Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Learned All My Curse Words From Elections - And Other Important Lessons

Image courtesy Elections Canada

There is a federal election going on in Canada right now and I want to take the opportunity to teach Big D about the importance of voting. But how do you teach a four year old about the democratic process?

There are four early memories I have about elections during my childhood and since they left a big impression on me, they might have the same affect on Big D.

In no particular order:

I distinctly remember my elementary school gymnasium being used as a polling station and how the teachers almost gave themselves aneurysms trying to get us to keep quiet in the hallways. What on earth was going on? Why were there big black “X”s on the doors? Why were so many cars driving up to our school? It all seemed very important to a kid. I hope Big D’s school will be used as a polling station so he can too get a sense of the importance of the day.

Regardless, I’m going to take him with me when I go to vote. My parents did this with me and while I initially didn’t understand what was going on it was still pretty cool being taken into the voting booth with my mom or dad while they marked their ballots. Hmmm, interest piqued. Must find out more.

My whole family always discussed politics in front of the kids (and not just at election time) and for that I am very grateful. Just by discussing it, it was made clear that they paid attention and took the issues very seriously. I even learned my first swear words listening to my relatives discuss a certain prime minister!

And finally, as a family, we sat around the TV on election night and watched the results come in. The excitement and energy of that night seemed to come right through the TV screen into my family room. It felt like a big deal, especially for a kid.

And of course there was always the chance of hearing more curse words if our candidate wasn’t winning.

I’ll try to keep it clean with my own kids but I’m not promising anything.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When The Going Gets Tough...

…the tough get baking? I just figured out that has been my response to all the stress surrounding the disaster in Japan. So far, I’ve made Red Velvet Cupcakes, Cinnamon Bread, and now Petite Vanilla Bean Scones.

Pretty soon it will be: when the going gets tough, the tough gain a few pounds.

On another culinary note, I’m making Sloppy Joes for dinner tonight and the recipe calls for a cup of beer. So this morning I went into the liquor store to buy some dark beer but felt buying just one can would make me look like a wino. So I bought two cans instead. Yeah, muuuuch better optics.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I'm Ready

In the last two posts I had started to write a little bit more about Japan and my five years there. I have so much I could write but had been reluctant to start because of the feeling of natsukashii. Loosely translated, it means the feeling of nostalgia. It suggests both a happiness and fondness for a memory but also a sadness that it is no longer.

The feeling of natsukashii has overwhelmed me almost every time I think about writing about Japan, so for the most part I just haven’t written about it.

Well it has now been a week since the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan and I have just been sick watching all the destruction on TV, yet I cannot turn it off. I have been very saddened seeing other disasters but this one has impacted me more than the rest because Japan is like a second home to me.

Strangely enough, being exposed to the hundreds of images of the devastation has sort of helped me deal with the natsukashii. I now feel like it would be wrong not to tell the funny/annoying/bizarre/endearing stories I have of living in Tokyo. It will be my modest tribute to the place that became such a part of me. So when an appropriate time has passed, when people are ready to see a side to Japan that doesn’t involve tremors, tsunamis, and radiation, I will finally be ready to share.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hina Matsuri

March 3rd is Hina Matsuri (literally 'doll festival') in Japan. There is a long history to this day but I’m not going to explain the customs other than to say girls display ornamental dolls representing the Imperial Court. If you care to learn more, follow this link.

While I was teaching in Tokyo a student presented me with a handmade set, made by her mother, of the first tier of the display. The Emperor and Empress, along with their storage case, are made out of origami and the other parts are hand-painted. I marvel at the work that went into this and I am particularly touched that she gave it to me.

Unfortunately, I lost contact with my former student but I wish she knew that I display this precious gift every March 3rd and think about her and the thoughtfulness involved.

It is things like this that make me miss Japan very much.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Favourite Cookbooks - Part II

Let’s Cook Japanese Food! – Amy Kaneko

I lived in Japan for five years and when I moved there I knew almost nothing about Japanese food beyond sushi and tempura. Getting familiar with the amazing variety of home-style cooking the Japanese eat on a daily basis (believe it or not they don’t often make sushi or tempura at home) was an adventure in itself (something I’ll save for another blog post). But thankfully I did learn to navigate a Japanese grocery store. The problem upon my return to Canada was finding a cookbook that featured everyday Japanese cuisine. There are tons of cookbooks available on the formal (and very time consuming) food of Japan but until I found this cookbook I had never encountered one that showed how to make the kinds of things Japanese mothers serve their families. Amy Kaneko (an American married to a Japanese man) has produced all my favourite recipes from Japan and then some. She also is aware of the fact that Japanese ingredients are sometimes not the easiest to come by at your local supermarket so she shares alternative ingredients that you can use that will still produce authentic-tasting meals.

Japanese Hot Pots – Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat

Continuing the theme of Japanese cookbooks that specialize in true family-style meals is this great find. Hot pots (or nabe) were a revelation to me when I moved to Japan as I was completely unfamiliar with their popularity, easiness to make, and amazing versatility. Like most Japanese food, hot pots are very healthy and this is the only book I have seen that compiles the endless variations that include everything from seafood, poultry, meat, or vegetarian. Besides the great taste of these recipes, the thing I love best about this type of meal is that it can be cooked on the table-top allowing every member of the family to participate.

The Complete Book of Year-Round Small-Batch Preserving – Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard

I planted a very small vegetable garden this past summer in an effort to get Big-D to eat more veggies (it didn’t work). The whole process of growing my own food, however, became a real interest of mine. And while we just don’t have the space for a larger garden, our family started to make a big effort to eat seasonally. So while we’d be having a summer supper on the patio enjoying fresh peaches from the Farmers’ Market or zucchini from my own garden, I wondered how I could enjoy the same great summer produce in, let’s say, January. That’s when I thought about canning and preserving for the first time. I remember my mom making strawberry jam in the heat of summer but that was about it for my exposure to preserving and, on the surface, it seemed really daunting and time consuming. But thanks to this book, I learned how easy it is to preserve your own food. The recipes are specifically designed to make small batches which are perfect for us as we just don’t have the room to store all the jars.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Favourite Cookbooks – Part I

I love to cook yet get bored very easily so I am always on the lookout for new recipes. I could look online for new ideas but there is something about cookbooks that I can’t resist, particularly if they are from one of my favourite chefs/cooks.

The following is part one of a list of my absolute favourite cookbooks filled with recipes and ideas that I never tire of and use again and again.

Barefoot In Paris – Ina Garten

I ADORE this woman, her books, and her TV show. Her recipes never fail and she has perfected the art of taking simple ingredients and turning them into something delicious and elegant. She is my go-to for dinner parties and everyday recipes. She has seven cookbooks and to pick the one I love best is like picking a favourite child – impossible. However, I am featuring Barefoot In Paris over the others because she has successfully taken a traditionally intimidating cuisine and made it very accessible. Prior to this cookbook I wouldn’t have dared to attempt French dishes even though I love French food. Her approach is to feature easier bistro and countryside cooking making the recipes simple to make and pretty foolproof. I never thought I would ever make things like Mussels Mariniere, Coeur a la Crème and Crème Brulee but now I do.

Jamie At Home – Jamie Oliver

I now have a growing collection of Jamie Oliver cookbooks and, to think, not too long ago he used to annoy me. In recent years, however, he has really become enjoyable to watch on TV especially since he started focusing on healthy family dinners. I love his approach to using seasonal ingredients and I have never made a recipe of his that I didn’t like. I discovered this particular cookbook right at the time I was trying to plant my own garden. He not only gives recipes but advice on growing your own vegetable garden. His overall approach (and this can be said of his other cookbooks too) is to keep recipes simple using the freshest of ingredients. The passion he has for what he does is contagious and makes me want to learn more about food and be a better cook.

Nigella Christmas – Nigella Lawson

I have to give credit to the Brits; they really know how to do up Christmas right. Perhaps it was my Canadian upbringing that makes me gravitate towards the British way of celebrating the Christmas season and this book makes me feel like I’ve been transported to the U.K. in December. It is almost encyclopedia-like in the amount of recipes and information contained in it. Don’t like turkey for Christmas dinner? No worries, try the recipe for prime rib, or goose, or ham. I particularly like the section on what to do with turkey leftovers. I also like how she gives menu ideas for the other celebrations you may have during the festive season like a Christmas brunch or Boxing Day dinner.

Best Summer Weekends Cookbook – Jane Rodmell

Just looking at the cover of this cookbook makes me yearn for the hot days of summer (especially since we are in the middle of a blizzard as I write this). This book gets a lot of use during barbeque season but don’t let the title fool you, it contains many recipes that can be made at anytime of year. If you were to take one cookbook to the cottage for the summer, this would be it. The author even makes note that most of the dishes can be prepared with things you already have in your pantry. It is beautifully photographed and contains great recipes to enjoy on your patio with just your family or for entertaining a crowd. I love that this book reminds us that summer is very short in Canada so we should make the most of it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catching Colds or This...

I don’t mean to start off my first post in a long time with a rant but good Lord this is getting ridiculous! Sick AGAIN. I have caught every single cold Big-D has brought home since he started kindergarten in September. And you know what kids are like…little germ factories, that’s what. So he’s been bringing home a lot of colds and passing them all onto me. Delightful.

This latest go around has got me thinking about what I could be doing differently so I don’t catch every little thing he brings home. I try to get enough sleep (as much as any mother of two young kids can); I exercise and try to eat right. I take vitamins. What the hell else can I do besides walking around with a surgical mask on?

Then I remembered one of my roommates from university.

For the record, I didn’t get to choose who I would be living with in the condo-style residences (we all had our own room but shared the common areas). It was two guys and two girls. One of the guys, Mike, was doing his PhD in Math and had lived there the previous year and throughout the summer while working on his dissertation. By the time the rest of us moved in he already had his own cupboard for his food and dishes and his own shelf in the refrigerator.

His academic brilliance was tempered by the fact that he was…a little odd. His room looked like something out of Hoarders and while we knew he took showers we couldn’t quite figure out why he always smelled like he didn’t.

There was a night when the other two roommates and I thought we may be dealing with a Jeffrey Dahmer-like serial killer as we were cleaning out the fridge. Mike had stuff on his shelf that was beyond old. We finally made our way to the back of his no-longer edible food when we encountered a plastic bag that contained, well, what we thought was a severed head.

No, seriously.

When we opened that bag it looked like a decomposing head (not that we had ever seen one) and Mike was just weird enough that all of us truly thought, even for just a few moments, that we were living with a psychopath. When we finally calmed down and took another look we identified the mystery object to be a very, very old cauliflower.

Anyhow, I’m getting away from the real point of why I started talking about Mike. We had all been living together for a couple of months. Our schedules were different but we’d often wind up cooking and eating dinner at roughly the same time. There was, again, something odd about Mike but we were all going about our business and couldn’t quite put our finger on it. However, one night after dinner it FINALLY dawned on us.

He NEVER washed his dishes.

That’s right. Instead, any pots, pans, plates, and utensils that were used when he made his food went right back into his cupboard totally unwashed.


We all just tiptoed around the issue since, thankfully, it wasn’t inviting unwanted guests like rodents or bugs. Then one night Mike came into the kitchen and emptied his entire cupboard into the sink and washed everything. He did his grand wash-up just a few more times throughout the school year but none of us ever mentioned it. I guess we were all in such a state of shock (and quite frankly happy we weren’t living with a serial killer) that no one knew how to broach the topic.

But the point of this long story is that Mike never once got sick during the school year. Not once. The rest of the student population with late nights either studying or drinking was a cesspool of sickness from September to April but the guy who never washed his dishes, or particularly cared for hygiene, had nary a sniffle. Go figure.

So while I am desperate to stop getting my kids’ colds I’m not quite ready to go Mike’s route.