To market, to market…………

This is an edited version of  my weekly newspaper column–again it is locally based–but has some food for thought on a wider basis too:

“Food has the ability to bring people together …” – The Stop

Sweet potatoes, garlic and herb bread, treats for my cat, natural bug repellent, grapefruit and mint soap, blackberry jam, a beautiful bunch of flowers for $5, asparagus, Lebanese garlic spread, some meatwiches (yes I made this up but I do not know what else to call them—they consisted of a lovely meat mixture ensconced in bread), and some radish sprouts. Those are the treasures I gleaned from Saturday’s Farmers Market  in our fair town of Kingsville.

I love the idea of a Farmers Market. But more than the idea, I love going to farmers markets. I am so happy that we have one in the heart of town from now until October. The offerings thus far are abundant, and I am sure it is going to grow. I did not hit all of the stands that were set up, more than a dozen on its first venture out of the gate—but the ones I did hit gave me the feeling (and products) I wanted from the market. A feeling of a community coming together to offer not only quality goods but camaraderie—a sense of “we are all in this together”.

The day dawned wet and cool (some might say cold), the grass was wet, but the vendors were there with their game faces on. Every vendor I stopped to talk to was beyond friendly, and those who had products which needed a bit of explanation provided it not in a “I want to sell it to you no matter what” kind of way, but in a lovely conversational way that made me want to buy and not back away.

Farmers Markets have been around for almost 10,000 years according to a web site called coincidentally enough Farmers Markets. Apparently they originated in Turkey and the Middle East and were born from the fact that farm families found they were producing more than they needed for survival so they offered their wares in a farmers market as a way to sell their excess—meeting the needs of local villagers and finding another source of income.

Farmers Markets, so says the article are a “wholly traditional way of selling agricultural and home manufactured products” and were once “integral to society and a part of everyday life” but saw a decline due to “urbanism and intensive farming….the advent of supermarkets and hypermarkets….” and the fact that people could buy pre-packaged food without worrying about seasonality. The article says that people “lost interest in food in general.”

That interest has been reignited—people are again interested in buying their food a little closer to the source, and what better way to do it than by visiting local Farmers Markets? I give the Food Channel some of the kudos for renewing our interest in fresh locally grown produce and to Jamie Oliver, English chef extraordinaire in particular.

According to Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis in “The Stop”, a book about how good food transformed a community (in Toronto) and inspired a movement: “food has the ability to bring people together”. Attending the weekly Farmers Market is not only satisfying in what you come away with to nourish your body; it nourishes the soul of our community. It brings us together as one, and fosters kinship, unity and co-operative spirit, from the group that has come together under the umbrella of the Kingsville Farmers Market to those of us who visit.

Thank you to those who had the foresight and gumption to organize this market. I, for one, will be a regular visitor—not just for the fresh food and imaginative products, but for that unseen yet precious commodity: community.

Make A Plan

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! (Photo credit: Kelvin Servigon)

I have received a lot of advice in my life. Some I ignore. Some I am delighted to receive. And some I have to digest before I use it.

The following four short pieces of advice {which really meld into one} are from one of my favourite foodies, Rachael Ray, and they will stand me in good stead this holiday season if I take the time to heed them.

So (drum roll please), here are her pithy words of advice:

Rachael Ray Mag

Rachael Ray Mag (Photo credit: Bekit)

Less is more

Keep it simple

Invite People

Make a plan.

She was referring to entertaining, but I think these words can be used in so many facets of our lives. The only change I would make is to “Make a plan” then “invite people” but that is just the way I roll.

This holiday season I have to keep in mind what is important. As the days wind down towards the big day I have a plan–I know that making my thumbprint cookies with seedless raspberry jam is more important than making sure every room in my house is spick and span; I know that making some good and  simple food will make my family happy and that creating fancy unfamiliar dishes would only cause stress; I know that wrapping the presents in whatever fashion I can, is more important than making sure everything is perfectly bowed and all corners sharp; I know that  family and friends are more important than my to do lists.

So, as I pare down my expectations, I do not pare down what makes this season merry and bright–good food, good friends, and family as well as something to open, something to drink, something to eat, and something to laugh at. And, oh yeah, better not forget to make the fudge.

What is the one important thing you must do to make your holiday merry?

The Christmas Walnut

"Old Fashioned Christmas Tree"

“Old Fashioned Christmas Tree” (Photo credit: CARDS 4 NID Catherine.Clarke)

I remember it like it was yesterday. Every year at Christmas, from the time I was about nine years old, I dove into the depths of the carefully wrapped Christmas decorations to find the fragile walnut that said Christmas to me. Proudly, I would hang it on the tree near the top, front and centre.

Miniscule, the brass coloured shell holds great tradition. It was on every one of my childhood Christmas trees; it was on all the Christmas trees my mother put up when I left home; and today it is on my Christmas tree. It is the one thing I made sure I got from all of my parents’ Christmas treasures.

I was surprised and relieved when I found that none of my siblings had imbued this tiny prize that I so coveted with the same sentiments I had.

I wish that I could remember where the gilded walnut came from, but I like to think that before I made it on the scene, it was one of the first decorations my parents put on their first tree when they were married in 1944. Their first Christmas tree was cut down by my Grandpa Geauvreau specifically for my eighteen year old mom, who was pregnant with my oldest brother. My parents lived with my father’s parents when they were first married, and Grandpa made sure my mom had a Christmas tree.  Strangely it was not a tradition my grandparents followed—but grandpa knew it was important to his son’s barely out of childhood wife. My mother told the story fondly many, many times and it is a part of our family lore.

English: Walnuts

English: Walnuts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was crushed when a couple of years ago my beautiful but delicate walnut hit the floor. It broke, but luckily not into tiny pieces, and most of it is still intact. Now when I hang it front and centre near the top of the tree, I position it so the undamaged side faces out. The tradition has not been broken, just adjusted a little—something all traditions have to endure.

A Kernel of Magic

Father Christmas

Father Christmas (Photo credit: Scottwdw)

“No matter how tired and cranky, how jaded or cynical, how utterly tiresome Christmas becomes, there is always a kernel of magic at its core, isn’t there?” – Will Ferguson

The magic at the core of Christmas is what makes the season enchanting. Whether it is the wonder of the original Christmas story, our family traditions that lighten up the dark days, or even belief in that jolly old elf—the feeling that the season elicits is magical.

Canadian author, Will Ferguson, wrote a charming little memoir called “Coal Dust Kisses”, which harkens to his childhood days. He and the other children brought up around the Cape Breton coal mines had proof positive that Santa had visited their houses on Christmas Eve. The proof was not in the presents beneath the tree, but in a smudge of coal dust on their foreheads.

Coal mining

Coal mining (Photo credit: Toban Black)

Ferguson’s grandfather worked in the mines before he found a job at the Canadian National Railroad; but Ferguson himself  never saw the inside of a mine shaft, and in his words: “God willing, never would”. Born in Cape Breton, he became part of a tradition that comes from being in a coal mining area. It was Father Christmas that Ferguson’s father waited for on Christmas Eve; and on Christmas morning he had evidence that the gentleman “had tiptoed through houses, late at night, covered in soot…”  He “would stop to kiss children on the forehead when they lay sleeping…” When the children awoke in the morning, there on their foreheads were “coal dust kisses.”

The author waited for Santa Claus who replaced Father Christmas over the years, but the tradition of “coal dust kisses” carried on. He remembers the “stampede of feet towards the bathroom mirror”  on Christmas morning, when he and his siblings crowded into the bathroom and “stared in awe and wonderment” at the smudge on their foreheads—providing the elusive proof positive that Santa Claus had left his calling card. This, he said was “a moment of magic” captured in countless yuletide photographs.

He has continued the tradition with his own family, taking the “Scottish coal-mining tradition…from Cape Breton to the northwest woods, from Ecuador to southern Japan, and back again to Canada.” Tradition, handed down from generation to generation travels easily. The jolly old elf takes his magic with him wherever he goes, or wherever we go.

The magic of Christmas belies the sometimes gaudy pomp and circumstance of commercialism (which we have to admit has its place and puts food on the table for many). Believing in something for the sake of believing without question does not seem to be a simple thing. We need proof, whether it be in “coal dust kisses” or something else that we can see, touch or feel.  Sometimes though, we have to just believe in the magic of Christmas and not dissect it until we no longer recognize its wonder.

So what proof do you have of the magic of Christmas? What is your “kernel” of Christmas magic?

My Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown (Photo credit: Elizabeth/Table4Five)

Last year I was about to buy a new Christmas tree when I had a conversation with my son who is away at college. That conversation resulted in this offering (slightly edited for you) which I wrote for my weekly newspaper column.  As I get ready to put up the tree this year, I am not even thinking about getting a new tree–the die is cast–and until it falls apart, it will be part and parcel of our Christmas traditions.

The decision has been made. No new Christmas tree this year. I bandied the idea about and even went so far as to look at some of those fancy pre-lit trees. But I talked to my youngest son, Tyler, who is coming home in a couple of weeks from college, and he said no to a new tree. He wanted our traditional, though far past its prime, spindly Christmas tree. I call it our Charlie Brown Christmas tree, as I have to finagle with the branches to get them not to droop, and wedge it back into a corner, forcing all of its branches forward, thus producing a thicker, more (seemingly) luxurious tree.

Now you may be thinking to yourself that if I want a new tree, I should get a new tree, and not necessarily listen to the nostalgic whims of my son. But, I too, had doubts about getting a new tree. And some of the new ones I looked at were really no better than the one I have, once I put my magic spell on it.

I decorate our Christmas tree as if there is no tomorrow. The branches are layered with ornaments we have received over the years. Homemade and store-bought share space on a tree that groans under their weight.  But the stars of the show are all the decorations that both my sons have made over the years, carefully wrapped in tissue until they are brought out  to be placed lovingly on the tree.

Macaroni sprayed gold and arranged in wreath shapes, reindeer made from those old large Christmas light bulbs with antlers shaped out of chenille pipe cleaners, sleighs cleverly fashioned from popsicle sticks, tissue paper stained glass bells and stars, and pinecones with glitter galore will adorn our tree again this year. Of course we have a million other ornaments, each imbued with memories, or just purchased because we liked them. But really, our tree, like yours, is just an excuse to walk down memory lane for a few weeks in the dark bleak midwinter.

In honour of our cat, we don’t put tinsel on our tree, as a choking cat is not a festive thing to see—and as the rest of the members of my family are quite taken with Kitty Bob, I make this exception without much regret. But if that cat does to the tree what he did to the tree last year, one of his lives is going to be threatened. Thankfully a teddy bear took the brunt of his indiscretion and could be thrown in the washing machine, but I was none too happy.

On a more festive note, once I wrestle the lights onto my “old” un-pre-lit tree, the rest is gravy.  At one time I made my husband do this job, as I found it frustrating. Now I just wind the lights around the tree in a “come what may” fashion, and they actually look better than if I do it carefully. I have learned over the years that by dressing the tree with about a thousand ornaments, those obnoxious wires will effectively be hidden from sight.

A Christmas tree, no matter how battered, is the repository of memories past, present, and future. Maybe next year I will get a fancy dancey pre-lit tree that has all its branches, but this year I will be happy with what I have.

(Note: 1. This is next year, and I will not be getting a fancy dancey pre-lit tree. 2. The cat did not do the unspeakable to the tree last year.)

What traditions do you have that cannot be broken?

English: Closeup of a string of decorative Chr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

~ Easiest Stew Ever ~ No Kidding! ~

a slow cooker Oval Crock Pot

a slow cooker Oval Crock Pot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think by now you have learned not to look to me for fancy cuisine, gourmet delights, or even recipes with much more than five ingredients. But since it is November, the harbinger of cold weather, I thought I would share my recipe for the “Easiest Stew Ever” with you.

When I shared my Chili recipe in a post, I asked if you wanted my easy stew recipe. Several of you answered in the affirmative (big word for yes, I know-keep it simple stupid). A number of you nodded your heads vigorously (I could hear the rattle). So without further ado, I will give you the original recipe that my sister-in-law, Brenda, provided for me about two decades ago. Then I will tell you how I have adapted the recipe. Are you ready?

Here goes:

OVEN STEW

1 ½ lb. stewing beef

1 10 oz. can mushroom soup

1 envelope onion soup mix

¼ tsp. thyme

¼ tsp. pepper

1/3 cup sherry (or water)

Put all in casserole, cover tightly and cook 2 – 3 hours at 325 degrees. Brenda’s comment on the recipe: “All in one pot, extremely easy, very good…my kind of cooking.”

Now, I used to be a little bit of a snob about cooking with soup and soup mixes (I don’t know why—must have been from reading Gourmet magazine, not from cooking from it).

I have never made this recipe the way it was written, and a lot of times, I just throw the ingredients in the crock pot—so here is what I do ~

Put the soup and soup mix in the crock pot. Whisk it until it is smooth. (Sometimes I double the recipe). Then throw in the stewing beef—you don’t have to brown it. Add pepper and sometimes paprika if you have it.  I leave out the thyme because for some reason I do not like it. Add the water (as I never, ever have sherry and my husband does not like wine in his food.) I add more than a 1/3 cup of water (usually half a soup can unless I double it). And there you have it—

I usually cook it anywhere from 6-8 hours on low or four hours on high in the crock pot. Most of the time, I add carrots and onions and potatoes and then I have a complete meal.

Sometimes I will do it in the oven—but both ways are delicious. It makes surprisingly good gravy. If you make it without the potatoes and carrots, it is good on rice or noodles.

I have a whole binder full of recipes (not women) from my family. My sister instigated this recipe exchange about twenty two years ago, and for several Christmases members of my family would add three recipes. If there is a demand, I can make Saturday recipe day. Just to get your mouth watering– the next one I will share is my brother John’s Fried Bologna Sandwich. It is a gourmet delight (seriously).

What do you think? Should I make Saturday recipe day? And do you have any easy recipes to share or hints for fast meals?

Tradition: A good thing for Thanksgiving

English: Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine,...

English: Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine, USA 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

Who needs tradition? We need institutions, habits, customs, and rituals to mark our important occasions. And we need the tradition of Thanksgiving to mark and celebrate our harvest and give thanks. But more than that—we need some things to remain the same. Year after year. Year in and year out. I do not need to “change up” Thanksgiving. Admit it, how many times do you have turkey and stuffing and all the fixings during the year? Why would we want to “change up” Thanksgiving if we hardly ever celebrate and eat and give thanks for the things that compose this fine holiday?

For years I have fought against tradition—mainly because I found the turkey a difficult thing to wrangle. But last year, after  telling my tale of woe to a friend of mine in an email, she wrote back and told me what to do.  Her knowledge and wisdom have changed my life forever. It is a small thing—but one that makes my family’s wish for turkey dinners a dream come true. “Why don’t you,” she wrote, “do what I do and buy one of those turkeys that are already stuffed and frozen? They do not need to be defrosted—you just take them out of the freezer and put them in the oven.” Now, preparing the turkey is not quite as simple as she said. You still have to take the plastic wrapping off, and remove the plastic bag of innards (which is placed in a conspicuous spot for easy removal). I do plaster my turkey generously in butter—but that is it! Okay, I  peer at it from time to time and baste it, just to do my part—but I don’t think it even needs that.

The best part? The stuffing is good. The turkey comes out brown and crispy and tasty, and I do not have a major meltdown. I also have one of those meat thermometers now that helps me judge when meat is done by the temperature gauge so I do not kill my family. I do have a suggestion for the meat thermometer people though. They need to invent a thermometer for paranoid cooks that indicates clearly that “this is the temperature you need to reach in order not to poison your family.” I would find that immensely comforting, but until then I will cook everything to a temperature of 360 degrees (yes, I am kidding, even I know I would be serving a big lump of coal at this temp).

What got me thinking about tradition was an article in the Saturday National Post. On the front page of the Food, Book, and Entertainment Section was a story called “Your Complete Visual Shopping List for Thanksgiving.” The food writer suggested that you take the page to the  grocery store, buy the food shown and use Bonnie Stern’s “delicious updates of next weekend’s classic dishes”.

I then turned to page WP13 of the Toronto newspaper as instructed and lo and behold, Bonnie Stern provided a menu and recipes for a Nordic Thanksgiving! In her little blurb before she got into the actual recipe accounting, Ms. Stern admitted to just returning from recent travels in Scandinavia where she was inspired to (and these are my words) ruin Canadian Thanksgiving by suggesting that we have roast celeriac with herb crumbs, rye berry salad, roast turkey breast with dill and lemon and marzipan kuchen with peaches and plums! Has the woman no shame? These recipes on their own for other occasions are probably wonderful, but I say uncategorically and with great righteousness—do not sully the traditional turkey and stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and green bean casserole, cranberries and pickle platter, coleslaw and Jell-O salads, and pumpkin pie with the requisite whipped cream!

Ms. Stern says that Denmark and Sweden do not have big Thanksgiving celebrations—so why then is she taking a page out of their book? I say, stick with the tried and true (now that I have become an aficionado of the tried and true) and forget “changing up Thanksgiving”. No lamb or ham or prime rib or roast pork or turkey breast with dill and lemon for me. Let tradition live on with those staples of turkey and stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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