Monthly Archives: January 2012

Sunday dinner

Are you old enough to remember the days when most of us had Sunday roast? That was back when we all had a bag lunch with a sandwich in it – before microwaves were everywhere, and before everyone went out for lunch. You needed leftovers for the week, and a Sunday roast provided that. I won’t mention the concept of everyone sitting down together at the table, because it happened more often than not, “back then”.

Am I really so old that the concept of a sit-down family dinner is a casualty of dining evolution? I always thought that even when we got to the time of food replicators, like on Star Trek, we would still be sharing a table. The thing I don’t understand is what did we gain by giving this up… do people really think they are more efficient by multi-tasking a meal into their day’s list of “to-do’s”?

I don’t have children, which is probably just as well, as I would want them to be home for dinner, something that is obviously un-cool. My kids would be ostracized for missing whatever people do on Sunday night, and then they would suffer the ridicule of bringing a bag lunch as well. Many people I know who do have kids talk a lot about often being too busy to eat a proper meal. Personally, I think some of them drank the kool-aid and believed the TV ads that told them they didn’t have time. They started to buy frozen food and prepared mixes and their menus evolved in that style. Others simply aren’t interested in food, so eating was never something they considered as possible quality time. It used to be the case that your parents made you eat regular meals, but now there is official research you can cite to defend your right to eat at odd times, or in odd combinations.

The demise of the Sunday dinner has occurred on numerous fronts. Even if we try to invite people to our Sunday dinner, we have to deal with all the possible combinations of allergies and sensitivities. I am happy to cook for a group, and I empathize with people who cannot enjoy certain foods (or choose for moral reasons to follow a certain regime.) But if I harken back to my childhood, the occurrence of allergies was more of a rarity than a common phenomenon. Nut allergies are so pervasive now that many schools ban foods with nuts. If you had tried that when I was a kid, half of the students would have starved! Again I ask the question of dining evolution… what happened to make so many of us unable to tolerate foods that we have been eating for generations?

I never thought I would say this, but I miss the kind of food I got in my school lunch. My pet peeve was “meat spread” sandwiches. You certainly couldn’t call it pâté, as it was a distant relative at best. And the only other ingredient inside the sandwich was sliced dill pickle, which made for a sad, thin effort for a lunch. The bread got squished when Mom put the spread on the bread, too, so it was not a pretty sight. She didn’t drop the apple on top, though – my Mom was smart that way. She even knew how to save the icing on Chocolate Wacky Cake (click on the link for the recipe and her secret). Nowadays, the stuff I see advertised that is supposed to rival the “crackers & cheese pizzas” or “tuna snacks” you can purchase in the grocery store is something that must have been designed by someone with a nanny. What busy Mom today has time to make “fruit kabobs with honey ricotta fondue”?

Perhaps Sunday dinner has gone the way of the dinosaur and the PB & J. Maybe a family that orders pizza together is a family that stays together in today’s world (I just saw the commercial on TV, so it must be true.) But I sincerely hope that when we stop at my stepdaughter’s house years from now on a Sunday, she might remember enough of her chef father’s rants that she could still cook a roast chicken. After all, he started quizzing her when she was 7…

Do you eat a homemade Sunday dinner at your house? Do you have to deal with allergies or special diets in your regular menu planning? What’s the food experience you miss most from your childhood? I’d love to hear your rants. (Milder comments are welcome too – I just thought I might stick with the theme for this post. ☺) Thanks for listening.

Comfortable food

We have all heard the phrase “comfort food” but it has become something that has guilt attached to it now. Despite many of us languishing in the biting cold of the latest winter storms, feeling like we need a little love 😉 we are now programmed to feel badly if we have stew AND biscuits for dinner, as that is overly hearty. For a while it was okay if you simply added a glass of red wine with the meal (you have to love that French paradox !) but now the wave has shifted and popular opinion generally says you should eat lighter. So, in the interest of responding to this trend, I suggest a new variation: comfortable food.

Since moderation is something that doesn’t often go out of style, I propose that portion size might be an integral part of converting rich comfort food favorites to our new, healthier comfortable food. Simply serving up a smaller amount of a rich dish and perhaps adding a salad as a side dish ( instead of biscuits) is a wonderful way to enjoy just enough of a good thing instead of too much. How about having salad for dinner on its own? Composed salads, containing a bit of protein in the form of nuts, cheese or fish, are a light dinner that can help you recover from the sins of  yesterday or tomorrow.

Another idea is to look at new alternatives, and here is where we can really have some fun. I am not suggesting we need to go to slurping clear broth on its own, but if it’s flavorful then there is no punishment in that. Often spices can substitute for cream or butter when you want flavor intensified, so ethnic recipes can offer many options. Seasonal flavours also tend to be more intense – tomatoes in winter never taste nearly as glorious as they do in summer. Instead of chicken stew with dumplings how about Thai green curry with jasmine rice? You could change up fruit salsa on your fish for that buttery sauce (citrus salads as are fun in winter). Even desserts can be a bit lighter… How about an angel food cake with your fruit, and yogurt instead of custard for a shortcake? Having a sense of adventure can lead you down new paths and create new opportunities. This is a great way to enrich a child’s palate too, with new flavours and taste combinations.

Another healthful alternative and a great education for kids is to avoid processed foods. You can get more nutrients from foods without preservatives, and often you will save on sugar too. Even something as simple as making your own vinaigrette for salad can send you down a healthier path. Getting kids involved in the kitchen is the first step to a healthy and fun life of enjoying food.

When one of the popular TV chefs announces that they have diabetes it reminds everyone that none of us is immune. The good news is every little bit counts. A news report this week announced the obesity rate in the U.S. has dropped by half a percent to 26.1 percent of the population. That’s not a sweeping change but it’s a start. Hopefully Paula Deen will show us some of the lighter alternatives she chooses for her rich Southern recipes.

So, just because you put on your sweatpants this weekend, doesn’t mean you need to fill them out. Enjoy the taste, not the quantity, of the food, and think about how much extra comfort you really need.

Happy cooking!

Weird and wonderful

In a world where everything has to be sensational toget noticed, it seems food has fallen prey to that same philosophy. So, to ensure that you can all keep up at the company water cooler, I thought I should let you know of some of the latest news. Prepare to be amazed.

Perhaps the posterchild of the change in public image is junk food, which is now no longer cool to promote except in jest. The latest casualty is Hostess, the company that makes Twinkies and Ding Dongs; they filed for bankruptcy recently. They just can’t keep up… even though their products have become famous for never spoiling. (I posted a great piece from another blogger on possible ways to “kill” a Twinkie on my Happy Gourmand Facebook page, if you are in need of a good giggle.) The only division of the company to survive is Wonder Bread, whose new slogan is “Discover the Joy of Natural Wonder… now free of artificial preservatives, artificial colours and artificial flavours”. What a revolutionary idea.

The key to success nowadays is to have a food that is either so rare and unique (read expensive) that you can brag about it like you do your Tag Heuer or your Astin Martin. I saw an ad for “Shackleton’s whiskey” recently – a replica whiskey made in honour of Ernest Shackleton and his private stash from his expedition to the South Pole. You see, they discovered a few cases of scotch that was hidden in the permafrost under the hut Shackleton’s team used to store supplies. Three bottles were finally extracted from the ice and sent to Scotland for “research” (read tasting). Whyte & Mackay, the company that is the modern day version of the original maker of the stuff, produced the replica after tasting the original, with all of the flavours, as well as intrigue and irony. The story is fun not just because it’s about a retro product, but because it is a silly escapade. Shackleton’s expedition was fraught with disaster at every turn. (He should have known – the ship’s name was the Nimrod, after all.) He was not a scientific explorer, and didn’t even really like the snow (he hated sled dogs, the best transportation method to use in Antarctica). But he was a naturally good leader (no bloody wonder, if he had such good whiskey!) If you can find a bottle, this once-in-a-lifetime experience will cost you about two hundred dollars Canadian. That’s about $2 a dram  (one sixteenth of an ounce).

Shackleton, second from left, with his core crew aboard the Nimrod. They look like they could use a dram, don't you think?

Another category that has become trendy is of course the heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruit. At a dinner with friends recently, I heard much complaining of the overuse of “heirloom” as a descriptor on menus. Wouldn’t you know, we went out for dinner this past week, and instead of “heirloom”, the word was “little”? I grow heirloom varieties in our garden, but I have to agree – do we need to tell everyone their food is cute for them to want to eat it?

Perhaps the important part is that we seem to be more focused on enjoying our food. If we are weird and wonderful about it, then maybe that is all that counts. You might not want to carve your food up like the artist in this video, but if that kind of work will get your kids to eat fruits and veggies, maybe a bit of pulp and peel on the table is okay… think of it as the new version of that famous “Close Encounters” scene with the mashed potatoes.

Bon appetit!

Winds of change

sunrise - this one was taken at Parksville

Okay, so the holiday season is officially over. The New Year has begun. There are no more excuses for lolly-gagging around; we should be moving along with things. Why can’t I get myself in gear? Why can’t I break the bonds holding me back?

I think I am having problems because Mother Nature can’t seem to decide what season it is, and as a result I can’t get clear on what it is I should be doing!! I thought I would be cooking stews and soups and maybe taking up knitting or at least finishing a good long book, but instead I feel like I need to be pulling out my seed trays already and tuning up my scooter. My morning walks with the dogs are slogs through the gumbo mud in the orchard, tripping over already-pruned branches… I am supposed to be doing that in March! Instead of clean dog toes through the door, I have 8 mucky feet to wash and wipe every morning. I feel like Madge with her Palmolive, only I am standing on my front porch in rubber boots and a sweatsuit. If I could come in and think of having my breakfast on the deck because it is warming up, then all that work would not be for nothing. Weeks of this when I am still thinking of hot porridge and scrambled egg sandwiches is crazy.

I used to live in Calgary, where they have warm winds that blow through the region in winter called “Chinooks”. They have proven that these winds also blow in confusion and sometimes depression for some people. I don’t know if I was one of those, but I do know my body expects to be exposed to the traditional four Canadian seasons, in the usual order. I like the foods and clothing and habits of each season in turn, not swirling together like some kind of tornado in my front yard! Perhaps that is why in Calgary the food scene has developed so eclectically and the fashions allow all kinds of variations. It’s a sort of Cowtown evolution that allows people to survive in environmental chaos.

Since I can’t change the weather, and I can’t make spring veggies materialize in my kitchen, I thought perhaps a dose of something from the freezer might at least keep the global warming demons at bay… so we will be enjoying some light-hearted trifle with angel food cake, Greek yogurt and pear and peach compote tonight, after a bit of chicken with Meyer lemon salsa (thankfully fresh cilantro is still available). Maybe I’ll even open a bottle of Rosé to close the deal.

What is winter food like where you live? Are you having wacky weather this year? I would love to hear comments and suggestions on how to overcome the whirling winds of change.

Epiphany – not just while brushing!

Have you ever heard someone say they “had an epiphany” while brushing their teeth? Well, Wikipedia lists the secular meaning of an epiphany as “the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something… (when someone) has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper foundational frame of reference”. My Mom calls them “a-ha moments”.

Arthur Fry, the inventer of the post-it note, with one on his forehead. He came up with the idea for marking the pages in his hymnal using a glue he made that didn’t stick well!

Well, Epiphany is also a holiday, one that occurs on January 6, and celebrates traditionally the baptism of Jesus Christ and/or the coming of the Magi. There are different interpretations of the dates of all the pieces of Christ’s history, but the common thread is that this day celebrated recognizing Christ as the Son of God. It was as big as Christmas, at one time. This is where the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from – January 6 is the “Twelfth Night”. In some Christian cultures, such as South America, this season was extended for 40 days, to Candlemas (February 2 – tune in to a later column to see the nifty history on that).

Of course, since this was a celebration, there was a feast and activities. Epiphany marked the end of the Christmas celebrations – the yule log would burn on the fire until this night, when the ashes would then be kept til next Christmas to rekindle the good spirit of the season. The Christmas tree and wreath were kept up until Epiphany and any dried or candied fruit that might decorate either one would be eaten as part of the feast (remember, fruit was hard to come by in winter, and so was a treasured gift and would not be wasted.) People would go singing door to door, and they or sometimes the priests would bless the house after a sip of wassail punch, and mark it with the year’s date in chalk. Shakespeare even wrote a play for this time, in which many elements are reversed, as was common during this bit of celebrating (this tradition seems to go back to pagan rituals, which celebrated Epiphany as the end of the season that started at All Hallow’s Eve, when the world turned upside down.) And in many cultures there would be a “king cake”, baked with a bean or pea in the filling. The person receiving the bean in their piece would be crowned king or queen for the evening.

I was not aware of any of the ceremony that was Epiphany until I spent time in France, and I must admit I was charmed and awed by this wonderful way of closing out the Christmas season. Whether you are religious or not, it helps to have the focus on moving forward and hoping for a better tomorrow, don’t you think? I felt it helped me understand more about the big picture.

We will be celebrating Twelfth Night at Rabbit Hollow with my traditional French recipe for the Galette des Rois or Twelfth Night Torte, which is in the Recipe Archives. I will enjoy a last look at the Christmas tree before it comes down, and reflect on the good things to come in 2012. I wish you and yours a happy start to this new year.

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