Island time

There’s nothing quite as restorative as some time in the sunshine. Good food helps as well.

We had plenty of both during our extended Christmas stay on the West Indian island of Antigua. Now, I’m so relaxed, it’s hard to get moving again.

A few culinary highlights of our trip:

The Antiguan black pineapple. A skinnier version of the one we’re used to in North American supermarkets, it is also much sweeter. You can buy them at roadside stands in the lush, south part of the Island where they are grown or, you can find them at the public market in the capital, St. John’s. Alas, they don’t export these juicy  little gems.

The beef carpaccio at Sheer Rocks in St. Mary’s Parish on the south-west coast. It was sublime and the location –  a stepped terrace perched on the edge of a cliff – is outstanding for a special night out. The evening we were there, the Caribbean was rough and it was amazing to watch the surf pound the rocks by candlelight.

The roti at Roti King in St. John’s. We asked a policewoman for directions when we got lost looking for a Caribbean restaurant the guide-book recommended (turns out it had closed), and she told us we were headed to the wrong place and promptly walked us several blocks to Roti King, the place people in the know go to for lunch.

As you can see, it is nothing fancy and we may not have ventured in on our own if we hadn’t had such a glowing recommendation. The service was not particularly friendly but the place was packed with Antiguans, not tourists, and the smell of the curry was compelling.

The rotis were huge, cheap and delicious. I had beef, L had chicken (the kids, of course, ate at one of the two Subways, which have recently invaded the island). I can’t wait to go back for seconds.

Now, back to reality (and the kitchen).


Probably not your grandmother’s matzo ball soup

From the better-late-than-never department, Happy Hanukkah!

Trying to figure out which recipe to use for my first attempt at matzo ball soup was more than a little daunting. Just figuring out the proper spelling is hard enough. There are thousands of recipes (each handed down from a grandmother, it seems) in cookbooks and online and, as far as I can tell, each and every one of them is different and most of the claim to be the only way to make authentic matzo ball soup.

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Preserved pears with brandy

Last week, the City of Vancouver began implementing an ambitious plan to plant orchards in city parks. The apple, cherry, plum and pear trees will be cared for by young people from nearby schools and are part of a long-term project to create and edible urban ecosystem.

It’s a great idea. Let’s turn all our parks into productive as well as recreational spaces.  I have my doubts, however, about the use of child labour.

Vancouver’s arboriculture manager, Bill Manning, quoted in the Vancouver Sun, says: “We have kids coming out and planting and taking ownership and that is key to making this work.”

I distinctly recall a number of “taking ownership” conversations in our own house over the years, chiefly around things like walking the dog, feeding the dog and the cats, weeding the garden, bringing dirty dishes back to the kitchen, shoveling the snow and doing homework, just to name a few.

If we had relied on our kids to take “ownership” we would now be facing animal cruelty charges, eating nettle salads off paper plates, using ice-climbing gear to get down the front steps and preparing our beloved offspring for minimum-wage careers at the local call centre.

Good luck, Vancouver.

I note that Mr. Manning did not suggest for a second that the children would actually eat the fruit. That would require too much suspension of disbelief. If my own children are typical (and all the other parents down at the support group suggest they are), growing fruit is a waste of time. Growing potato chip trees would be more like it (especially if they were those really good flavours like ketchup or dill pickle).

Every week, in a paroxysm of parental guilt, we load our shopping cart with fresh fruit so our children will be able to voluntarily eat at least eight servings a day. Hope springs eternal as we place bowls of apples, oranges, kiwis and pears in strategic spots throughout the house only to hear, time and time again, the classic call of the spoiled-rotten North American child in distress: “There is nothing to eat in this house!”

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Apple and sausage stuffed pork chops

Sometimes, during a really good meal, there is a moment when you suddenly notice it’s quiet. Except for the scrape of cutlery, there is no noise. Even the most convivial talker has gone head down and silent and you can’t quite put your finger on exactly when the conversation stopped. But you know why it stopped. It’s the food. Eventually someone lifts their head and, perhaps just a little winded, says “this is really good.” The moment has passed.

But, if you’re the cook, it’s magic. You know you hit the sweet spot.

Or, in the case of these pork chops, the sweet and savory spot. Succulent brined double-bone chops (one bone carefully carved off) stuffed with apple, sweet sausage, onion, homemade croutons and a generous dash of fennel seed. So good that everybody forgot to talk. Until they had to come up for air.

This recipe, with a sweet, tart sauce sharpened with a little grainy mustard, is loosely adapted from one by Prince Edward Island chef Michael Smith. It’s conversation-stopping good.

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Grilled Cheddar, apple and bacon sandwich

A facebook friend who lives in India posted this on my wall the other day: “r u or have u been in India?”

No kidding, it felt a bit like being taken down to FBI headquarters. “Yes,” I felt like replying, “but, I was never a member of the communist party.”

It was the profile picture of me standing in front of the Taj Mahal that gave me away. Admittedly, I look every bit the relaxed tourist waltzing around India without even letting my friends know I am there. Very rude.

Such is the fate of the business traveler – zipping in and out of cities, countries and even sub-continents without the chance to see friends and relatives while you are there.  When I was on a recent four-day trip to Delhi (yes, four whole days), I wasn’t going to leave without a side-trip to see the Taj but, truth be told, I was there for approximately 45 minutes. Hardly a relaxing excursion.

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Sun-dried tomato and brandy cream sauce

October 25th was World Pasta Day and we almost missed it. Fortunately, it’s pasta day eight days a week around here (or so it seems) and we happened to be enjoying a bowl that very evening even though we were oblivious to the significance of the date. Whew! That was close.

It’s not entirely clear to me why pasta needs its own day. I can understand a day to raise awareness for prostate issues (helpful to folks like a former boss who complained of “prostrate” problems.) and days to save the whales and mountain gorillas (there are fewer than 700 of these great apes left), but pasta? Is spaghetti really in trouble?

Well, according to statistics from none other than the Union of Organizations of Manufacturers of Pasta Products of the E.U. (UN.A.F.P.A. for short – if you can call that short), pasta seems to be hanging in there. In fact, other than a slight dip in the early 2000s (the Great Carb Scare, no doubt), pasta consumption has remained steady at more that 3-million tonnes per year. True, a lot of that was at our house.

Not surprisingly, Italians lead the way in pasta consumption at 26 kilograms per person per year. But who knew that Venezuela, of all places, was next at 12 kilograms per person. Americans slurp back 9 kilos per mouth (just behind the Swiss at 9.7), Canadians weigh in at a paltry 6.5 kilos while the Brits trail even the Finns at 2.5.

If you contrast pasta with, say, rice  (at 58 kg per person per year world-wide), you might start to see why macaroni makers are a little worried (rice accounts for  a whopping 21 per cent of the world’s calories). But strip out Asia and the numbers plummet (9 kilos per diner in the US, for example – a dead heat with pasta).

Still, the UN.A.F.P.A. is a reputable group, I’m sure, and they must know what they are talking about, despite the statistics. (Maybe they’re concerned about protecting rare pasta shapes like Ballerine or Margherita Messinese Lunga or the extremely scarce Cryllic Alphabet Pasta. See chart of pasta shapes – I made up the Cryllic one). In any event, I’m not taking any chances. I’ve marked World Pasta Day permanently in my calendar because I can’t imagine a world without pasta. Or, even a Tuesday night.

Here’s something to tide us all over until next October. It’s one of my favourite pasta dishes from one of my favourite restaurants. Intense sun-dried tomatoes add a real kick of flavour to this sauce that gets decadent by adding whipping cream and good dollop of brandy. The sauce is made even richer with lots of butter (it’s optional, but I always add it). This is so good with farfalle pasta.

Make this once and I guarantee you’ll surpass the Italians in annual consumption.

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Hair of the dog in a jar (red wine jelly with sage)

So, tell me if this has ever happened to you.

It’s 10 or 11 in the morning and you wander down the stairs into the kitchen. Deep down you know what to expect but, somehow, you hope, it won’t be true.

It is. The kitchen is a mess. Empty glasses and bottles everywhere.  There are bowls of soggy chips, stale popcorn and a big plate of once-expensive cheese that’s gone hard. Green stuff that you hope was once spinach dip has dried like concrete on the harvest table you always tell the kids to be careful not to damage.

By necessity, because of the state of the room and the state of your head, you move slowly, intent only on finding the last of the Tylenol and heading back to bed until tomorrow or, if you’re really  lucky, the next day.

Then you see it.

Standing tall and proud among all the empties is your one, precious bottle of wine. It’s the bottle you vowed not to open until your daughter’s wedding or your boss’s funeral, whichever comes first. It’s the bottle that cost more than your first car. It has been uncorked.

Steady now, this gets worse.

It’s still three-quarters full.

You reach out to keep from falling and find the spinach dip a helpful grip (it will need to be chipped off before the kids see it, you realize) as a wave of nausea rolls over you. You stare, transfixed at the year on the label; a year you will never get back.

Right about now you will hear a noise. A series of noises, in fact. You strain to focus and realize that it is snoring and it’s coming from the livingroom and the family room and perhaps even the front hall. You curse the lack of cabs at 2 (3?4?5?)am. Looking back at the bottle, the nausea subsides temporarily and anger takes its place.

Now, take a deep breath. These are still your friends and hurting them will not make things better. Look away from the knife block and find the Tylenol. Besides, you don’t yet remember whether it was them or you who opened that bottle. Concentrate on the Tylenol.

Here’s what to do. (By the way, if you’ve never encountered a situation like this in your own kitchen, you don’t need to read any further. You’re probably late for church anyway.)

First, hard as this might be in your condition, pick up the wine bottle, find a cork that fits, cork it and put the bottle in the fridge. Don’t worry, this is as close to alcohol as you will need to be for a while. Now, take the Tylenol, drink as much cold water as you think you can safely hold down and go back to bed. Doesn’t that feel good? (Well, it’s about as good as you can feel right now.)

By the time you get up, your friends will have slipped out to suffer further at home. Well, all your friends but one – the one who thinks an invitation to a party one night means he’s welcome to stay for dinner the next night. He will be in front of your television drinking a beer. He will ask why you don’t subscribe to The Movie Network. Just ignore him. He’s used to it and you have work to do.

Next, find some sage. Sage, the herb, not sage, the advice (you are all out of sage advice because, if you had any, your head wouldn’t be thumping like this). Some red wine vinegar, a little sugar and a little liquid pectin and you’re ready to go.

You’re going to make red wine jelly. I know, I know. You don’t want to go anywhere near red wine right now but, trust me, saving that precious bottle is worth it. And this savoury jelly really is good with cheese or as a glaze for red meat. So, buck up old bean and do your duty.

Besides, next time your friends come over (and there will be a next time), you can serve it with more expensive cheese and remark how it is exactly the same colour as the stain on your thousand-dollar Persian rug. See if that jogs their memory.

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A wishbone for Edgar

Anyone who has been following the narrative on one of my favourite blogs,  she eats bears, is sitting on the edge of their kitchen stool in anticipation of this weekend’s big event. The gentle rhythm of Marysol’s blog has been punctuated by a bit of tension of late as she prepares to open her own little restaurant, Edgar. It’s hard not to admire someone who has a dream to pursue her passion and then has the gumption to leave her job and do it. And now, after reading along through the trials and errors, we can all look forward to Saturday’s opening. And the food looks great.

So, Edgar, best wishbones for a grand opening and a prosperous future.

Chicken stock, two ways

Everyone around here knows that when I get out my 24-litre stock pot (I feel like a hobbit carrying this thing to the stove), the “crisper” drawer is more aptly called the “softer” drawer and it is time to make chicken stock. This seems to happen most regularly on a rainy Sunday.  I throw in all the going-a-bit-limp carrots, seen-better-days celery stalks and bottom-of-the-bin onions (leave the skins on, they add colour) I have on hand. Passing these things through the stock pot on their way to the compost bin eliminates all the guilt I feel about throwing them out. Plus I get to make soup.

I always intend to save and freeze the bones from roast chickens for stock but our freezer is so full of other things I may never get around to using that I usually don’t bother. The best stock, I think, is made with chicken feet. It’s so much richer.  But that means a trip out to the Asian grocery store, which is the only place I’ve ever seen them other than on live chickens. Besides, using whole chickens means I have enough leftover meat (after making soup) for chicken salad sandwiches all week. I’m such a lazy cook.

Amounts vary when making stock depending on how many vegetables I have on hand. And because my stock pot is so large, when I’m using whole birds I always use at least two organic, free-range chickens from our favourite farm.

I have tried to approximate the essential ingredients (using just one chicken) below but, really, there are no rules so, play around.

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After the flood

Drywall is up (did it myself so, don’t look too closely), painting is done, shelves are up and they have been stocked with new food.

Two weeks after a leaky pipe caused havoc in the kitchen, wrecking the walls and causing the pantry shelves to collapse (olive oil gives a lovely sheen to slate floors), things are finally back in order.

Time to start cooking again.

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