, or to taste – so says the recipe…I found 1 tbsp sufficient
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp dry mustard
2 tsp celery salt (go ahead and buy some, it’s brilliant, and some say essential, to potato salad)
Salt and pepper

Mix together the shredded cabbage and carrots in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt, onion, sugar, vinegar, mustard, celery salt, and salt/pepper. Spoon carefully over the vegetables. Mix. Check for your desired dressing-to-vegetable ratio and add more if you like - but remember, less is more. The important thing is to let it sit in the fridge for a bit - the tastes really mature over time - you know, like us.

I usually only shred half a cabbage to make this, so whatever portion of the dressing I don’t use goes in the fridge. I’ve doused salad, other vegetables, leftover chicken with it. It stands up to everything. And remember summer isn’t over yet. It’s not. It's not. It's not. Mature eh?

So here's to summer 2015 - and I send my love out to Karen, Jain, Andy, Carol, Kathilee, Cheryl, for being with us and/or hosting us, and Denise for letting us give Bitter Lake another chance.

June 23, 2014

My Hummus Journey

It turns out, I take hummus pretty seriously. Yes, it does have a funny sounding name and yes, it is alarmingly close to 'humus' which, "refers to any organic matter that has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain as it is for centuries, if not millenia." Thanks Wikipedia.

If you've had bad hummus that might sound familiar. It would definitely remind you of stable organic matter that will break down no further and last for millenia.

I have been on a search for the right hummus recipe for years. It started a few years after the perfect recipe slipped right by me.

Many, many years ago I was on a first name basis with the owners of the Armenian Kitchen in Toronto. One of our many nights there Johnny, the son of the owners, sat down with me and explained how to make hummus. The hummus at the Armenian Kitchen is unparalleled in my admittedly limited experience. It's creamy, tasty, supple, bearing the light pools of olive oil and paprika on way easily as the pita bread breaks its surface.

But I, being young(er), and totally disinterested in the difference between hummus and humus, so long as the pita was fresh...and really only vaguely interested in cooking at all, let his careful instructions go right over my head - especially after he leaned in and said it's extremely important to skim the scum off the surface.

I'll get back to the scum.

Of course once cooking got into my veins (and onto my hips), I rued the day I failed to take notice of, and notes on, Johnny's hummus lesson. And I was definitely pushing my luck when I got the new owners to give me the recipe (and their blessing to post it) for pickled turnips. I pointed my finger at them and said, ' the hummus.' They just laughed and shook their heads, and wagged their fingers at me.

I was on my own. Fine.

I decided to start simply. Can o' chick peas, tahini, garlic etc. Simply...yuk. Grainy, flat, boring. How was that possible?

I kept remembering that baking soda and dried chickpeas were involved somehow. Then a few weeks ago, Food52 posted the recipe for the Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's hummus from Jerusalem. Lo and behold, there it was...dried chickpeas and baking soda.

I've made it a few times now and yes, it's excellent. And you can vary the flavorings - some people swear off cumin, others avow its perfection. More garlic? Less? Oil? Water? I encourage you to try different species.

But the key is dried chickpeas that you've soaked overnight. And the baking soda. And...let it sit for 24 hours before you serve it - the flavours are so much better the next day.

The business:

1 1/4 cup of dried chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
6 1/2 cups of water
1 cup of tahini (originally calls for an extra 2 tbsp of tahini - but I don't find it makes a huge difference)
4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (add more if you like it, and at the end, some lemon zest for extra zing)
4 garlic cloves, crushed
6 1/2 tbsp ice water (I am going to start adding more, as I find it needs to be a bit thinned)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Good olive oil (for serving)

Soak the dried chickpeas overnight in double the amount of water. They'll be much larger in the morning - so be sure to give them enough water to absorb.

Drain them. Put them in a saucepan over medium heat and sprinkle the baking soda over them. Stir constantly and cook for about three minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Skim the surface to remove foam and any skins that float to the top. Cook the beans for approximately 30 minutes - always skimming...always skimming. The beans can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to cook - they're ready when they're soft and squishable with your fingers (but not mushy).

Drain the chickpeas. Drag out the food processor and pour the chickpeas in the bowl. Process until you have a paste. Then, with the processor still running, add the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, salt. Slowly drizzle in the ice water. Let it spin about for five minutes - it should get lighter and creamier as it goes.

Put the hummus in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap - and I mean press the plastic wrap right onto the surface of the hummus (otherwise it develops a crusty surface - ugy). Refrigerate. Leave it for the flavours to develop until the next day. Bring it out of the fridge to warm up for about 30 minutes before serving. You can pour a really good olive oil over the surface and sprinkle with smoked paprika and chopped parsley (oooo, a little lemon zest would be good too). It will keep in the fridge for about three days.

You have a couple of options if the hummus is too thick - you could add more ice water or, as I read somewhere, you could keep a little of the water you cooked the chickpeas in (which will have all the starch in it) and add it until you get the consistency you like. And trust me, learn from my mistakes...I forgot the salt last time - ugy...

I don't know where Johnny is now - the Armenian Kitchen is still there - we had a big sendoff dinner there on the weekend for my cousin Joff (he's in the banner photo of Foodnut - that's him as a little boy on the far right) He is riding his penny farthing west to the Rockies on the Adventure Cycling Route, then south to Patagonia...He's already ridden the thing 35,000 kilometres around the world. So we made sure he was well and truly stuffed with hummus that night. So if you see him somewhere on the road in the US - you can't miss him - can you spare a meal for him?

Also...this is extremely useful - 10 common mistakes in hummus recipes - a reader left this as a comment on the pickled turnips blog post and I thank her for it!

February 05, 2014

The Way to Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs

The number of eggs I've ruined over the years just trying to make egg salad sandwiches would shame all chickendom.

Then Chef Ian came to class with this gem of knowledge and said it would never fail.

He was right.The perfect hard boiled egg isn't as hard as I thought. 


It all starts with putting your eggs in a pot of cold water. Just to the top of the eggs.

Add a splash of white vinegar.

Bring the pot to the boil.

Add a dash of salt.

Put the lid on the pot.

Turn off the heat.

Let the eggs sit in the pot for 15 minutes.

Cool off in cold water.

Peel and away you go... simple wisdom...

December 16, 2013

On Holding a Knife

The number one thing that will make you a better cook is learning how to hold your knife properly.

Seems simple. But there's a lot about life that is deceptively well as a lot about life that seems overly complex.

But slicing through something can be easy. You just need the courage of your convictions. Remember?

And I found just holding the knife properly makes you feel more courageous. I spent most of my chopping life working my way through various hand holding these two, classic mistakes.



The key is your index finger and your thumb have to touch the blade. You put your index finger along the ridge where the blade meets the handle.

Close your thumb along the other side of the same ridge. So now you're basically pinching the blade at the heel (where it meets the handle).

Cup your three remaining fingers under the handle. Voilà. That's all there is to it. Centuries of chefs evolved knife skills for you. Now just slide your knife forward through your food. Rock on the front edge of the blade and come forward again. Boom.

October 31, 2013

Lessons, Tips and Facts from Our Chef

It's great to be with a chef as he cooks something you're about to try cooking too. You can watch and listen and ask questions - here are some of the surprises I picked up from Chef Ian in my first 7 weeks of cooking might already know these...but I was surprised by some of them.

Never stir stock.

Add bones to the pot, add cold water just to cover.

Bring it just to the boil, then to a slow simmer, skimming off the scum as it rises to the surface. (sounds like life doesn't it?)

Then add the vegetables and herbs.

For dark stock – use veal and beef bones...and knuckle bones give off a lot of gelatin…you’re looking for a gelatinous stock.

Remove the vegetables and bones when done and continue boiling down until you have a condensed stock – much easier to store in the freezer and then add water when you need to reconstitute. So don't add salt until you're making something with it.

The difference between broth and stock? Broth is made of stock and other things you add…stock is just stock…it’s the foundation of sauces, soups, and ahem, broth.

Cooking times are longer than you think – about 4-6 hours for chicken stock, 12-24 for dark stock – a slow cooker is good for making stock overnight.

Always cool down the stock by putting the pot in the sink and running cold water under it – needs to cool down fast. Then get it in the fridge or freezer.

To create a sachet for some stocks you can split a leek lengthwise, lay the bay leaf and thyme sprigs in the middle and then put the leek together again and tie with string. 

Tie sachets to the handle on the pot to make them simple to remove later.

Chef only cooks with black pepper. First night he passed around black and white pepper for us to smell - white pepper reminded me of horses or farms or something. Then he said he only uses black pepper because white pepper smells like a barnyard to him. But smell both and see which you prefer.

Use a steel on your knife every time you use it – sharpen it, professionally, once a year. (Unless it's Japanese, then you should check whether you need a special diamond or ceramic steel.)

Hold a chef’s knife with the thumb and forefinger at the front edge of handle…curl the other fingers under the handle.

Your other hand holds the food - like a lemon. Imagine you're holding a lemon with your palm down..see the shape of your fingers? That's how they should rest on top of the food you're cutting. The flat part of your middle finger the most prominent, nails tucked back, your thumb and pinky slightly behind.

Slice away with your food and your knife at opposing 45 degree angles - so you form a triangle - you, your knife arm, and the food held by your other hand…

How to slice vegetables – it's a rocking motion, the knife sliding forward through the food…blade shouldn't have to leave the board.

The food doesn’t move, the knife and your hand do.

Buy a rubber shelf liner at the dollar store to put under your cutting board to prevent it from slipping. Or in a pinch, lay wet paper towel under the board.

Use flat leaf parsley for cooking, use curly parsley for garnish. Curly leaf parsley releases too much chlorophyll turning food green.

Add salt, pepper and any citrus at the end.

Making sauce - either your roux is hot and your liquid is cold...or your liquid is hot and your roux is cold.

Roux: equal parts fat (butter/oil etc) to flour mixed together.

I'll pull together another list as we move along...If you have any to add, please do...let's build up our tipsheet together.

October 28, 2013

A Trout in the House with White Wine Sauce

You know when you are ladling something out of a pot – and it’s dripping and dripping and you can’t get it over to the bowl you need it in…and you stand there as a stream of stuff hangs like a string, then turns into drips then turns into slower drops and you just wait for that break in the dripping to get quickly over to the bowl…and then you rush and slurp stuff all over the place? And then throw the ladle back in the pot and it splurts up the sides…okay…maybe it’s just me…

But I learned last night that if you dip your ladle in the sauce, soup, stock whatever, hold it up, then dip the base again in the surface of the sauce, soup, stock, it will stop the stream, drip, or drop and you can cleanly get whatever over to the bowl you need it in.


That is one of the many lessons I’m picking up at cooking school. I’ll write a whole list out for you – stuff I didn’t know – that you probably do – but as home cooks we don’t necessarily run across in our books or online.

The class is very cool. We work in professional kitchens, on stainless steel islands for four people and I have a friendly, collegial group of Lisa, Sheryl and Anna…we get along great and everything is about cooperation – not a whiff of competition.

We’re now six weeks in and more and more comfortable wearing our chefs whites and hats, brandishing our chef knives, and even turning on the stoves. The ranges are big mothers – six burner Garlands. And they growl as you approach them, daring you to try.

We are in the fishbowl – so named for being right at street level, with floor to ceiling glass and we’re encouraged to wave at the people who stop to watch. One reason I grabbed the space at my island – one of the furthest from the edge of the bowl.

At the front is Chef Ian’s demo counter and stove, with cameras and monitors so you don’t miss any manoeuvre. We start the evening standing around watching him demonstrate what we’ll be cooking…taking furious notes…then we scatter like an offensive line coming out of a huddle.

They supply trays of ingredients portioned and to be shared with your teammates.

You know those towels that chefs wear tucked over their apron strings? They’re for using as pot holders – not for wiping your hands…I’ll master that one day…I still can’t bring myself to tear paper towel for every wet hand you have while cooking.

Last week we made fish. And it exercised our knife skills, our sauce skills, and our timing skills. And then as always our cleaning skills.

Ontario trout is quite lovely. These were farmed trout fillets.

We poached the fish and then made a beautiful sauce with the poaching liquid. Thought I’d share.

Poached Filets in White Wine Sauce

4 portions

1 Filet Ontario lake trout
2 oz butter
1 oz shallot, diced
2 oz white wine (recipe calls for reisling, but use a dry white if you have it)
8 oz fish stock (we cut ours in half because Chef thought it was too strong)
If you’ve cut the fish stock, make it up with water
Parchment paper cut into a circle (see video for a great tip on how to shape it easily – this is what the chef taught us too)

1 pint fish velouté - or have on hand some more fish stock and wine to bulk up liquid once you've cooked your fish
Whipping cream to taste (although recipe called for 3 ½ oz)
1 oz butter
12 green seedless grapes, sliced in half
4 sprigs flat-leafed parsley chopped
1 stem of fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste (there’s a blog to be done on white pepper)
½ lemon, juice and zest

You can make the fish velouté separately if you like, but why not use the liquid you poached the fish in? Then you dirty only one pot. Makes sense…Oui?


The fish. If the skin is on, you’ll have to remove it. Get out your best, sharpest filet or boning knife (mine, a Victorinox, was $30 at a kitchen store and the chefs all recommended it – no, neither they, nor I get anything for that).

Lay the fish skin side down on the edge of your cutting board (make sure your cutting board has either a sheet of wet paper towel under it, or a rubber mat, to prevent slipping – I bought a roll of that rubber stuff at a dollar store and cut it into pieces).

If you’re right handed, have the tail to the left, and if you’re a southpaw, like me, you put the tail to the right.

Starting about half an inch from the tail end, slice down and toward the tail (counter intuitive, I know). Then turn the blade toward the business end of the fish – toward the main body of the fish. Laying the knife firmly and flat against the skin, and with your other hand pulling the tail and skin taut, start carefully slicing between the skin and flesh (you’re actually slicing the membrane between the two).

It’s a slight sawing motion. If your knife is sharp enough, you’ll slide through fairly easily. The trick is to hold that tail taut. As you progress through the filet, fold up the flesh to check you’re not leaving any of the red meat on the skin. Adjust your knife lower if you are.

It should come off in one piece, and you can hold it up to your neck and pretend you have a fish tie. No, seriously…do it. It’s part of the ritual.

If you’ve come through the skin or it tears…and you can’t catch the edge again with your knife, you’re probably going to have to do what I had to do the first time I tried this – flip it over and laboriously pull the skin up with your filet or boning knife until you’ve got it all off. That way takes a good five to ten minutes…the proper way takes a minute. Worth trying.

Once you’re done, you can choose whether to poach the filet whole in your sauté pan, or cut it into portions. I found cutting it into portions much easier to handle…and they fit in the pan better. 


Get out your sauté pan. Do NOT put it on the heat yet.

Take a chunk of your butter and smear it along the bottom and sides of your pan (I used a pan with the vertical sides – not a true sauté pan).

Evenly spread the diced shallot all over the bottom.

Carefully place your filet portions on the shallots. Fold the tail section (the thinnest probably) in half to mimic the thickness of the other portions. Salt and pepper them.

Pour in your wine (dribble it over the fish).

Pour in your fish stock. And if you’re adding water, pour in the water.

The liquid should come halfway up the fish.

Cover the fish with your perfectly-made circle of parchment paper. Remember to cut it a little larger than the pan so it comes up the sides a little. Push the parchment down to touch all the filets.

Now, carefully bring it to a boil on the stove, and then turn it down to a simmer. It should take about 10 minutes. If the fish centres are not cooperating after about 10 minutes, just carefully flip them over and put the parchment back over them for a minute or two. The filets should look done and a little flaky.

While you’re waiting for the filets to be done, you can get a jump on the sauce. Make a beurre manié in a small bowl. Sounds fancy, but it’s just equal parts of butter and flour mixed together. (You can err on the side of more fat to flour) Mix it well. Set aside.

Remove the filets when they’re done and keep them warm.

Now for the sauce.

The rule for making sauces is that the liquid and the beurre manié have to be opposite temperatures.

So as our beurre manié is at room temperature or a little cooler and our pan liquid is hot…we’re good to go. Add more fish stock/wine/water if you need more liquid in the pan, bring it up to a boil, reduce it by about ¼, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Put some of the beurre manié in the pan and whisk. Don’t put all of it in…otherwise you might have too thick a sauce. As it heats and melds with the fish stock and wine and shallots, it will start to thicken. Add more if it's not thick enough.

The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. When you run your finger along the back of the spoon it should leave a gentle trail. Feel free to add more stock or wine if needed.

Add the cream, and add this to your taste, no matter what the recipe says.

Now add the sliced grapes and the chopped thyme and parsley. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.
Season with salt and pepper. Add some lemon juice and zest, if you’re like me I can’t resist the zest – but fair warning, be careful with the lemon, it can get too ‘citrus-y’ quickly.

Plate your fish – and drizzle the wine sauce over it, making sure each person gets a few grape slices.
I was amazed how good the grapes were in this. I didn’t think they’d add much. But I liked it.

In fact, I like this so much I made it again the next night with the spare trout filet they gave us. It’s a quick dinner believe it or not. Great if you’ve got guests coming over on a weeknight, or weekend…

So far, our friends are pretty happy with this whole cooking school thing – mostly because I bring stuff home and need help eating it.

By the way if you replace the grapes with button mushrooms you’ve made a different sauce – something called sauce bonne femme. Just add the mushrooms earlier in the recipe so that they cook.  Use it on sole filets or whatever you like…

Just try it…See where it takes you.

The lovely thing about sauce is that it is pretty generous. It will work with you – too thick? Add liquid. Too thin? Add more beurre manié.

Generosity – that’s what cooking is all about.


September 09, 2013

Don't Apologize

“When you flip anything you must have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this. Oh…that didn’t go very well...But you can always pick it up. And if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”

Cooking. A metaphor for life. And wisdom from Julia Child.

A perfect source of wisdom for me right now. Because, believe it or not, after months of building up to it - I left chef school. In the first week.

And I learned a lot. But not what I was expecting.

Chef school is exciting. The kitchens are dazzling. The demo labs, the industrial mixers, the massive stoves, the chef whites, the knife kits, the hats, elevating you into the profession. (Although one baking teacher asked why we all wanted to go into the life of a domestic servant…)

These chefs are very passionate, determined and dedicated artists.

Through all of that I discovered something.

I really, really, really don’t want to cook to the standard of a restaurant. It was like hitting my passion for food with a nuclear bomb.

And though no one asked them to, my classmates figured out quickly that if the chef asked us if we understand, they said, in unison, Yes Chef!

I wasn’t sure if it was in me when I wrote about it before I went. And guess what? It isn’t. My neck and shoulders tighten, my lips get pursed. And I suddenly find I’m trying to shake my shoulders loose. Nope. It’s just too much. You know…set to 11.

It was a blow. I spent most of the week on the verge of tears in public and letting them overflow in private. It was shocking. The thoughts started creeping through - the money...the risk...the embarrassment...the naivete, and my age old panicky feeling of doubt followed quickly by paralysis - I can't go forward, can't go back.

The old me would have torn myself to shreds. For a long time. In a voice I wouldn't use on anyone else. I debated pushing through. I've been in these settings before (anyone in a newsroom or tv control room feels it) and wondered why I pushed on. But here no. I knew if I went back, my body would stop myself from going in the classroom. Hmmm. Journalism was what I was meant to study. What I loved. And cooking school was adding a specialty to my life. And one that I can still learn.

I had made a huge mistake.

So this time, I quit.

For me, the “courage of my convictions” was in calling it.

When a goal leads you down a fork in the road and you see another path veering away from you – you get to call quits. And you will never quite know. And that, my friends, must be what growing up feels like.

I’m a home cook. I want to get better. I want to, in fact, be the best I can be. I want to taste well (not good, that’s different). I want to practice up my palate. I want to create. And I want to share.

Cooking is generosity, not competition. Not so much the culinary Olympics. For others maybe, but not for me.

Goal/motivation psychology tells us that if your goal is taking you in the wrong direction, adapt the goal. Find a related goal – one that’ll get you near. In psychology gobbledygook it is called ‘goal disengagement’ and ‘goal reengagement’. And people who can do that apparently also have the added benefit of better physical health.

In other words, flogging yourself to death because you won’t quit what you don’t even want ain’t good for you.

When I told my closest friends, they all had the same reaction – in calls and emails…first complete support and congratulations for knowing so fast...and second, worried that I’d beat myself up…I seem to have a reputation.

The not-much-younger me could hear the muffled voice inside my head trying to break through to scream at me for failing…for quitting…for not following anything through…for thinking I could even do this in the first place. Imposter!

The not-much-older me shored up the walls. And ignored it.

I did some research – discovered a different certification program that is part-time and signed myself up. I start that in less than two weeks. I still get to wear my chef whites, carry my knife kit and learn to be a much better, and happier, cook.

And with that, by the end of Friday, I’d reached the end of my first, and last, week of chef school. I had set a goal. It hadn’t worked. I found another. I moved on.

Julia Child had it down – her philosophy was work hard, take risks and if you make a mistake – don’t apologize.

If you need me, I’ll be on the other fork in the road.

August 09, 2013

The Food Life

Many years ago, just before I turned 40, a friend wanted to go to the driving range. It was one of those muggy summer nights when you can’t really think of sleeping, when the air is soft but thick on your skin - like velvet, and the stadium lights have a glow around them.

I hadn’t hit anything with a golf club in years. We had hacked around at various driving ranges once in a while, the way most of us go bowling or try curling…to say we’d done it, to be bad at it, to laugh our asses off.

But this night meant heading to the driving range with someone who was born to golf - who had put in his 10,000 hours before he turned 20. And so, my competitive spirit and fear of humiliation kicked in. And I wanted to be good at it. In my late 30s…like…sure.

I think most of us want to pursue stuff we’re good at – it makes us feel good - no, competent, when a lot of the world is so competitive that feeling incompetent or unsure is more the norm than not. So I approached the range with a great deal of dread. And excitement.

I had been watching golf tournaments for years. I loved the mental part of the game, the skills, and that the players were playing a game against the course, and themselves. But play? No. And for good reason.

My dad was a golfer which made Mum a golf widow. We moved to a house in the middle of nowhere because it was close to his golf course. Weekends were about waiting for Dad to finish his game and his social time at the club. He took the car…we waited at home. That was the kind of time it was. Mad men…

And one year after we’d moved in, Dad left. He took the car, his clubs, his stuff, and the smell of golf stayed rancid in the house. Golf was never really mentioned as a bad thing…but as a kid I just got the vibe. No. I had no intention of playing.

So that summer night we got our buckets of balls and walked over to the tees, I had no expectations.

My friend handed me his 7-iron. He put a ball on the tee. ‘Hit it,’ he said.

I stepped up. I swung the club back and down and through, and the ball sailed into the night air.

He stood and looked at it. Then he grabbed another ball, put it on the tee, and said, ‘do that again.’

So …I did. And again, it went sailing into the night air.

He jumped up from his chair and hugged me. ‘You’re a natural,’ he said. ‘Who says watching golf doesn’t teach you anything?’

A lot of life is like that – yes, I just said golf is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

I was thinking about this today. I am a late bloomer. I’ve always said that. I think it has to do with learning to be comfortable with risk – which took me a very, very long time. In fact, way into my 30s.

Life really does evolve – in surprising ways. In my rolling rock of life, I found myself learning about things I never, ever thought I was capable of learning – I loved journalism and writing my whole life (but I didn’t jump in until I was 28 and couldn’t find anything else to do), and that, by serendipity, took me into science (which I had dropped in grade 10), which led to international travel to some of the world’s most fascinating spots, which led me into health journalism (and got me through my phobia about medicine and doctors and the word ‘probe’ and any word ending in ‘-oscopy’), and brain science…I used to write on my resume that if my science teachers were dead, they’d be spinning in their graves. And the stress of that life – it ain’t all glamour like you may think – led me to just start running one day. And suddenly I was getting into uber fit mode…and uber eating mode.

So then, my love of food and a need to understand its meaning. I really can’t tell you where that came from. The obsession.

I think it was born when I finally figured out that it’s okay to be true to what you want in life.

It started with finding a nook in a bookstore and leafing through cookbooks. This was before the Food Network. Then with food tv I picked up tons of tips and ways and means of doing things – like rubbing my fingers on the sink after chopping garlic to rid them of the smell, or the virtues of browning meat on the stovetop before popping it in the oven - from Julia to Ina, from Alton to Emeril…I picked up stuff and put it away in my brain. And the food magazines started forming towers in the living room.

But it was more than that – because it was touching an emotional chord in me. I loved cooking and feeding my friends. What was underpinning that? I remember when I started this food blog back in 2006, I actually had to look up what a blog was, then what a food blog was, and suddenly I found tons of people sharing their food lives online. Like an underground community or tribe. That was 7 years ago. I had no idea it would lead me here.

Food is a way to show kindness. Love, I guess. To be generous - even to myself. To get the thrill that comes with the magic. Taking six things, or less, and mixing them – and suddenly the alchemy of say tomato, garlic and fresh basil explodes beyond the individual ingredients.

But if I’m being completely honest, making food was not only a way to show love, but to get love back.

Tasting reminds me of listening. Have you noticed that?

I picked up my chef uniform this week – two tunics, two chef hats, one pair of chef pants and two aprons. And I find it a tad ironic that as I jump into chef school and its complex French cuisine, I find myself trying to cook at home with fewer and fewer ingredients. You know finding a place for each individual ingredient to shine and yet work in concert with others. To enhance and nurture the best out of everything, not diminish it or squelch it into blandness.

Yes, I just said cooking is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

So the big question is –is it ever too late to start on the next 10,000 hours? It better not be…I'll go have a look at the PGA Championship. Tiger's on the tee.

July 29, 2013

Grocery Philosophy

Grocery shopping takes some philosophy.

Maybe I’m overstating it. Maybe it simply takes planning. Doesn’t really matter.  I find both pretty hard – philosophy and planning.

My grocery method is a non-method…

I fall into the category of ‘oh-look-pretty-shiny’. If it’s gorgeous, or on sale, my cart wheels its way over there…then over there, then over there…and then it gets parked, and I find myself just wandering through the produce. Which drains $100 from my pocket pretty quickly. But it’s good exercise.

I don’t know really what I want to buy. I probably need milk, tea, bread, tea, salad greens, tea…that’s what my shopping list looks like, if I get as far as a list.

My brother in law and his wife came across the country for a visit a few weeks back. And I pulled in all kinds of food for the week. It was a joy – from hummus and tabbouleh from my favourite place, to the fish from my favourite fish place, to the meat and eggs from my favourite place…that was a good day.

My brother in law is a FANTASTIC cook. And the knife doesn’t fall far from…the counter. His son is an executive chef. They’re vegetarian, or his wife is, and Bill’s meals are a delight.

But it was their grocery shopping that had me mouth breathing for a while. When we visited them about eight years ago, we went to the market with them one weekend morning. Before we went, there was a conference to determine the menu…for the whole week. I was in awe. We went. We shopped. Bing, bang, boom. Done.

As Sam explained, they live a ways from the nearest store so it’s a pain if you’ve forgotten the quinoa…We live three blocks from a main street. We can shop every day if we want – and often do. She also said that when she shopped without a list of menus, she threw a lot of food away…um…guilty gulp.

Only yesterday I threw out a box of organic greens that smelled more like organic sewage. And old watermelon chunks. And biggest crime of all - furry Rainier cherries. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

I guess there are personalities for shopping – or philosophies. And they can collide. Right in the aisle.

When Bill and Sam visited us a few years back, we went to a local grocery store to pick up stuff for dinner. I pushed the cart and wandered as I do from aisle to aisle in the produce section.
I saw stuff. I stopped. I’d put stuff in the cart. I’d walk over to the other side, around the corner and back…zig, zag…meander…and Sam snapped a gasket. She looked like a mother goose herding goslings. She got the cart back, got me/us focused on what we were doing there and off we went – bing, bang, boom…done.
My eyes were twinkling a bit as they do when I realize I’ve annoyed someone and I find it amusing that we have completely different approaches to something. I laughed…I think she did too…later…

Grocery shopping is something of a pleasure for me – I know it’s part of drudge work for some people and I get why. Even when I rush in for a litre of milk (yes, I’m in Canada, so it’s a litre), my feet brake suddenly as I pass the fruit or vegetables displayed near the door. I pull out my phone to take pictures of the beautiful eggplants or radishes.

And if I'm visiting anywhere, I must, must, must, find my way into a grocery store - foreign food stores are fantastic adventures.

It’s a thing for me. What is it? It’s not a philosophy and it certainly isn’t planning…it’s a visual pleasure – maybe it’s bounty, plenty, health, joy. And it slows me down. That can't be bad. Now all I have to learn is how to honour the best of that food that ends up in my cart before the rot sets in…And that’s veering dangerously near a philosophy… and a plan.