Edible Chain Letters

recipe exchange old fashioned

There are many traditions of food with friendship. In today’s age of emails and the Internet, it seems that recipes are shared via Pinterest boards and chat rooms more often than by handwritten recipe cards or passed-on magazine articles. Even recipes can go viral though, especially if there is a good story attached. Have you had one of those emails? Not the prince looking for money, the friend who says they are sharing a famous recipe! What foodie could resist such a claim? Not me:)

One email chain out there was for the infamous Neiman Marcus cookie: as the story goes a simple oatmeal chocolate chip cookie rose to fame because a woman who ordered the recipe for it after tasting it at a Neiman Marcus department store café was charged $250. As revenge, she sent the recipe to all of her friends. I think this was one of the first e-mails I ever received. This story has been around for a number of years and when I looked into it as an urban legend I discovered variations of it have been floating around for about 50 years, using different recipes and different companies. (There was one published in a cookbook in the 1950’s that told of someone being charged the exorbitant fee of $25 for a fudge cake recipe!) Neiman-Marcus-Chocolate-Chip-CookiesThe attraction of course, is that we get to stick up for the little guy and manage to “stick it to the man” at the same time, not to mention eating cookies. The Neiman Marcus story is not true, by the way. There is a recipe though. If you’re interested, the Neiman Marcus cookie is not all that unique, but feel free to try a batch – you can eat for free nowadays.

 

I felt privileged when a person chose me as one of the friends who would receive this prized recipe. I became part of an inner circle, and then I could share the wealth with other friends too. It’s amazing that food can be a symbol of such status, even just with a recipe.

There is another chain, about a friendship cake. This too, is a long legend. It is a yeast bread recipe that takes 10 days to make, and then a loaf recipe is  made with 1 of the 4 cups of the dough. You keep one cup  of the “starter” aside and then pass along a cup to two friends, with the recipe for the cake. There are many variations on the history of it, but the one I liked the most was in the oft-used name of Amish Friendship Bread (this recipe tells how to make the starter and the loaf, with raisins and cinnamon). Amish friendship breadAn elder and authority on Amish history was asked about the origin of this recipe and she replied that the tradition was simply to share bread or sourdough starter with those less fortunate or sick. It seems the idea of passing it to a friend simply to honour the friendship was just an extension of that gesture.

I know that many people in this day and age don’t have time 10 days in a row to make a sourdough starter. Many people don’t eat certain things so likely they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the cake recipe. But that doesn’t mean we can’t share. The fact that we take the time to send the e-mail says something, doesn’t it? People used to send “care packages” of food by snail mail but you can’t send food through the internet waves. I guess this is just the latest iteration of us trying to still be friends. You can live without friends, but who would want to? One of my favourite childhood authors said it best:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather is one of those things that give value to survival.
– C. S. Lewis

Whether you use one of these edible chain letters or you just drop by with a bit of something, I think the gesture of sharing something homemade does retain a certain special quality. Friendship is about sharing; it is a necessary ingredient in the recipe of life. (The best part is, your friends will still sit by you, even if what you cook is not that great!)

 

 

 

Have I become a hippie?

nerdy girl velmaWhen I was a kid I was the nerd. You know, the shy girl who would rather read a book than party? As I got older I dreamt of having a job that would allow me to live downtown in a big city and travel the world. I dreaded the work in the garden because it took away from my book reading and movie going. I wanted to be an urban girl. I was always on e fringe though, dressing differently and curious about ideas that were not necessarily popular. My parents were liberal and they worked freelance; I wanted the stability of a “normal” life. .

Well, so much for that. The closest I got to a normal job was working for a big hotel and resort chain, but in hospitality there are no normal schedules. The last big city I lived in was Vancouver and that was 16 years ago. I live on the outskirts of a town next to a vineyard and an orchard, with two garden plots, a little greenhouse and enough flowers to choke a horse. I married a chef, and we talk of the fate of food, not the fashion trends. We are home bodies, not city folks. I’m just as comfy in my tights, a T-shirt and a pair of duck shoes as I am in a flowing dress, but the suits I imagined wearing don’t exist in my wardrobe. Some of my friends say I’m a hippie.

earth day 2012

Is that so bad? I saw an article about the 25th anniversary of Earth Day coming up next week and it made me think of where I was at back then. I was running a bike shop in Calgary and thinking I was being a responsible citizen of the world, until I got to talking to some folks who were really into “getting down with Mother Nature”. I remember feeling like I should do more, I should live with that in mind. I got caught up in everyday life of course and it wasn’t a focused priority in my life for  a while. But I did live in a national park, which made me more aware of our connection to the environment; I also lived in rural Quebec, where people were more concerned with just making a living than saving the whole world. I suppose I gained a better perspective of the bigger picture as I got older. I like to know I am doing my small part in keeping the bees happy with my flowers and reducing my garbage by making compost. I feel good supporting the local farmers and eating real food. Apparently that has made me a hippie. I’m okay with that. I know it makes my mom smile to see her straight-laced daughter become a hippie much like her.

So, in honour of Earth Day, I’d like to share a recipe I got from a friend back in the 90’s. This was long before the advent of coconut oil and grains advertised as GMO free, but there were still people looking to live a pure life. Dave Zen’s Orbit Oatmeal Cookies will make you feel better, I’m sure. Maybe you’ll see things more clearly. Real food can be powerful stuff, you know. Dave Zen cookies

Namaste.

Fish Friday for April Fools – no joke!

April Fools Fish MSDowantiques

In honour of the fact that today is both Friday and April Fool’s Day, I thought I should post my special fish recipe for just such an occasion. I know it sounds like this could be a great dinner prank but in fact it’s just a delicious meal.

I love any excuse to honour a tradition, and today we have both the religious history of having fish on Fridays and the French April Fools tradition called “poisson d’avril” (April fish).  Have you ever had someone pin a note on your back? Well, in France it’s popular for children to pin fish on someone’s back as a prank. France of course, has a large Catholic population. Catholics have considered eating fish on Friday as a sort of penance commemorating the Crucifixion for centuries. (Did you know this was originally why McDonalds came up with the Filet-o-Fish?) So, when I spent a year living in France and that particular year April Fool’s Day fell on a Friday, well, you can see how I got this recipe.

Of course, April Fool’s Fish isn’t meant only for today; the recipe is a unique combination of flavours that can be enjoyed in any season. It also pairs beautifully with aromatic white wines. I encourage you to use it as an excuse to invite people over so they can share in the experience. Maybe you can discuss future pranks you want to pull!

Bon Appetit! And Happy April Fool’s Day:)

To Mumsy

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Today is my mom’s 70th birthday. This is the lady who first got me cooking in the kitchen and digging in the garden. I am proud to say that she is now enjoying her own adventures, having raised a family and made a career and created beautiful artistic environments in her many homes and gardens. She has travelled through much of Europe now, and the west coast of  America and Mexico. I’d like to go back to particular culinary memory though, that may have started it all.

Many years ago, my brother and I created a dessert for her birthday dinner. We wanted something that represented how elegant and classy we thought she was. It took more than a few magazines and cookbooks to find the right recipe (this is well before the internet, you see). Finally we decided on a Decadent Chocolate Mousse. My dad whisked her away for the day so that we could prepare. It took us many hours and almost every bowl and utensil she had, but we did it. The special glasses were filled with this wonderful concoction and we awaited the time to present dessert to the birthday girl.

My dad had made a lovely dinner, and after the dishes were cleared it was time. With as much pomp and ceremony as we could muster, we carried the glasses to the table and presented the mousse. I think there may have even been a sparkler. She oohed and aahed – we were pleased. So far, so good. Then came the tasting…. she took a bite and tasted, and I could see her thinking. She smiled at us and said it was delicious. Then she took another bite and began to chew. Chewing? Yes… “What are the crunchy bits in it?,” she said. “They’re really good,” she added (the sign of a great mom). I answered with utter confidence: “Oh, those are the coffee grounds. I’m glad you like it!” My dad chuckled. coffee and beans

It wasn’t until much later that it dawned on me – the recipe called for “2 tbsp strong coffee” but they meant brewed coffee, not coffee grounds. Well, I was only 12 years old, I didn’t drink coffee. My dad wasn’t home so my brother and I figured that “strong” meant heaping tablespoons. (Remember, there was no such thing as a Google search back then.) My mother, bless her heart, was not discouraging but rather adventurous even then. She appreciated our efforts and soldiered on to enjoy the dessert. She has said in later years that she really did enjoy it, and in fact has never had a mousse that she remembers as being as good. I love you, Mom.

The recipe we used has long since been lost in the many moves and purges of cooking magazines, but I have found a chocolate moussesuitable replacement which does still include the coffee: Decadent Chocolate Mousse. Both Julia Child and David Lebovitz have apparently used this recipe. Feel free to think outside the box and add something crunchy if you like! I’m going to make it for my mom the next time she comes to visit, as a belated birthday present.

 

Jamaican Foodie Paradise

Whenever my husband Martin and I go on holidays, we are excited to try new food experiences. The last few years in Jamaica we have been lazy and relegated our enthusiasm to within the walls of the resort. We did enjoy trying local fruits, and traditional dishes like curried goat, jerk chicken and gizzadas (coconut tarts), but this year I wanted to kick things up a notch and rub elbows with some local foodies. I did an online search and found Zimbali Retreat, iPhone download Feb 22 2016 430a small property in the hills above Negril that offered a demo cooking class and tour of their organic farm garden. It seemed right up our alley! I was excited and invited a couple we know who are also foodies. They had shared our Vegas experiences so I figured they would like this taste of Jamaica. We had no idea just how much fun we were going to have…

We arrived at the gate after a bumpy ride up a narrow road that bordered sugar cane plantations and an old stone church.   iPhone download Feb 22 2016 427Martin was afraid we were going to have to carry the car or abandon it if the potholes got any bigger or the road got any narrower. The sugar cane stalks knocked along the side of the car as we drove through plantation land, and as we mounted the hill a local dog lying at the edge of the road didn’t even look up. It was only a half hour drive, but I felt as though I’d been transported to another place.  A short walk down a palm-covered pathway revealed mahogany beams that covered a cozy kitchen and airy sitting room, all overlooking the farm below. I felt a bit like I was visiting the Swiss Family Robinson on their deserted island! We were served a refreshing sorrel ginger drink while we cooled off. Just as we finished our last sip our tour guide arrived.

Clifford, who has been at Zimbali since the beginning (9 years ago), led us over much of the 6 acre terrain, stopping every hundred steps or so to show us another plant, most of which provided some benefit for the kitchen. We saw banana and coconut trees, pineapple plants, Caribbean oranges and grapefruits, June plums, star fruit, lemongrass, annatto, turmeric and ginger roots, breadfruit, all kinds of pumpkins and zucchini squash, beans, and then the crowning glory – noni fruit. This fruit is highly regarded as having great healing powers; the juice is said to be a cure-all. The bees on the farm love it too, said Clifford. Noni bloosom honey is his favourite.

Clifford showed us the right way to crack open a coconut (hit the 3 corners of the outer shell), and he told us about using cinnamon leaves in cooking. We learned that the bark of the mahogany trees was used to make the rich reddish-brown dye still common in Caribbean textiles. He showed us the massive African tulip trees taking over wild sections of the jungle, and how the rain brings on mango season (in May), when the fruit is so plentiful it sits in piles by side of the roads! The gardener in me was trying valiantly to remember everything he said as I tasted and smelled and strained my neck to see in every direction, absorbing every detail.

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a June plum tree, with the blossoms that will turn into the refreshing tangy fruit often used for juice

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here Clifford showed us the mahogany tree. One of the staff is returning to the kitchen with oranges.

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work on the terraced section of the garden, where squash and bananas are being planted

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annatto seeds from an achiote bush, used in cooking to impart colour and a slightly nutty & peppery taste.

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fresh turmeric root – from that brown patch. They grow ginger too, in the same way.

the noni tree, a source of great nutrients. Sometimes called uglifruit.

Martin smelling fresh lemon grass

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did you know banana trees only grow one stem of bananas? Then another tree starts beside it for the next batch of fruit.

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pineapple plants take 10 months to grow a mature fruit

 

 

 

On our return from the tour we met the owners of the resort, Alecia & Mark. Alecia grew up in these hills, and learned much from her grandfather about the land and its secrets. She is a Rastafarian and has been all her life. Mark grew up in a military family and his travels as a youth gave him a desire for understanding cultures and experiencing life on a more simple scale. Both of them are “living the dream”, existing almost off the grid with solar power and the harnessing of rain water, not to mention that the farm provides about 70% of their food. This is not just an agritourism resort, it is a lifestyle, and their passion and sense of inner peace is evident when you talk with them.

We returned to the lodge dripping in sweat from the humidity. It didn’t matter. A quick splash of water on my face and a few sips of water and I was ready to get to the kitchen. Zimbali’s two chefs, Raymond and Rudolph,  were already hard at work of course, and their counter was almost overflowing with the bounty from the farm. We were truly spoiled as it was only us and our friends there that day. We saddled up to the bar to watch, learn and eat.

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the bounty awaits! fresh farm veggies on the kitchen counter

The first course was a breaded fritter that was juicy and delicate, green in colour. It was served with an escovitch, a Jamaican pickle made with onions & peppers in a chili vinegar brine.  Raymond asked us to guess what kind of vegetable he had used on the fritter and we thought we had it – zucchini! Nope, he said, guess again. It was the person in the group who is least a foodie who nailed it – green tomatoes. Not as firm as our green tomatoes and not as tangy, rather velvety soft and slightly sweet in contrast to the pickle. The sorrel reduction that garnished the plate was the crowning glory, refreshing and tart.

fried green tomatoes, Jamaican style

fried green tomatoes, Zimbali style

The next course was a sort of cake, like a crab cake but made with vegetables again, said Rudolph. Again we were stumped – cassava? No. Yam? (They had real yams as well as sweet potato on the counter, two very different things, and both used often in a Jamaican kitchen. Sweet potatoes are orange, yams are white – more fibery, not as sweet.) No. They gave us a few hints and we finally figured out it was cauliflower. It tasted much richer than I imagined cauliflower ever could, and was served with a banana purée and a sort of tropical succotash of corn, peppers and tropical fruit. It was delectable.

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

We were able to choose our main course, and I picked jerk shrimp, while Martin chose escovitch fish. Our friends had curried shrimp. They were all intensely flavoured and beautifully tender, and were served with a quick coleslaw, veggies in a seasoned coconut milk and a green plantain and banana rosti (shredded and pan-fried in a patty). Everything was prepared as we watched, even the coconut milk – we saw the coconut opened, the meat cut out and then shredded in the food processor, and the milk squeezed through a strainer.

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my Jerk shrimp, with banana & plantain rosti, coleslaw and veggies in coconut curry

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Rudolph & Raymond plate the main course

But wait, there was dessert too! I groaned under the weight of lunch, but my enthusiasm kicked in. How could I miss out on a slice of Raymond’s banana rum cake with caramelized melons & papaya? The cake had no eggs but was not heavy, rather silky with a hint of Jamaican spices (allspice, ginger, nutmeg). Raymond explained that he had long ago mastered baking without eggs, as he doesn’t eat them himself. His skill was evident in the finesse of the final product. It was the perfect end to a real gourmand afternoon.

Raymond's rum cake

Raymond’s rum cake

We hugged the chefs to show our appreciation and thanked our hosts profusely for their hospitality, all wishing we could return to stay and soak up the relaxing vibe. (I think on my next visit I might like to stay and experience a massage, yoga class, and a Rasta Tour!)

We hardly noticed the bumps in the road on the way back, being lulled into a sense of total relaxation after our retreat visit. Rain drummed on the car windows as the scenery went by in a blur. By the time we returned to our resort I had my second wind and was happy to tell anyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t seem to care) about what fun we had. I felt I had sampled a true taste of the tropics along with a healthy dose of Jamaican hospitality and respect, and having enjoyed it I was proudly displaying my enthusiasm like it was a diploma of achievement.

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