We talk often about how every day in life should be enjoyed and it is important to make the most of every moment. Movies illustrate that point for us on a regular basis, whether the story is about everyday life, like this year's "Boyhood" and "Still Alice" or about an extraordinary life like those depicted in "The Theory of Everything" or "The Imitation Game". Sometimes we need to make sure we share our point of view, like in "Birdman" or "Selma". And sometimes we get a better understanding of others when we spend time with them, as I did with "American Sniper" and "Grand Budapest Hotel". Almost always I have enjoyed sharing the journey, and that is why at our house we celebrate Oscar night. It's a way to remember all those great shared moments, and to share them with friends as we celebrate - with some fantastic food, of course!
Oh I know – you are probably thinking we are a bit nuts. Why would we want to make a big deal about the Oscars, another award show in a whole season of them, like another silly not-so-real reality show? Well, perhaps if I give you some background, you can better understand our point of view.
I grew up in the film business. Most of what I saw over the years was for the small screen, but my Dad did work on a few films and I actually was part of a movie crew when I was 17 years old. I used to dream of seeing my father accept an Oscar when I was little. I loved the “smoke and mirrors” – the magic of how a story came together and was conveyed onto the screen. It was like plugging into someone’s imagination, when it was done right. You knew it was done right when people in the movie theatre were touched in some way by what they saw. To know I was a part of that was to be a part of changing people’s lives for the better. Stories of underdogs, or lifelong dreams, long lost love or even a spy double-crossed… any of them could draw you in and make you forget the rest of the world for a few hours, and when you left the darkened theatre you felt different than when you entered. You also knew that there were others sharing in that experience, because you were not at home alone, but in a theatre full of people.
Sounds corny, doesn’t it? Well, I believed it. I still believe that a good movie is worth its weight in gold. I like to know that those who succeed in making that magic are recognized. The optimist in me likes to believe that sometimes the good guys do win out, even amidst today's world rife with political agendas and conniving marketing plans.
My husband Martin and I met while we both worked as caterers in the movie business. Combining food and movies has always been a fun part of our relationship, so our feast on Oscar night holds an especially dear place in my heart. We are actually working on Oscar night this year so we'll be getting creative and enjoying our nibbles with a "pre-party" where we decide our picks. I've listed some past menu items for you in case you might be inspired to join in our tradition. We don't go as crazy as Wolfgang Puck with the Governor's Ball in Hollywood but we do have a good time.
Stuffed Mushroom Caps
Take a white mushroom, remove the foot with a melon baller and stuff it with a mixture of crab meat, mayonnaise, and Cajun spices. Bake on a cookie sheet until done, around 20 minutes. Let them cool on a paper towel before serving.
Sausages on a Crouton
Grill Hungarian sausages from "Illichmann’s", slice them thin and place them on a slice of fresh baguette with a spicy mayonnaise (mix in some chipotle BBQ sauce or paprika and cayenne).
Lime Thai Prawns
Buy 21-25 prawns at a reputable fish market. Grate the rind of a lemon on your peeled prawns 4 hours ahead of time to marinate them. In a large enough pan start cooking your prawns. Once they are almost finished cooking, add a few spoonfuls of green curry paste, the juice of a lime and one whole bunch of chopped cilantro.
Smoked Salmon Tarts
Buy some mini tart shells and fill them up with some cooked shredded smoked salmon. Add some fresh cream (35%) mixed with a bit of finely chopped green onions or chives and top the whole thing with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Bake until done, around 12 minutes.
Local bubbly is fun to have on such an occasion, and there are lots of good ones to choose from. These are some of our favourites, but feel free to experiment and try what strikes your fancy!
- See Ya Later Ranch Brut
- 8th Generation Integrity Frizzante
- The View Distraction Rosé Sparkling
- Sumac Ridge Stellar's Jay Brut
- Summerhill Cipes Brut
Maybe your indulgence is something different, and if so, then my advice would be to embrace it, celebrate it. Super Bowl Party? March Madness? Season finale of your favourite TV show? The summer solstice? Anytime you can share your passion with others, they appreciate it. Enthusiasm and heartfelt joy have a way of rubbing off. Whatever you choose as your reason for celebrating, enjoy! After all, every one of us deserves a happy ending, don’t we?
With Valentine’s Day this weekend, I thought decadence would be a valid column topic. Often we speak of the importance of everyday food in a tone that is more about comfort or health than luxury but there is nothing wrong with a bit of decadence now and then. In fact, I think it should be required to keep one’s stamina up! I hope you won’t think I am trying to justify a delectable Valentines’ Dinner or assuage guilt over past indulgences. If anything, see me more as a missionary on the hunt for prospective converts to the religion of gourmandise…
Let me start by offering a definition:
Gourmandise is technically a French word that can either mean being greedy or as a noun, a sweet treat. However the true use of the concept relating to “gourmand” is more in terms of someone who is very fond of good food.
A gourmand is different than a “gourmet” as the original connotation of a gourmet is someone who is a connoisseur, knowing food and cooking well and also preferring the finest of ingredients. Today of course the word most of us employ instead of gourmand is “Foodie” but don’t you think that brings the concept to a much more mundane and unimportant level? Gourmands love it all – the rustic picnic and the four star dinner – and I think in today’s world any time taken to appreciate anything is valuable. Why should we only appreciate the fancy or expensive things?
Okay, so now you are thinking I have written myself up against the wall. No, I just want to reinforce the fact that everyday appreciation helps encourage the desire for variety. It is easier to appreciate something when you don’t have it all the time. (Some of you will probably be figuring I am now justifying not being able to afford more decadent meals – perhaps I am, but the same truth still applies. So there!!)
One of my earliest decadent food memories came from a trip to Europe, and it was around Valentine’s Day, interestingly enough. I was only 18, and could not nearly afford to enter Fouquet’s, a famous restaurant on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. But I did stand with my nose almost touching the glass, staring at the dessert cart parked in the window. The most impressive item on the cart was a huge brandy-snifter shaped glass bowl that housed something I learned later was called “Ile Flottante” (“floating island”). These little meringue islands floated over a sea of custard, and little rivers of caramel syrup wound their way through the islands and dissolved into the custard sea, creating beautiful patterns.
This moment exposed me to something more decadent than I had imagined was possible, and that mesmerized me. I stood there for longer than was proper, but I remember the maitre d’ didn’t give me a nasty look. It was more of a knowing smirk, a fleeting moment when I felt a kindred spirit through that window glass. I knew then the importance of indulging in things like Ile Flottante: it is a celebration of life. Just look at holidays like Easter and Christmas if you don’t believe me – we indulge after Lent or in the dead of winter to remind ourselves that we should appreciate our existence, and by doing that amidst more humble meals we show respect and we heighten our appreciation at the same time.
So, now that I have written myself back to the dining room table, let me toast your good health and encourage you to have that extra chocolate from the Valentine’s box. Or, if you are the poetic type, let me leave you with the words of the Bard himself:
Sonnet 75 - William Shakespeare
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet seasoned show'rs are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found;
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure;
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight,
Save what is had or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.
For those of you who want to create your own impression, I have asked my chef husband to supply a recipe for that wonderful dessert. It's actually not too hard to do, but it can produce a fabulous reaction (wink wink).
"Ile Flottante" / Floating Island
- 4 egg whites
- 3 tbsp sugar
- Enough milk for boiling the islands (approx. 2 cups)
- 2 cups of milk
- 4 yolks
- 1/2 cup castor sugar (this is finer than regular white sugar)
- Good quality Vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean
First, make the meringue or 'islands':
1. Beat the egg whites in a bowl with a little pinch of sugar, until the eggs form a peak. Keep beating the eggs and add the remaining sugar. When you have shiny firm peaks, stop beating.
2. Drop big clumps of egg white mixture into a large pot with a slow boiling milk and vanilla mixture to cook for 2 minutes or so. Remove carefully and let cool on a tray, but do not refrigerate. (This milk can be used for something like hot chocolate afterwards if you like.)
Next, make the custard or “ocean”:
1. In a bowl mix the egg yolks and ½ cup of the sugar and set aside.
2. Heat the 2 cups of milk with the vanilla, being careful not to burn it. (A trick here is to rinse the pot with cold water first, and that helps the milk not stick to the bottom.) Heat until slightly bubbling, then remove from the heat and pour the hot milk on the yolk mixture while stirring quickly. Pour back the mixture into a clean saucepan, and RE-heat over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. It should not boil during this second time. After a few minutes the custard will have gotten thicker.
3. Remove the vanilla pod if that is what you used.
The custard can now be put into flat soup bowls or regular bowls or even deep plates, and the islands placed on top.
The ile flottante is now ready to eat straight away as by that point the custard is warm and the meringue is at room temperature.
If you drizzle caramel sauce on top of that and put it in a fancy dish it will look like a million bucks.
Happy Valentine's Day!
I am a firm believer that having breakfast does wonders for starting your day in the right direction. Perhaps my conviction is in part due to the fact that my father was quite insistent about breakfast when I was growing up – I remember him saying he didn’t care if I was late for school, I had to have something to eat. Needless to say I learned to get up a bit earlier and decide what to wear faster!
Many decades later I am grateful for that good habit because it is supposed to be good for my brain and better for my weight. I really love breakfast foods and many of them are things that you don’t get for lunch or dinner. So, if you miss breakfast, you miss out! Let me show you what I mean…
What could be better than a warm stack of pancakes with melting butter and maple syrup, kept company by a few slices of crisp bacon or a couple of sausages? (It’s best if the sausages or bacon end up with a bit of maple syrup on them too). Okay, perhaps you are more of a savoury fan... would you rather a fluffy omelette with sautéed wild mushrooms maybe or a bit of smoked salmon, or even just a few slices of melting Camembert and some fresh herbs? And of course all this would be along-side a slice or two of toast and some homemade preserves :) Even if you like to sleep in and have your breakfast closer to lunch time by the clock, you can’t tell me that you wouldn’t love to indulge in these delicacies at least once in a while!
And, you can’t forget that hot beverage quintessential to a morning ritual. Whether you are a tea lover or a coffee aficionado,or even a hot chocolate fan, any of these drinks is best enjoyed when you can wrap your fingers around the cup and drink in not only the taste but also the aromas of your favourite friend. They say that people who have the time to warm their hands on a hot drink in a mug are friendlier to anyone who approaches them, even if it’s a stranger. In this stressful day and age, why would you not want to start the day in a more positive light?
Breakfast specialties from different places are often quite unique as well and so I recommend not sleeping in too late on holiday either.
On a trip to Mexico years ago I had a steaming bowl of “arroz con leche” (rice pudding is the best translation). It completed a foggy morning at the local town market perfectly and not only by warming me up. The aroma of the cinnamon with the milk adding to the exotic smells of the dried chiles I saw in the stalls and the brilliant colours of the woven goods for sale.
As a young traveller I sampled Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts for the first time... at a beachfront cafe on Santorini, one of the Greek islands. It's taken many years to find yogurt at home that comes anywhere close to the contents of the stoneware bowl that held the best hangover meal ever.
When I lived in France in 1987 one of my favourite things was the fresh just-from-the-bakery baguettes with sweet butter (unsalted), dipped in my mug of hot chocolate. I have never been able to duplicate that same combination of flavours and textures outside of France, but then that is part of the fun.
My last pitch for breakfast as an essential meal is the ability to have it served in bed. Nowadays with everyone eating everything on the run and TVs existing in most rooms of the house I suppose people might eat other meals in bed. However I think it is an easy sell to say that nothing is more decadent than breakfast in bed. I am happy to say my husband spoiled me recently with just that, and it was truly magnificent. He cooked eggs the way he always does (perfectly) and there was toast, and homemade jam, and hot coffee (as always) but in bed it became Breakfast at the Ritz. That just made my day.
So, the next time you and your partner have a day off, organize a nice leisurely breakfast. If you have kids, get them to make you breakfast in bed. If you are single, grab a good book or set up your favourite show on Netflix. You will not regret it, I promise you. You may even skip lunch.
What better month than February to focus on aphrodisiac foods? As the month of love starts off, I thought I'd get you started with a bit of history and some ideas, just in case you need a kick start for your Valentine's Day celebrations...
Apple - of course, the historical implication of the fruit from the Garden of Eden makes this an obvious choice. Some say it has the shape of a heart when cut open, which is suggestive. They are also a great energy food, a factor that might come in handy if you need a bit of a boost. And hey, if you don't find your libido lifting after biting into a juicy red apple, then at least you'll be healthy.
Bacon - (did you think I was going to say "banana" for B? That was far too obvious.) Okay, so this entry isn't so much a healthy one, but you can't argue about many people's passion for pork, and bacon in particular. I know of folks who call themselves vegetarians, but with the caveat that they refuse to give up bacon. Carnivorous passion could certainly be called primal, right?
Caviar, Champagne, Chocolate - well, there is a running theme here, isn't there? The romance created by these items is long known to set the mood, and that is half the battle in most situations. (Gentlemen, if your girl doesn't like these things, then set out what she does like - maybe it's bacon!)
You get the idea, don't you? Some foods through history have been linked to sensual aromas, tastes or textures, or suggestive shapes. Some raise body temperature (like chiles), others spark mental or physical reactions that arouse us or make us feel loved (like the zinc in oysters). Any or all of these factors can help you to set your own scene for romance. In today's age, we seem to need all the help we can get in making quality time work, so why not try a new idea? Here are a few more foods that might strike your fancy...
Marshmallow - originally, this sticky treat was made from mallow root, and it has a long history of being used as a medicinal herb, curing all kinds of ails (including impotence, apparently!) Today's recipe doesn't use the root but sweet and sticky creates its own mood, wouldn't you agree?
Shrimp - many cultures have stories of the alluring qualities of this crustacean (other shellfish also qualify - remember Jessica Biel eating lobster in "Flashdance"?) There is scientific background here as well: the iodine in shrimp is essential to our metabolism, and a low iodine level is linked to low sex drive. So, go ahead - have another one :)
Watermelon - the colour red is a good start, and juicy foods are sexy to eat. If you practice, spitting the seeds can be sexy too! Again, there is a scientific basis to include the quintessential fruit of summer - it contains a phytonutrient called citrulline that helps to relax blood vessels (much like Viagra). Now don't get too excited, the citrulline is mostly in the rind. Research is of course underway to create a "souped up" version but no luck yet.
Perhaps the concept of having the quality time is actually what you need to create a romantic evening... no TV, no cell phones, no kids wanting your attention. But since we are so unused to life without distractions perhaps the food will help to calm everyone's nerves and break the ice.
Best of luck! I'll be cheering you on from the beaches of Jamaica, where I intend to find more tropical entries for this list :)
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Chase away the winter blues Jan 24
- Sprinkles on broccoli, really?! Jan 17
- I resolve to... Jan 3
- The right way to start the New Year Dec 27
- We need to believe Dec 20
- Nuts at Christmas Dec 13
- Christmas without a Santa-size tummy Dec 6
- Christmas is for sharing Nov 29
- Nuttier than a fruitcake Nov 22
- Gastro sexual Nov 15
- The other 50 shades of grey Nov 1
- Hallowe'en apples! Oct 25
(Click for RSS instructions.)