As you read this, I will be lounging on a beach chair, or possibly blowing bubbles 60 feet under the Caribbean Sea, as I dive with the fish.
I know, you hate me this week, because I'm on holidays. The best part, though, isn't being at the beach, it's being with friends and making new memories. Maybe you'll think I'm reaching here, but don’t you think that a good time with a good friend can be like a holiday? You feel the same boost, the same thrill to share a special moment, as you do when you sip a pretty umbrella-decorated drink by the seaside.
We are fortunate to have met wonderful people in Jamaica, and this year will be the fourth winter that we all share time together. We share a common love of the island, diving, and the local food - it binds us closer together each year.
Most importantly, we all understand the value of quality time, and living in the moment. Sure, we all have worries at home and responsibilities that occupy our lives, but while on holiday we have a chance to rejuvenate our souls and remember why we work hard.
Some people miss home when they go away. It might be the familiarity of routine that is missed, yet when away we can learn wonderful things about new places, and about ourselves, too.
It might be the people back at home we miss. If you go away without the kids, maybe you miss seeing them and knowing what they are up to, but you - and they - have a chance to create a new adventure, and a chance to tell about it when you're all together again.
Everyone needs time apart once in a while. It helps give us a fresh perspective, or at least a chance to view everything with clear eyes.
Someone once told me that we are most ourselves when we are away. I think they mean that we let down our guard when away from the pressures of regular life and are among people who don't know us or have preconceived notions about us. My philosophy has been to take advantage of it, and I've learned a lot stepping out in my own skin while away. It has made me more courageous at home.
Of course, now I need to make a food comment, don't I?
Well, I can tell you I won't be eating a burger in Jamaica. I'll be enjoying Jamaican patties full of curry and local veggies. For breakfast I'll have ackee and saltfish (a delicious tropical fruit sauteed with the fish and served in a spicy tomato sauce), with callaloo beside my eggs. I won't eat oranges, but rather guava and papaya and local bananas.
We always meet someone who complains that the steak is terrible, but my husband is happy to explain to them that they should rethink their eating strategy - why would you look to eat beef when a) we eat some of the best beef in the world in the US and Canada, and b) you're on an island, so eat the fish that just got caught this morning. Martin can't help it, his chef soul craves to help people make the most of their meals.
This is my strongest plea: If you go away, try the local cuisine. It's part of the soul of a place, and you'll miss an opportunity to feel the real character of the people and place if you stick to your usual fare.
The thing I try to remember while on holiday is to Be Brown. I don't mean the tanning - that takes care of itself when it's 30 degrees all the time. I mean being like my Brown Girl, Ella. I truly believe that my little Chocolate Lab pal is a soul of a higher order, one who has discovered many of the secrets of life.
She knows how to embrace the moment, she takes it all in, rejoicing in everything. She eats the same food every day, yet bounces in front of her dish every day as though it was lobster thermidor or an ice cream sundae.
She approaches every creature with the initial idea that they could be friends, and only revises her opinion after firm opposition. She never regrets her exuberance, jumping in a puddle is done with total abandon, snooting through a snowbank at top speed, nose down, is a joy despite the brain freeze - yes, I shall be living my holiday with that same attitude, and hope to do it when I get home as well. I'll be missing Ella while away, but I know she would expect me to be making the most of it all.
I'll toast to your good health as I watch the sunset over the sea. I hope you're taking a moment or two to celebrate your life, wherever you are.
Celebrate the seasons
February 2 is Groundhog Day, a day made famous in pop culture by the Bill Murray movie in which he lives the day over and over again until he learns that he must make the most of what life has given him.
I thought I would share a more historical interpretation, which has similarities to the movie but is a bit more complex. I will, of course, add food to the mix.
As history tells it, the original name for Groundhog Day is Candlemas. It was a celebratory feast to commemorate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, and included the blessing of candles that would be used throughout the coming year (Jesus was seen as a symbol of light or revelation, so the connection with candles is logical). It was also known as the earliest of festivals to celebrate the Virgin Mary.
With the light stretching further through the day, Candlemas also signified the first leap to spring, and was considered by some to be the start of the spring season. Here lies the connection to our current rodent-centric customs.
There are significant things to remember about the more secular Candlemas traditions. For example, this is when any symbols of Christmas are to be removed (thus formally ending the Christmas season, 40 days later), so if Santa isn't off the roof yet, you'd better go get him.
As well, beginning a voyage at sea is not recommended on this day (sailors believed it would end in disaster).
If you followed the tradition of Epiphany on January 6, having won the figurine in the King Cake would mean you were beholden to host a party on Candlemas. Just to be clear, even if you didn't win the figurine, you can still host a party, if you feel like it.
Whether you consider religious seasons or nature’s seasons, our Groundhog Day has a noble history.
When that favourite rodent in various North American cities peeks his nose out from his winter slumber, he offers an omen of the days to come. Interestingly, it is based on a kind of logic, as traditions often are.
Groundhogs aren’t scared of their shadows, and sailors aren’t scared to sail on a calendar date, but they know weather patterns.
The same is true with foodie traditions that occur at festival time.
And really, on a chill February day, be it mucky or grey and snowy, why not boost your spirits by celebrating Groundhog Day/Candlemas with friends and good food?
Some international ideas to inspire you ~
The French celebrate by eating crepes, but only after 8 p.m.. Are they waiting for the winter moon to rise, and the crepes are to symbolize the shape? If you can flip a crepe successfully while holding a coin in the other hand you will see prosperity in the coming year (of course you will - you just kept the coin, didn’t you?!)/
The Spaniards celebrate by eating tamales, as the planting of the corn can begin as early as this. Even if you don’t want to be that elaborate in your cooking, a bit of cornbread or even a muffin could stand in as a nod to the tradition of farmers beginning their work of the season. Do you even need another reason to stop at Timmies?
The Irish put a loaf of bread on the windowsill as an offering for St. Birgid, who is associated as both a pagan goddess of fertility and a saint in County Kildare. Remember, it’s still a wee bit cold, so it’s okay to consume those carbohydrates, right?
I hope these ideas lead to inspiration. If not, well, never fear. We have Mardi Gras coming up next, and that certainly deserves celebrating.
Or, I suppose, if you need immediate gratification and aren't interested in celebrating a rodent-centric holiday, then you could just break open the snacks and enjoy the Superbowl on Sunday with some friends.
May whatever sun there is shine brightly on your house!
Ready, set, splurge!
I have been harping on healthy living for a couple of weeks now, so now it’s time to remember the good life. You know what they say, all work and no play makes for a dull boy - or girl. Same with food - you have to cut loose and splurge every once in a while.
We spend most of January focusing on resolutions and healthy diets, now we can relax and reward ourselves. What is your favourite treat?
I like chocolate
Even just a piece of chocolate will make me feel rewarded (it has to be good chocolate, though - no sugary junk for this girl). I also like ginger. My quick-fix is a piece of dark chocolate and a piece of crystallized ginger. On a cold day, I'll make a cup of ginger hot chocolate with cocoa, a touch of honey and powdered ginger. That stuff is as good as a hug from a grandparent.
I also love custard
As a kid, pudding was one of my favourite things. Superb custard filling is a real art. We once had filled doughnuts at The Doughnut Plant in New York (see picture below and drool) - it was an OMG kind of experience.
Bread pudding is a good vehicle for custard too, with lots of liquid to make it fluffy and lots of fruit to make it flavourful. When I worked as a movie caterer I made a great dessert called Outlaw Bread Pudding that does the trick nicely. (If you'd like the recipe, just email me).
Ooh, and then there’s pastry
I do love flaky pastry. Pecan pie, fruit tarts, phyllo confections that explode when you bite them, and choux pastry - like eating clouds (often clouds stuffed with custard, and how awesome is that). My mouth is watering.
Once again though, quality is crucial. The splurge of having a freshly made Danish with real fruit, or a cream puff with real chocolate whipped cream is so much better than mass-produced efforts with artificial ingredients. Talk about empty calories.
A little something
Sometimes you don't need a spiffy treat, just ‘a little something’, as Pooh used to say. My mom always said there wasn't much a cookie couldn't cure, and I think that they do help a lot. If you're feeling guilty about the indulgence of desserts, how about we meet half way on this one? Mom called them rocks, more because of the look than the taste - I just call them the Best Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. Ever.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that my all-time most impressive dessert has to be Floating Island, an ethereal meringue drizzled with caramel that hovers over a sea of custard. The vision of that wonderful dish is still with me, decades after seeing it in a Parisian restaurant. Read about it here: ’Ile Flottante’
Maybe dessert isn't your thing (I can't imagine why not, but hey, different strokes, right?), and if so, splurge on the best potato chips or chicken wings or whatever it is that floats your boat. You deserve it. I like to remember that STRESSED the other way around is DESSERTS. I guess we could also say SPLURGE rhymes with PURGE, its opposite.
Joie de la vie!
One simply must sample both extremes to appreciate life as a whole.
What is 'healthy eating'?
Here we are, with New Year's resolutions pressuring us to be better and news items telling us we should eat better and Facebook warning us about dangerous foods to avoid.
What's a person supposed to do, really?
Is the Paleo diet the best? Should you not eat meat at all? If you go vegan, does everything have to be organic? What does organic mean? Maybe I should sit down with a caramel macchiato and a muffin and think about it all.
All kidding aside, the notion of eating healthy has become a nebulous concept to say the least.
I will offer my personal and highly unqualified opinion for you: Simply put, balance is best, and variety is not only the spice of life but the secret to a longer life.
Whether you are vegan, eat only skinless chicken breasts and steamed veggies or stop regularly at Timmie's and McDonald's, I think that an effort to change up what you consume helps your system operate at its best.
I'll give you a few examples of how my theory works:
Food should be interesting. My chocolate Labrador Retriever is the only one I know who jumps up and down to eat the same thing every day.
Even if you only eat chicken breasts, you can change up the seasoning or the sauce. Eat different fruit and vegetables, taking advantage of what is fresh and what is local. Even if you are an anti-foodie, I dare you not to notice the difference between a local peach or tomato and one that travelled across the world.
One interesting way to increase the variety in your meals is to think of ethnic cuisines. Have rice or quinoa or polenta (made from cornmeal) instead of potatoes. Make an Asian sauce, or a Latino salsa, or use a Mediterranean spice rub for your meat or fish, or toss with your veggies.
Online apps and websites have unlimited recipe ideas and pictures, television has all kinds of food shows, and your friends probably have a few different recipes they would share.
I want to talk seasoning, but the one most people worry about is salt. In cooking, it enhances the flavour of food, so it's often an attractive ingredient. It is a necessary component for our systems, but we don’t need lots of it.
The official statistics from Health Canada say adults should have 1 teaspoon of salt per day, no more. Apparently the average consumption is more like 1-1/2 teaspoons (48% more than the required amount), and, of course, most of that comes from processed foods.
Now remember, that doesn't just mean junk food like potato chips, it means sauces, stocks, mixes, and canned products that contain sodium. For reference, sodium is not the same as salt - if you're checking sodium levels, your target total per day is 2300 mg.
If you're really worried about salt, start by looking at ways to make something rather than buying it from a can or bottle - this way, you can control the salt. If you don't have time to tackle that, at least check the labels of different brands for sodium levels. Even bread has salt as a necessary ingredient, but many commercial bread products have high sodium levels.
If you're adventurous, think of other ways to season your food. Powdered chilli will add a real boost of flavour, herbs such as rosemary, thyme or oregano add an earthy component, spices such as turmeric or curry blends add an exotic aromatic element . . . the list is long.
For more ideas, check out a great online spice & herb list from the folks at The Kitchen.
Everyone has veggies they don't like. Some people don't like any of them. Yet we need to get those nutrients. I think it's a shame to just have a smoothie, but hey, if that's what it takes, then go for it. If you're game to try for some variety, how about these ideas?
- Roast cauliflower and/or broccoli instead of steaming. Even at room temperature, the flavours are sweeter, and the crunchy bits are tasty, too.
- Stuff bell peppers with meat and rice, or rice and other veggies. They will take on the flavours of the filling, and they look cool. Make a deal that everyone has to try them - parents, kids, grandkids, everyone. The dog doesn't count, 'cause we know she'll eat anything. And hey, if whole peppers are too scary, then how about pureeing them in tomato sauce? You'll get the nutrients, but no texture.
- Eat salad for dinner. This is any combination of greens and other stuff tossed together with some kind of dressing (could be olive oil & balsamic vinegar or some other HOMEMADE dressing. Don't cheat with store-bought). Tonight I'm doing spinach with roast winter squash, radishes, avocados, grape tomatoes, and roasted chickpeas.
- Make a veggie dip. The deal could be that everyone tries one of each veggie on the platter with the dip. Or maybe it's a dip made of veggies, like hummus (from chickpeas and maybe peppers or other stuff) or baba ghannuj (from eggplant - don't knock it, it's pretty tasty).
Did you think I meant ‘the pulse of your eating regime’? Nope, I mean all those beans and things.
“What?” you say?
Well, it's the International Year of the Pulse, as decreed by the United Nations. A pulse is an edible seed from a plant of the legume family, such as peas, beans or lentils. They are rich in protein, fibre, iron, and potassium, and are gluten-free. Before you go ‘ick!’ I'm going to remind you that most of us gobble up hummus without thinking twice, and you might have discovered pakoras (south Indian fried dumplings made from chickpea flour - yummy with mango chutney). So, don't knock it ’til you try it.
As an easy resource for this segment of foods, I'm going to send you to the Pulse Pledge website. To promote the United Nations initiative, there is a whole program, with a contest and a newsletter and lots of recipes. Check it out, and I bet you will be pleasantly surprised.
That's a lot to digest this week - hope I didn't scare you off. I just think that we can all use a helping hand when it comes to living the good life.
Sometimes it's hard to come up with our own ideas. If you have some you'd like to share, please comment here or on the Happy Gourmande Facebook page.
More Happy Gourmand articles
- Are we getting dumber? Jan 9
- I resolve to . . . Dec 26
- The perfect holiday table Dec 19
- Keep the magic in Christmas Dec 12
- Naughty or nice? Dec 5
- Time is the tastiest treat Nov 28
- Traditions, old and new Nov 21
- 50 years of food Nov 14
- Foodie on the road Nov 7
- Living in the moment Oct 24
- Seventh inning stretch Oct 17
- The light within Oct 10