Reverence and pork pies

It had already been a long and grueling day. Saying our final good-byes to Dad in a drawn out morning of prayers and mass, supporting Mom among the many mourners and hosting the post-funeral luncheon. The long drive to the Catholic cemetery and the promise of being outdoors didn’t seem so bad.

It was a beautiful Fall day, not something you’d expect in late November. The clouds were high and the sun poked through just enough to take the chilly edge off our shoulders. Not a drop of rain.

We arrived at the cemetery, rested. We had had some much needed time to ourselves away from people and attention. When we stepped outside again I could sense a renewed energy and hope that the day was finally drawing to a close.

For a nine year old, this kind of day can be excruciating. Having to follow the unfamiliar “stand up, sit down, bow, kneel, genuflect” of churchgoing is daunting. And to be patted on the head, hugged and touched by throngs of strangers, even more so. But the boy was a trooper and behaved well beyond his tender years. Perhaps because his mother had struck a deal with him.

I had packed provisions for the day: water, fruit, crackers, cheese and the ultimate treat–melton mowbray pork pies. Our deal was that when our business at the cemetery was done, the boy would get to snack on a piece of coveted pork pie.

So after Dad’s casket was lowered and we bowed three times in reverence, the boy gleefully ran off to retrieve his pork pie reward.

The mourners began to drift away from the graveside when one of Dad’s closest church friends reined us in again for one final round of bows. I craned my neck and looked around for the boy. I waved and motioned for him to come back and he came scurrying just in time for the traditional three bows. First bow. Second bow. Third bow. And there stood the boy, clutching in each fist a massive chunk of pork pie.

13656705095_8db613fbb5_zWe couldn’t help but laugh and know that Dad was laughing with us. One piece of pork pie for him and one for the boy. All in great reverence.

Pistachio Apricot Teacakes

Pistachio Apricot TeacakesOnce upon a time, there lived a Holiday Cookie Queen. Every holiday season she would select 8 or 10 different cookie recipes and bake dozens upon dozens of each to festively package and give to the townsfolk. Seeing how joyful the townsfolk were to receive these holiday treats, she and her trusted friend, the Duchess of Cookie, decided to share the cookie joy all year long and they made and sold cookie dough for the masses to take home and bake for themselves.

As the years passed, the Holiday Cookie Queen gradually ran out of her magical cookie touch. She had instilled her love of cookies in the many, many folks who enjoyed baking her cookie dough. She had simply given away all her cookie zen. She could bake not a single cookie.

Time passed and the Holiday Cookie Queen ever so slowly regained her cookie baking energy and zeal. She baked a few dozen here and there. She sampled the cookie delights of others and found great inspiration. Finally she began to bake holiday cookies again and found renewed joy in sharing them with her closest kinfolk.

The holidays have come and gone and the Holiday Cookie Queen is now resting up. And baking pies. She did, however, leave me with the recipe for her favourite cookie of the season, pistachio apricot teacakes. She wanted me to let you know that these would be delightful to share with your closest kinfolk any time of the year.

Pistachio Apricot Teacakes

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup icing sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shelled raw, unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried apricots, minced
Additional icing sugar

In a large bowl, cream butter and icing sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla and mix well.
Meanwhile, sift together flour, cardamom and salt in a medium bowl.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until all the flour is incorporated.
Stir in pistachios and apricots.
Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough and form into balls. Place one-inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets.
Bake at 300 degrees F for 18 to 20 minutes until the cookies feel firm and just begin to take on some colour.
Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes on baking sheets. Roll in extra icing sugar then place on cooling racks and cool completely.
Store between sheets of waxed or parchment paper in airtight container. Roll again in icing sugar just before serving, if desired.

Makes 3 dozen

Sorry-for-myself Cake

I am going to apologize right now. Sorry. Sorry for wingeing. Due to a seemingly endless string of energy-sapping life incidences, I am tired and cranky. And tonight, in particular, I am feeling sorry for myself. Sorry that I’ve been neglecting my sourdough starter. Sorry that I haven’t written thank you notes and letters. Sorry that I’m so unorganized. Sorry that I can’t get things done in a timely manner. Sorry that I’m running out of steam.

I was feeling so sorry for myself that I baked myself a cake, (yes, I was feeling sorry that no one bakes me cakes). I didn’t need anything fancy, just something flavourful and simple and that didn’t require me to run out and buy anything.

French-style yogurt cakeI settled on a French-style yogurt cake. The recipe called for lemon zest and juice but I didn’t have the energy to zest and juice so I threw in a dash of vanilla. I did remember (and being able to remember anything these days is a major accomplishment) that I had some leftover homemade mincemeat in the fridge. I poured in half the batter, dotted it generously with the mincemeat and smoothed the rest of the batter over.

A quick cooling on the balcony on this unusually frigid night and voilà! Cake for a sorry Ms. Crankypants.

OK, I’m done with feeling cranky and sorry for myself now. Thanks for listening. I hope you bake a cake for yourself the next time you find yourself weary, tired or cranky.

Homemade Nutella

“You know, Mom, I don’t like nutella. I never have.” *walks away with a smug shrug* I looked up from the sauté pan and shot my child that one-eye-brow-raised look that parents give that says, “Did I really give birth to you?” or “How are you the product of your parents?”

I had been excitedly telling the almost-ten-year old about a nutella making project I’d been thinking about for some time. As with a lot of my food DIY projects, I can’t remember how the idea came about. Sometimes I come across a recipe or method for making something that I really want to eat and sometimes, to be honest, it’s not something I hanker for at all but I’m drawn to the technique, concept or ingredient and I am compelled to make it. Having a captive audience to eat the final result is also a motivator.

Deflated and knowing I’d have a limited eating audience, I was almost ready to drop this nutella project. Then I discovered that a food-forward friend’s birthday falls on World Nutella Day, February 5. Imagine having a birthday on such an auspicious day! Homemade nutella would be the most fitting of gifts.

12297176606_1d48d25420The project was a go! I wanted a sophisticated, full-fat, full-dairy, dark chocolate, not-too-sweet version and settled on an adaptation of David Lebovitz’s recipe (this guy is the bomb, check him out if you haven’t already). He uses whole milk but I substituted cream to lengthen the shelf life. Sometimes you can find already skinned hazelnuts which eliminates the skin rubbing step entirely.

12297060953_42d2a40c7aAfter refrigeration, the nutella firms up, so you might want to leave it at room temperature for a while until it’s spreadable. It’s perfectly fine, though, not to wait and scoop and eat it straight from the jar.

Homemade Nutella

2 cups (about 225 g) whole hazelnuts
1 1/2 cups cream
3/4 cup powdered milk
2 tablespoon mild honey, optional
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Pinch of salt

Place the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast, stirring a couple of times, for 10 to 15 minutes or until they begin to brown and the skins split a little. If you are lucky enough to find already skinned hazelnuts, toast for 10 to 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the cream and the powdered milk in a saucepan and bring just to a boil. Add honey and whisk to dissolve.
Add chocolate and salt to the hot cream and let sit for 10 minutes. Whisk until all the chocolate is melted and incorporated.
When the nuts are brown, pour them all onto a tea towel, gather the corners and edges of the towel and rub them to remove their skins. Skip this step if you’re using skinned hazelnuts.
Place the warm nuts into the bowl of a food processor and grind them until a paste forms. You may still have some nutty bits. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the hot cream mixture and process until well mixed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
The nutella will seem runny but will thicken up when chilled. You may also have some nutty bits left. If this really bothers you, you can strain the mixture. I wouldn’t bother.
Pour into jars, seal, refrigerate and use within 3 weeks, if it will last that long.

Makes 2 generous jars (one for yourself and one for a friend, World Nutella Day Birthday or not)

Oatmeal Ice Cream

Last year I got whiff of Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. About a month after the fact. I was kicking myself for missing an official opportunity to eat the dreamy, creamy treat to kick start my day (not that I need an official day to do that). So this year I have been vigilant and have noted the date months in advance: Saturday, February 1.

As a dietitian with a bent halo, I am pleased to say that ice cream makes a fine breakfast and hits all the food groups: milk (milk, cream), meat alternatives (eggs), fruits and veggies (fruit) and grains (what grains?). OK, ice cream doesn’t cover the grain group. Not until now.

Oatmeal Ice CreamSo to meet Canada’s Food Guide while honouring Ice Cream for Breakfast Day, here’s a breakfast inspired ice cream. Eat it with fresh or roasted fruit, waffles or pancakes. Imagine it all melty on top of a steaming bowl of apple studded steel-cut oats! Or you can eat it for dinner with a side of fruit. It’s a balanced meal after all.

Oatmeal Ice Cream

1/2 cup old fashioned oats
2 cups whipping cream
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon whiskey

In a dry skillet, toast oats over medium heat until they are a few shades darker and they start to smell nutty. (I like to toast extra oats to top the ice cream just before serving)
Combine whipping cream, milk, brown and granulated sugars and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Add toasted oats and simmer for 5 minutes. The oats should be tender but should still hold their shape.
Meanwhile, lightly whisk eggs and salt in a heatproof bowl.
Gradually whisk cream mixture into eggs. Return the mixture to the pan. Stir and heat gently until custard is thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
Chill until very cold, at least 4 hours.
Stir in the whiskey and churn in ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm.

Makes 1 1/2 litres of homey ice cream goodness

One day

It’s been a while. The unavoidable and inevitable has happened. Dad died 2 months ago. He slipped away peacefully with us around him. The extinguishing of a bright light that illuminated our lives with integrity, generosity and gratitude. A Dad-shaped void will always be in my life but slowly that space is being filled with memories and stories of a genteel man who lived a full life.

I’ve felt compelled to write a food tribute to Dad. So much of his essence involved food, the celebration of food and the magic of how food draws us together as a community. The ideas swirl around as I replay stories and meals shared with Dad. I find myself cooking the dishes he used to cook and ones that I used to cook for him. And I think of him at almost every meal.

But I’m not there yet. One day I will be.

birthday cake

Bittersweet

So much of life revolves around food: basic nourishment, health, celebrations, art, community. Tonight we gathered at the table for a timely, albeit somewhat uncomfortable meal. My dad gathered six of his closest church friends, my mom and my brother and I for dinner to discuss his final wishes. Dad is dying.

My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this spring, just about the time my mom-in-law died of the very same disease. Nasty, nasty cancer that it is. To date there are no reliable early detection methods for pancreatic cancer and survival rates are unfortunately low. In my mom-in-law’s case, it had metastasized so much that by the time she was diagnosed, she only had a few days to live.

Dad’s tumour, although not large, is inoperable and there are no treatment options. His health is declining and we’re noticing how cancer is slowly taking over and how Dad is slowly slipping away.

But true to Dad’s wise and practical nature, he’s taking care of business. As hard as it may be, he’s thought through endless details and has made his final arrangements. And of course he would share these with the ones he trusts most at his favourite place, the dinner table. So tonight we feasted on platters of Chinese food and talked and reassured Dad that things will be the way he wishes. We also laughed and joked and listened to Dad’s always eloquent stories of life, politics and travels.

Life is uncertain these days. But the table is where we can always find some comfort, solace and love.

Back to school!

It’s that time of year again! Kids are both dreading and looking forward to heading back to school. Parents are also looking forward to sending their kids off but dreading having to pack lunches. Last fall I posted the One Less Challenge and this year I am throwing down the gauntlet again.

I took my own advice to heart last year and managed to cut down on the few store bought processed foods I was packing. These are some of the things we swapped out:

  • Cold cuts: our kid wasn’t a big sandwich eater but when I packed them, I would often include deli meats. This year I was almost able to eliminate them and replaced them with other protein such as smoked firm tofu, homemade karaage (breaded chicken), salmon salad, leftover roast or grilled meat and homemade meatballs.
  • Crackers: I got tired of paying big bucks for whole grain crackers that contained ingredients that were entirely unnecessary and that would be eaten within a few days, so I started making them. Cheap, healthy and delicious.
  • Yogurt cups: We’ve never really bought them as I find pre-flavoured yogurt way too sweet and it contains more artificial stuff than I want. When the Kid went to summer camps, we’d fill up his chilled food thermos with frozen berries and plain yogurt sweetened with a touch of honey. By snack time and with enough jostling, he had a delicious frozen yogurt treat.

Ready for the challenge? Can you pack one less processed food in your kids’ lunches every week? Sure you can!

Happy back to school!

Honey-roasted Apricot Ice Cream

There are a few food rules we like to stick to in our household:

  • Choose unprocessed foods.
  • Cook from scratch.
  • Choose the best ingredients possible.
  • Take time to enjoy your food.
  • Food is meant for sharing.

But of course, we all know that rules are broken. We will sometimes buy Timbits on a road trip. When we eat at Chinese restaurants, we don’t make a big deal about how the meat was raised. Sometimes we don’t want to share our food.

I’ve been making homemade ice cream for the past few years and have to say I’ve made some really delectable ones. None of them have wowed me as much as this luscious honey-roasted apricot version. The apricots were roasted to drive off moisture and intensify their flavour while the honey is present but gentle enough to impart a sweet nuance without being overwhelming. Summer perfection.

Sorry. I don’t think we’re going to share this batch. Nope. Gotta be a rebel and break the rules sometimes, you know.

Honey-roasted apricot ice creamHoney-roasted Apricot Ice Cream

Roasted apricots
About 2 lb. ripe apricots
Mild honey

Halve and pit apricots and lay them cut side up on a parchment lined, rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with honey.
Roast at 450 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes or until apricots start to caramelize.
Cool and reserve 2 cups and chill. Happily eat the rest.

Crème anglaise
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
1/2 vanilla bean
2 eggs
Pinch salt

Combine honey and sugar in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, cook until honey starts to bubble and sugar melts. Turn down heat and cook for about 5 minutes.
Add cream, milk and vanilla bean and return to heat. Some of the molten honey will harden but will dissolve while the cream heats.
Turn off heat and let mixture steep for 15 or 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, lightly whisk eggs and salt in a heatproof bowl.
Remove vanilla bean from cream and gradually whisk cream into eggs. Return the mixture to the pan. Stir and heat gently until custard is thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
Strain through a fine meshed sieve and chill until very cold, at least 4 hours.
Combine with reserved apricots and churn in ice cream maker while pacing in anticipation. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm. If you live with other people, stash container at back or bottom of freezer so no one notices it. Savour when no one is looking.

Makes about 1 1/2 ambrosial litres

Be the change

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi.

For the past few years I’ve been rethinking our relationships with food. I, like many around me, love food and love to eat but I’ve noticed a real disconnect between people and their food. Somehow, there’s a whole generation of my peers, if not more, who has lost the ability or the will to cook. Why cook when we’re convinced that it takes too much time and energy, when marketers are seducing us with prepared foods, when the latest meal-in-a-box is deceivingly “cheap”? When cooking has become a spectator sport and when kids think macaroni and cheese comes from a box and bagged carrots are naturally mini?

I’ve been fueling a passion for food literacy, the ability to understand all facets of our food: its origins, how to grow or produce food, how to cook and eat it, its nutritional value, its social values, how our food choices affect the bigger picture. There’s no doubt that this evolution has been influenced by having a child and my desire to help him connect to food in a broader context. I knew from day 1 that one of my roles was to educate him about as much about our food world as I could, if not to give him basic life skills but to give him the knowledge to become an informed consumer.

Can I effectively change the next generation? Am I able to influence those around me to understand the food they eat and make healthy choices? I have to.

I started devising a plan, albeit a small one, to help me get my message out there. Start with my own child. Begin a dialogue about food, use all our senses, encourage him to cook and explore, grow food, read about food. Then work on his peers: take the Kid’s classmates on a fieldtrip to the community garden, host cookover playdates, talk about food. Small change but I felt that I was making a difference.

Then the potential vector for bigger change came my way. The posting for a job as a food coordinator at our local neighbourhood house landed on my proverbial plate. They were looking for someone who would work with different groups to build dialogue about food, to build capacity to feed themselves, to help revitalize an edible garden, to work with care providers of school aged kids to provide more nutritious snacks. And the job would be in my own community.

Gratefully I got hired for the position and I’m immersed in a warm, embracing atmosphere with supportive, inspiring colleagues and even more inspiring participants of all ages. I had worked in non-profit, community service environments for years before dabbling in other food related fields. When you’ve worked in the community, there’s a part of your heart that’s always rooted there. And when you leave the field, there’s a voice calling you and reminding you of what is important. I feel like I’ve come home. I feel like I can finally be the change I want to see.