Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cold nights, hot toddies

Fall has set in with a vengeance, and along with the chilly weather has come its nasty little sister, Miss Sniffles.

To fight them both off last night, I cracked open the bottle of Sortilège that my parents brought me from Quebec last spring. 

I'm not much of a whisky drinker and don't intend to start being one, but I have to say that a hot toddy made from this liquid gold, along with my other favourite golden things (honey and lemon) is just the thing you want to cradle in your hands and sip on cold nights.  

I've long heard that a hot toddy is the fail-safe remedy for colds, and now I know it's true.  This morning I bounced out of bed feeling brand-new, my itchy throat and stuffy nose gone the way of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. 



1 tablespoon honey
1 ounce whisky
1 lemon wedge
1 cup boiling water

Mix everything in a mug or Irish coffee cup and drink up!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Solving the affordability crisis: Smaller homes on smaller lots

We drive smaller cars nowadays to conserve resources.  According to Kathleen Higgins of Delta, BC, we need to employ the same strategy when it comes to land and housing.

“Using residential land more efficiently, while still providing affordable, ground-oriented living, must become a priority, especially in Metro Vancouver,” says Kathleen. “Organic and gentle densification has to occur without huge development fees, so that people with large lots who want to live in a smaller footprint, and make room for one or two other home owners, can easily do so.”

Kathleen is a lawyer who has seen two of her seven children move away because they couldn’t afford to buy property in Delta. According to an April 2010 report from the Delta Housing Task Force, a whopping annual household income of $113,000 is now required to purchase a single family home in Delta. The situation is the same across the province, where real estate prices have risen 149 percent since 1976, as stated in this recent article in the Vancouver Sun.

“When the time comes for me to start a family, I want to be able to own a house,” says Kathleen’s second son James.

But the prospect does not look good. In the November 2011 issue of Vancouver Magazine, Tyee Bridge reports extensively on how the housing shortage is forcing an entire generation of young adults to move out of the Lower Mainland, or even out of province — or stay in Vancouver and resign themselves to being permanent renters instead of homeowners.

One solution, the Higgins believe, is “Smaller Homes on Smaller Lots.” Together with his father, John, who has a masters degree in architecture, James, a student of architectural technology and building science, has worked out a plan to turn their property into three smaller dwellings, each on its own lot.

John and James have created this short Youtube video to explain the plan in detail.

Their design provides for south-facing windows to take full advantage of solar heat, rooftop solar collectors, and rainwater collector systems. One unit is designed specifically for seniors, with wheelchair access and a low-maintenance courtyard in lieu of a garden.

If more people could once again afford to live on their own property in or near urban centres, Kathleen believes the advantages would not just be economic but environmental and social as well. Fewer people would clog up the highways trying to get to work from outlying areas. Communities of permanent homeowners, rather than renters, will prove to be healthier and more stable in the long run. Aging neighbourhoods would be revived by young families living in intelligently designed homes. And BC’s young workforce, our most valuable resource, would be able to stay in this province instead of taking their skills elsewhere.

Kathleen has worked on this concept for years and applied to be part of the North Delta Area Plan Committee to further promote it. She has also run twice for Delta Council, to spread the "smaller homes on smaller lots" message.

“People need to see that it is possible,” says James, “and that there is more than one solution. This is only one idea - imagine what more other people could do.” 


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dutch babies

Nothing can get me out of bed on a Sunday morning like the prospect of pancakes - even if I have to make them myself. At the end of a busy week, there's something immensely luxurious about having enough time in the morning to make a really good breakfast. Some people like omelettes, others prefer waffles or French toast. I like those things too. But my favourite is pancakes.

I've tried many pancake recipes over the years and am always on the lookout for more. This latest one is from Molly Wizenburg's A Homemade Life.

When we first heard of this book, my sister and I wondered out loud, "She's barely thirty years old - what could she possibly have to talk about in a memoir?"  
Turns out, to write insightfully about life, it's not how many years you've lived, but how much you can squeeze from those years, that matters. Molly has had some interesting, enviable experiences (studying and working in Paris, for example) but on the whole, her life sounds just like yours and mine...starting over in a new city, trying to carve out a career, making friends, finding love, learning how to say goodbye...and through it all, being comforted, nourished, and enriched at a dinner table with beloved faces around it and a good meal on top of it.

The truth is that life is mostly ordinary, but if we keep our eyes open and our hearts and minds alive to every moment, then there's something beautiful and wise that can be extracted from even the most mundane things. As Molly puts it, "In the simple acts of cooking and eating, we are creating and continuing the stories that are our lives."

Molly, bless her, is also a self-declared firm believer in recipe-sharing, so I'm sure she wouldn't mind at all if I pass along her recipe for Dutch baby pancakes.  Here's to living ordinary life to the full - especially on Sunday mornings.

Adapted from Molly Wizenburg,
A Homemade Life
Serves four (or two really hungry people)

This is a baked pancake. You will need an 8-10 inch cast-iron skillet or a metal or glass cake pan or pie plate. You will also need a pastry brush and a blender.

2 tablespoons butter
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup half-and-half
pinch of salt
lemon wedges and confectioner's sugar, for topping

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

If using the skillet, melt the butter over low heat. If using the cake pan, melt the butter in the preheated oven. Use a pastry brush to coat the sides of the skillet/pan with the melted butter.

Blend together the eggs, flour, half-and-half, and salt. Pour the batter into the warmed skillet/pan and slide into the preheated oven. Bake for 18-25 minutes. The sides will rise and puff quite dramatically.  It's ready when the puffed sides are golden brown, and the middle part looks set, though flat, and covered with a glossy sheen of butter.

Remove from the oven and serve immediately. Cut into wedges and drizzle generously with lemon juice and confectioner's sugar.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Mushroom memories

Nine years ago, at about this time, I got to stay, along with my sister and brother-in-law, at a little house in Florence.

Our hostess, Auntie Gretchen, and my sister's mother-in-law Nadia had been students together in Rome.  Their sons, Simone and Raffaele, are the same age and close as brothers.  And so, by affinity and also because she is innately gracious and hospitable, Auntie Gretchen took my sister and me to her bosom as part of the family.

For our first night under her roof she cooked us a dinner to remember: an arugula and prosciutto salad, followed by mushroom lasagne.  Dessert was a nod to her American heritage - lemon meringue pie.  We sat at her kitchen table watching her slice and squeeze the lemons, and grate parmigiano reggiano over the salad.  The kitchen simmered with warmth that chilly October night and smelled deliciously of garlic.

But mostly I remember that mushroom lasagne, about which I still dream, and sometimes try to duplicate, without success.  I've slowly and painfully come to realize that in order to come up with a lasagne that comes even slightly close to Auntie Gretchen's, at the very least I would have to be in Florence, with access to the same milk, cheese, mushrooms, and pasta that she used.  At most, I would have to be Auntie Gretchen.

This is where James Barber's cooking philosophy comes in handy: "You use what you've got."  So when my dreams of mushroom lasagne clamor to be transformed into reality - as they did this weekend - I roll up my sleeves and do my best with what I've got.  So here it is.  It's not Auntie Gretchen's Lasagne, but it's Maria's Lasagne, and my fondest wish for it is that it will become part of a great mushroom memory for someone, somewhere.


6 cups sliced mushrooms (you can use a combination of any kind you like, but try to use more flavourful varieties such as crimini, portobello, or porcini)
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup dried mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 cup hot water
Salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil and butter together in a large skillet until melted.
Saute the onion and garlic until soft and fragrant.
Add the mushrooms and cook until soft.  Add the reconstituted mushrooms along with the water.  Cook for 5 minutes more.  Season according to taste.  Remove from heat and set aside.

For the Béchamel sauce:

5 tbsps butter
4 tbsps all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, scalded
grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and whisk in the flour 1 tbsp at a time.  Cook, whisking constantly, for 1-2 minutes.  Add the scalded milk and whisk until smooth.  Cook until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.  (Watch carefully and whisk often so it doesn't burn.)  Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

To assemble the lasagne:

Grate 1 cup of mozzarella cheese for the topping.
For oven temperature, follow the package directions of your lasagne of choice.
Place a layer of cooked mushrooms (including broth) in the bottom of your lasagne pan.  Add a layer of lasagne, then a layer of Béchamel sauce.
Keep building the layers until the pan is full or you run out of mushrooms and sauce - whatever comes first.
Sprinkle the grated mozzarella over the top, cover with foil and bake according to package directions.

Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Buon appetito!


Friday, October 07, 2011


The cornucopia, also know as the horn of plenty: a symbol of abundance and nourishment, it's the traditional centrepiece for Thanksgiving dinner.

This is my cornucopia.  It's full to overflowing, yet I add more to it every day.

Have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving!


Saturday, October 01, 2011

Wine and cheese

Eighty three years ago, some church bells rang out in a Spanish city, and a man had a vision - a vision that cost him blood, sweat, and tears, but has since changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, including mine.

Vale la pena, as the man would say.  It was worth it.

To mark this anniversary, some friends of mine threw a wine and cheese party.  What could be simpler and more elegant?  Lay out some cheese and fruit, heat up some bread, uncork some good wine - et voilà, an instant celebration.

St. Josemaría, I think, would approve.

Happy Feast Day!

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