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Recipes across the miles

old-fashioned compass

In an age when technology allows us to find out almost anything with a Google search, it may seem odd to think of exchanging recipes personally with someone. But I will admit I still enjoy the chance to get a personal recipe from another cook, in their own handwriting. I have more than a few ingredient-stained pages glued in an old journal that I still cherish as one of my favourite cookbooks. It is not just the bits of ingredients on the page that adds to the magic of cooking the recipes and tasting them again and again. I think herein lies the true root of soul food.

This weekend I am making a recipe I call Best Friend Banana Bread. It’s an old favourite, one that comes from  one of my best and longest-held friends, a soulmate who currently lives in England. This recipe is one she sent to me on airmail paper about 30 years ago, as one of her favourites. In those days she was living in her home country of South Africa, and had just started a family with her new husband and daughter (my goddaughter). It’s a wonderful combination of health food and decadence, and I love it for that as well as how it reminds me of my darling friend. airmail stationery appy Gourmand

We have shared many great recipes over the years. I sent her my Mom’s Brown Sugar Shortbread recipe, and she sent me the one for South African Milk Tart. In my movie catering days, her recipes for bobotie and carrot cake were favourites with the crews I fed. And when she brought her family to Canada so we could share Christmas together, they were amazed at my husband cooking turkey in the BBQ, and they loved his French Canadian traditions of tourtière and bûche de Noel. Food was one of the ways that kept us connected across the miles and it added to our shared memories when we could get together.

I spent a week in England at my friend’s house 8 years ago this weekend, to catch up and join in the celebrations for her 25th wedding anniversary and my goddaughter’s 21st birthday. It was amazing to think that we had been friends almost 30 years, since my first trip to Europe. We hadn’t seen each other for 7 years, and yet as soon as I arrived, we sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and some biscuits and picked up where we left off like it had been last Sunday. I could feel my soul filling up like I had stopped in at the gas station. All week long we savoured moments, many of them around the table.

My husband and her husband shared time at the stove – hers loves to cook, and with mine being a chef the two of them are often engaged in a sort of kitchen chat. It’s a bit like that Actors Studio show, where you have this interview/conversation between an expert and an admiring and not unknowing layman. Martin shared some of his secret spice blends on that visit, and he got to see a pheasant prepared for a weeknight dinner like it was chicken. The grand finale was the men cooking Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict for the group of 12 staying at the house – all hot and perfectly cooked!

Martin is at the stove behind Vic and Chris, who are calmly assembling plates - impressive, no?

Martin is at the stove behind Vic and Chris, who are calmly assembling plates – impressive, no?

the results, served hot and with bubbly, no less!

The results were served hot and with bubbly, no less!

After coming back home, I felt as though I had been replenished. I posted some new recipes in the archives for her husband Vic to try – poached eggs in red wine sauce is one I know he found interesting! And Martin became a new lover of Sticky Toffee Pudding; he used Merle’s similar recipe for the South African Cape Brandy Pudding as a starting point for his own recipe which he now cooks for clients.

We met again in person a few times over recent years while they travelled but I was ever so grateful that we had a chance to stay with them in Senegal where Vic was stationed up until the end of 2019. It was another lovely opportunity to share recipes and time around the table, reminiscing about the many memories we have made together. We ate delectable African seafood and sampled coconut and mango jams with the French pastries available in Dakar, courtesy of the colonists. Merle and Vic spoiled us again. 

The kitchen continues to be one of the best places to stay in touch across the world it seems, and I like the idea that our friendship might help warm some other hearts as well. Martin and I are hoping that when the world gets back to some kind of regular existence, we can finally host our friends in our kitchen here in the Okanagan and toast to our fantastic history across the miles.

Kristin and Merle 2013

two soulmates, out on the town (London, 2013)

We’ve still got it, even after all these years! (Senegal, 2019)

Catch of the Day

Life is about moments, and enjoying them. Catching moments and hauling them in every day can be very rewarding; when you get everything right, it can be like winning the local fishing derby.

I am a cook that is inspired by circumstances. The combinations of memories and tastes move me to choose certain recipes. I suppose I am a traditional eater too; I eat seasonal ingredients and I eat what fits with the weather.

Recently we have had our annual hit of cold winter weather. The windows are all frosted up, the wind blows to chill your bones and the skies are shades of grey that swallow every other colour. The word dreary does not begin to describe the mood.

These are the times when comfort food comes to the rescue. We needed a dinner to make us forget the weather. One of those rich dishes with stick-to-your-ribs texture and simple heartwarming flavours. To kick it up a notch, I added in a childhood memory.

I was thinking of stew, but the universe intervened. My mom and I had chatted about a British pub standard and Lo and Behold, a recipe post from Paul Hollywood appeared in my feed.

My mom made a fish pie, which sounded as comforting as stew. When I read the recipe post, the sight of smoked haddock as one ingredient immediately transported me back to childhood.

When I was little, my most favourite dinner was “finnan haddie”, smoked haddock in a bechamel sauce served with toast soldiers. It is my earliest comfort food memory.

It was as much curiosity as desire to be comforted that got me shopping for the Whitby Fish Pie recipe ingredients.

I amped up the traditional filling of just fish with a bit of celery, carrots and onions sautéed first, as well as a red potato. And although simple was the theme, that didn’t mean we couldn’t have some herb flavour (a bit of our dried thyme and oregano worked wonderfully).

The best part is, this recipe is faster to prepare than a stew. Infuse milk with flavours. Make pastry and chill it. Sauté veggies, then make sauce. Add fish and warm through. Roll out pastry over top of the oven-safe pan and bake till done.

I was comforted and full of happy nostalgia. Hubbie was happily satisfied and a good sport about hearing my childhood ramblings. We forgot all about the driving wind and dreary greys.

When the conditions get ugly, that’s when you dig deep. That’s when you have to reel, and if everything falls the right way, you land the big catch.

Good and sticky

This weekend we celebrate a Canadian food invention. I wonder if you know what it is…

It was the quintessential sandwich filling of my childhood, and also the main ingredient in a favourite cookie. As a grownup(or should I say “big kid”?), I enjoy it in cheesecake with chocolate or to make a satay out of skewered meat.

Yes, it’s that delectable stick-to-the-roof of your mouth stuff that comes just like life, chunky or smooth – peanut butter.

Peanut butter was first eaten by the ancient Incas and Aztecs, but was not adopted by later civilizations. Modern peanut butter was invented by Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Bedford, Quebec in 1884. He patented a machine that milled roasted peanuts to create a paste.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Dr. Kellogg) was the man who took care of the marketing. His machine made peanut butter from raw peanuts; his suggested audience was people who could not chew much solid food. At his Sanitorium (combination spa, medical centre and hotel) his other invention, Corn Flakes, was also served. It was marketed as an anaphrodisiac (the opposite of aphrodisiac), for Mr Kellogg was all about temperance.

Dr. Kellogg

Peanut butter was put on the map as a snack food at the Worlds Fair in St. Louis in 1904, and it featured strongly during WW1 when meat was rationed. It was a favourite alternative on the first Meatless Mondays.

The real modern innovation came in 1922 when Joseph Rosefield came up with the idea of using hydrogenated oil to stabilize peanut butter so it would not separate. That increased the shelf life and meant it could be shipped further.

Mr. Rosefield was a peanut butter king of sorts – his brand Skippy is still one of the biggest in the U.S. today. He came up with churning the mixture instead of grinding to make it smoother. He also invented chunky, or crunchy, peanut butter. He even pioneered the wide-mouth jar we all use.

This stuff is a North American phenomenon. I remember trying to get my English students to taste it years ago when I was in France – they were disgusted. My British friends would much rather put Marmite on their toast, thank you very much.

Sunday January 24th is Peanut Butter Day. Do we need to do extra celebrating? Apparently the average North American child eats about 1500 peanut butter sandwiches before they graduate high school. Then there is peanut butter on toast, peanut butter ice cream and cheesecake, Reese’s cups… you get the idea.

Whether you are a smooth or chunky fan, regardless of your preferred brand, I think you will admit that peanut butter is something that binds us all together as North Americans.

Peanut butter seems to defy pomp and ceremony anyway. It is the glue of everyday life. Perhaps that is why it deserves to be lauded. Where would we be without a jar of this wonderful stuff in the cupboard to sustain us?

I’m off to make myself a piece of toast and slice a banana, so I can pay proper homage to that delicious spread. Later I might even whip up a batch of Criss-Cross Cookies

Homemade goodness!

Classics never grow old

In a world full of trends, I want to remain a classic.

– Iman

Being a foodie, I’m always on the hunt for new flavours, new combinations of tastes to create and share. But I was struck by an interview I heard recently with Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi.

They spoke about the possible disservice done to us by having so many recipe options to cook. They keep publishing new recipes. We want to keep trying new things but then we never have a chance to perfect any one thing.

I will admit to falling into that pit. It can be fun to embark on a cooking adventure; but when I’ve had a few less-than-expected results in a row, I have felt discouraged. Chasing trends is a risky business.

I guess it’s like trying to wear those leg warmers when everyone is into wide leg pants. Or anytime the trend just didn’t work for you. No one needs more of that awkward feeling in their life.

When I’m feeling down, I look to set myself up for success. Before I throw in the towel and go for some kind of order-in comfort food, I look for a classic recipe I hardly need to look up to accomplish well.

Of course some of this is nostalgia. The recipes my Mom made week after week, the first ones I wrote into my now-weathered journal – those are often my go-to classics.

Mom and I have been chatting weekly since the first lockdown in March, and she reminded me of one childhood classic a few weeks ago. The reminder brought that taste top of mind, like a tickle in my nose.

And so, this week we had a classic snack with dinner. Our lovely BLTs showcasing the last few tomatoes and bit of arugula from the garden sat beside celery sticks with Cheese & Pimento. I even put the spread in one of my Dad’s handmade ceramic bowls with one of his carved wooden spreaders.

I have made all kinds of spreads, and I have dipped celery in plenty of flavours. I suppose you could argue that retro dishes have become somewhat trendy again, but this classic has been with me through its low points too.

Comfort food is a good thing. But a classic recipe gives us the chance to create a comfortable world, not just a comfortable meal.

Surviving, one bake at a time

I’m going on a bit of a rant – if you’d just like the foodie part of this tale, skip over the section in italics. I won’t mind, really.

It’s been 65 days since the covid-19 pandemic was officially declared. Hubbie and I went into self-isolation then, having already started to prepare for some of the challenges.

We are movie fans; you’d think we would have seen the signs. But then the characters in the movie never see the signs until it’s too late to do anything.

I’m a mostly optimistic person. Our lifestyle was already one that involved trying to be grateful and make the most of moments, so we looked for the positives:

  • Canada is a relatively safe place, with universal health care and plenty of infrastructure
  • We live in a smaller community where there were initially no outbreaks
  • Spring is traditionally slow for our business, so the initial lack of work was manageable

Following the movie analogy though, everyone knows that a Polly Anna story doesn’t sell. And Mother Nature loves that guy Murphy.

You know the rest of the story after this point – it hit the fan. Once we passed into the third month of this with no real end in sight, I decided that I need to regroup. I can’t listen to more news or read more articles or see more memes – I need a chance for my brain to focus on something else, something that involves an accomplishment. A bit of that will refuel me for what comes next.

I am so very thankful one of my passions is something as essential as food. It’s easy to lose myself in the garden or the kitchen.

At Rabbit Hollow we have the garden and the kitchen together in summer!

Spring is the beginning of gardening season – my grubby green thumbs could not be luckier. I have weeded my heart out and transplanted all my seedlings, the first time ever on schedule. But the garden takes months to deliver its bounty.

My real saving grace has been baking. Okay, and working out – ‘cause someone has to eat all those goodies once they come out of the oven 😁

I have to give a shout-out here, to Matthew & Erika and their team at Bread Ahead Bakery in London. I stumbled upon them early in the lockdown and quickly became a “breadaheader”, watching their live Instagram baking tutorials. I learned about sourdough and pastries, got recipes for numerous classics, and found a way to mark my days with the accomplishments of treats to share with my guy, and anyone else whose doorstep was willing.

Sourdough – and amaretti
Sourdough – and cinnamon buns
Sourdough, and chocolate chip cookies (are you getting the theme here?)

It may sound silly that following baking videos kept me sane, but it’s true. The sense of community I feel with food is truly magical. Cooking and eating allows us to experience all our senses, and sharing food is the most basic gesture of gratitude and respect.

What is my point to all this rambling? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. But I do know that food brings people together – even when they have to be apart.

I wish I had the finances to provide meals or even snacks for those less fortunate. All I can manage is to offer smiles to friends and loved ones, and share my passion in hopes it will spark someone else’s fire. At least in sharing we have a sense of camaraderie. If we are all in this together for the pandemic, why not be in something together that offers hope and a smile?

So, I’ll get up tomorrow and decide what I’m cooking (after I work out 😉) Tonight my chef hubby and I filmed our dinner prep on Facebook and it felt good, to wave at friends and share little tips. Life finds a way to persevere.

We will keep going, a few weeks at a time, just like they tell us now. Where will it lead? To the table, for another meal, more sustenance. Each season has its purpose. I have faith that in practicing my skills I will find a way through.

Does it seem logical to anyone else that if Murphy’s Law is consistent, then if anything is going to go right, it will do so at the best possible moment? As Matthew kept saying in all those tutorials, “Practice, practice, practice!”

Busy baking away in my first online cooking class. Boy, were those doughnuts good! 😋
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