Friday 29 April 2011

Spotted What?

My cousin Heather recently posted this photo on Facebook, together with the comment “Thank goodness Fresh & Easy grocery store carries this!!!!!!'s microwavable!”  We all got a good chuckle out of it. 

Since all things British seem to be on our minds this week, I thought it might be interesting to learn something about this intrinsically English dish. 

Spotted Dick’s name derives in part from the liberal quantity of currants distributed throughout the dough.  There’s lots of speculation about the rest of the name but a best guess is that it may possibly be a corruption of the word dough or dog, as "spotted dog" is another name for the same dish, but made with plums rather than currants.  Whatever the name and regardless of its origin, it’s a tasty pudding, worth trying at home.

Spotted Dick is a steamed suet pudding.  We’re not terribly familiar with these puddings here in North America, except in the form of Christmas (or plum) pudding.  Our Christmas pudding is a cousin to Spotted Dick, prepared in much the same way.

Steamed puddings have a long history.  They date back to a time when ovens were not commonly found in most homes.  Steamed puddings could be either savoury or sweet. The main ingredients of the dish were carried in a moist dough made from flour, some sort of fat, and a leavening agent.  The dough was either placed in a pudding bowl and covered, with the lid tied on securely, or simply wrapped in muslin.  It would be boiled or steamed for quite a long time—usually two to three hours—until cooked through.  Steamed puddings were, and are, most often served with a sauce.

I’m not at all sure that I want to try the canned version of Spotted Dick but I am quite happy to make it from scratch at home.  It makes a splendid, and relatively inexpensive, end to supper on a chilly evening and is substantial enough, and pleasant enough in appearance, to be offered to company. 

My favourite recipe has spots of several colours.  It’s adapted from Jamie Oliver, who offered it in his book “The Naked Chef.”  You'll need a kitchen scale. Many of the quantities are given by weight.

Suet is not often available in stores here, other than at Christmas time.  If you can’t find it, substitute an equal quantity of butter, frozen and then grated on a box grater.

4oz suet
1 lb mixture of currants, dried cranberries, and finely chopped dried apricot
zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange
4oz all purpose flour
4oz sugar
4oz breadcrumbs
1 level teaspoon ground ginger (or to taste)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg, grated
pinch of salt
1 egg
about 2-1/2 cups of milk

Grease a 1.5 quart pudding basin or Pyrex bowl.  Mix all the ingredients together, except the egg and milk.  Add the beaten egg and milk and mix well.  Put the mixture in the basin, cover with the top with a circle of brown paper much larger than the top of the pot.  Tie the paper cover tightly onto the bowl, and then trim away most of the excess paper.  Put the basin in a pan with water half-way up the sides of the basin.  Bring the water to the boil, put on a tight fitting lid, and simmer for 3 hours, remembering to top the pot up with boiling water now and then.

Serve Spotted Dick hot, with custard sauce and—if you are being very British—a little Lyle’s golden syrup. 

Some grocers stock custard sauce (also called poured custard) in the dairy aisle but, if you can’t find it there, you can easily make your own.  It does requires some prior planning though, because the sauce should be made a day ahead and then chilled.

To make custard sauce, you’ll need:

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla

Bring the milk and sugar to a simmer in a saucepan without stirring. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until blended, then gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the yolks. Return the custard to its saucepan and cook it over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens enough to coat back of a wooden spoon and registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer.

Immediately pour the custard sauce through a fine sieve into a metal bowl and place the bowl in a large bowl of ice and cold water. Stir in the vanilla and then place a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the top of the custard, covering the surface of the sauce completely.  This will prevent a skin from forming on the top of the sauce.

When the sauce has cooled to about 90°F, place it in the fridge to chill completely.

So there you have it:  Traditional English cooking at its best.  Please do try it.  If you have to stifle a giggle at the name, that’s just fine with me.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

70's Bride

There are fads in wedding gifts just as there are fads in fashion.  Back when my mom got married in the 50’s, the Pyrex glass percolator was big, along with steam irons.  In the 70’s almost every new bride received a slow cooker.  Brides in the 90’s got bread machines and brides now seem to be receiving those fancy single cup coffee brewing stations.  Of all of them, I think the 70’s brides got the best deal. 

I love my slow cooker.  In fact, I love my slow cookers.  I have three of them and all three see regular use in my kitchen.  They may not be a fashionable way to cook but they use less energy than an oven or a stove top burner and, because they do their job without requiring supervision, they are very convenient.

I use my slow cookers for all sorts of things:  

  • If my stove burners are all occupied, a slow cooker is a great vessel for making stock. 
  • Foil wrapped potatoes can be prepared in a slow cooker, providing baked potatoes for a company dinner while leaving the oven free for other chores.
  • Dried beans are much less expensive than canned beans but time consuming to prepare.  If I soak them overnight, I can drain them, transfer them to a slow cooker, add stock and seasoning and then ignore them until dinner time, confident that they’ll be cooked to perfection.
  • Roasts of all sorts—including chicken—can be cooked in a slow cooker.  I prepare them the night before and store them in the fridge, putting them on to cook first thing in the morning.
  • Stews are actually better if cooked in a slow cooker than on the stove.
  • Baked pasta dishes and other casseroles can be prepared in a slow cooker.
  • If I have a house full of company, I can start a pot of steel cut oats before I go to bed, knowing I’ll have a hot breakfast ready when I get up in the morning.
  • Bread puddings, rice puddings and fruit cobblers have all found their way into my slow cookers.
  • Over the holidays they become impromptu punch bowls, keeping apple cider, hot toddies or winter sangria warm and convenient to my guests. 

I’m sure there are countless other ways to use a slow cooker and I’m open to learning them all.  I think I’ll invest in some magazines.  I see that many of them are featuring slow cooker meals these days.  Right now though, I’ll count my blessings.  I’m fortunate, indeed, to have been a 70’s bride.  A bread maker wouldn’t have been nearly as versatile.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Waffles for Supper (Not What You Think)

We had waffles for supper tonight; savoury waffles made with onion and herbs, topped with chicken and mushrooms in gravy.  They were excellent.

For those of you who only think of waffles as food that travels from a box in the freezer to the toaster on hurried weekday mornings, or those of you who think of them as a sweet plateful of scratch-made love at a leisurely Sunday breakfast, savoury waffles will be an eye-opener.  They’re easy and quick to make and they’re excellent refrigerator Velcro.  They can transform just about any savoury ingredient in your fridge into a tasty supper. 

I’d really like you to try these waffles so I’ve provided the recipe below.  Feel free to adapt the seasonings to suit the toppings you have on hand.  (I’m particularly fond of parsley, dill and lemon rind if I’m serving seafood.)  You can top the waffles with just about anything; if it can be served on pasta or potatoes or rice, it’ll work on waffles, too.

This recipe makes 6 waffles in my waffle iron. 

6 Tbsp. butter
2 c. flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley leaves
1/2 tsp. dried, rubbed sage
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1-3/4 c. milk
2 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 Tbsp. grated onion

Heat your waffle iron.  Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan, over low heat, and then set it aside to cool slightly. 

In a medium size bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the herbs. Toss the dry ingredients with a fork until the herbs are mixed through and lightly coated with flour.  Set aside.

Beat the milk, egg yolks and grated onion into the melted butter then stir the wet mixture into the flour mixture just until the flour is moistened.

In a small bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Fold the whites into the waffle batter.

Pour enough batter over the waffle iron to cover 2/3 of the grid.  Using a metal spatula, spread the batter to the edges of the grid.  Close the lid and cook the waffles until the steam stops.  When the waffle is done, remove it from the iron with a fork.  Transfer the finished waffle to a wire rack on a baking sheet.  Keep finished waffles warm in the oven until the entire batch is cooked and ready to serve. 

Photo by:  James Starmer

Monday 25 April 2011

Wascawy Wabbit!

It used to be that when times were hard, you could find at least one home in each neighbourhood with a rabbit hutch in the back yard.  We’re not seeing those rabbit hutches this time ‘round and that’s a shame.  A good source of lean protein, rabbits can be raised in a very small space, and for very little money.  Because they breed like…well…like rabbits, they can provide a good quantity of healthy protein to feed a hungry family. 

One rabbit buck and three does will provide about ninety-six fryers each year.  If butchered at weaning age, each fryer will average about four and a half pounds, with one hundred thirty three grams of protein per pound.  That’s only slightly less protein than is found in roast sirloin, and rabbit is much less expensive and much more environmentally friendly to produce.

Rabbit is easy to cook.  Like poultry, it should be cooked through; never served rare.  It’s very lean so it works well in braised dishes or stews.  It can be fried like chicken if marinated or brined for a few hours prior to cooking.  Rabbit pie is also very tasty.  Rabbit meat is so lean that if you are planning to use rabbit as ground meat or in sausage, you’ll need to add some fat.  I find that one part ground bacon to three parts ground rabbit works quite well.

Despite the ease and affordability of raising rabbits, rabbit meat is hard to come by.  I’m on the search for a butcher or a farmer who will sell me some, but have yet to find one. If you know someone on southern Vancouver Island who’s selling rabbit meat, please let me know.

Friday 22 April 2011

Investing in Stock

Cooking as much as I do has the potential to generate a fair bit of waste.  Stock is an important tool in my kitchen:  It reduces waste and it provides a flavour base for many of my dishes. 

My stock pot can almost always be found simmering on the back burner of my stove.  The outside leaves of the cabbage, the ends of tomatoes, turnip peels, left-over carrot sticks, celery trimmings, small ends of cooked meats and deli cuts, chicken and turkey carcasses, and left over beef and pork bones all find a home there, together with aromatics like garlic and bay.. 

I usually start my stock on Sunday, and continue to add to it throughout the week.  I strain it, cool it, and refrigerate it each night.  The following day, I bring it to a full, rolling boil and check to ensure it’s wholesome before reducing it to a simmer and adding new ingredients.  I don’t salt my stock until I’m actually using it in a dish. 

I use stock for a lot of things.  I make soup from it, of course, and gravy.  I cook rice in it. If I’m making mashed potatoes I cook my spuds in it. I use it to flavour pasta sauces, and to cook dumplings.  If I have a surplus, I freeze it. A good supply of stock is invaluable.

We’re all thinking green these days so why not consider making your own stock?  It’ll reduce your kitchen waste, it’s economical to make, and you won’t be sending all those cardboard containers to the landfill.  It’ll probably taste better than the store-bought stuff too.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Lack of Spring Greens Nettling You?

With field produce still waiting to be sown, the appearance of wild greens is something to celebrate.  With that in mind, the Alderlea Farm is hosting a stinging nettle festival today. 

Most of us thing of stinging nettles as an irritant—something to be avoided when walking in the woods—but they’ve long been used as food.  If soaked in water or cooked, nettles lose their sting and have a pleasant taste that is not unlike spinach.  They are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium.  In their peak season, stinging nettles contain up to 25% protein (dry weight), which is high for a leafy green vegetable.

Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, including soup, polenta and pesto.  They’re used as flavouring in some varieties of Gouda.  In Nepal and in the Kumaon region of Northern India, stinging nettle is known as shishnu. It's cooked with Indian spices and is a very popular component of the local cuisine.

I will confess that I rarely cook nettles, and then only in soup, but I would be interested to learn more about preparing them.  I’m unable to attend the festival today, but I do plan on visiting the farm later in the week in the hope that they’ll share some recipes with me.

I admire Alderlea Farm’s creativity in using this seasonal green as a means of drawing people to the farm. If you are interested in attending the stinging nettle festival you can find out more about it by visiting the farm’s website.  They’ve posted a schedule of events at

Thursday 14 April 2011

Messing With a Classic

This week I was asked to make a wedding cake, from the groom’s mother’s carrot cake recipe.  I was honoured to take the job.

The carrot cake recipe I was given harks back to the 70’s, with shredded carrot, some crushed pineapple, and a LOT of oil.  I made a test cake and, sure enough, it tasted just like the carrot cakes I remember from back in the day.  Unfortunately the very moist texture of the cake meant that when I tried to layer it, it wanted to collapse in on itself.

I don’t usually like messing with the classics.  Recipes that have been around for 40 years have lasted for a reason.  People like them just the way they are.  If the wedding cake was to be constructed though, changes had to be made.

During the first low fat fad that followed hippie-dom’s hey day, a number of cookbooks were written to address oil-laden recipes like carrot cake.  Although I don’t like many of the recipes from those books, one thing that stuck with me was the suggestion that you can substitute applesauce for vegetable oil.  Applesauce is one of the few ingredients that can replicate the mouth-feel that oil provides.

With substitution in mind, I set to work and—after several tries—arrived at a recipe.  I ended up substituting applesauce for 2/3 of the oil called for in the original recipe, and baking the cake for a longer time at a lower temperature.  So far it’s working out pretty well. The texture will work for my wedding cake construction.  More importantly, the cake tastes close enough to the original recipe to please the groom. 

I guess you can mess with the classics from time to time after all.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Time for a Little Kitchen Therapy

I attended a particularly unpleasant meeting tonight and, having forgone supper in order to attend, I left the meeting both angry and with a growling stomach.  What does one eat when overcome with the need to rant and to pace back and forth while shaking your fists?  My husband, bless his heart, knew just the thing.  He drove me home and cooked me a late supper of blood rare steak and baked potatoes.

Was it the blood rare steak that calmed me or just the act of sitting down and focusing on my meal?  I don’t rightly know.  Perhaps it was both.

I do know that I often find myself in the kitchen when I’m upset.  The process of cooking—the measuring and assembling—requires my attention and gives me something to focus on.  Then, too, there is the satisfaction of making something you know to be good and of having the opportunity to share that something with others.

I’m still steamed (I probably will be for a while) but I’m headed to the kitchen now for a little cooking therapy.


Monday 11 April 2011

What's Up With That?

When I was in my twenties, and even when I was a thirty-something, I read articles about health and nutrition with great interest.  Now, though, I tend to take them with a grain of salt because much of what I read then is now being contradicted.  Many of the foods I chose to forgo in the interest of better health are now being heralded as healthful.  What’s up with that?

Chocolate was once touted as the road to weight gain, acne, hyperactivity, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Now we’re told that chocolate (in its purest form, not the stuff in your Mars bar) is actually good for us.  Chocolate is extraordinarily high in anti-oxidants.  The USDA published a chart of antioxidant foods measured in ORACs (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity Units). For every 100 grams, dark chocolate has 13,120 ORACs, and blueberries have only 2,400.  Antioxidant-rich diets have been linked to a lowered risk of heart attacks, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer's and more. So it stands to reason that if chocolate is chock full of antioxidants, it's actually good for you.[i]

Avocado is another one.  When I was in my twenties, I was told that avocados were to be avoided because they were high in oil and very fattening.  Now we are told that avocados are sodium and cholesterol-free and have only five grams of fat per serving, most of it monounsaturated, making them a great substitution for foods rich in saturated fat. Avocados provide nearly 20 essential nutrients, including fiber, potassium, Vitamin E, B-vitamins and folic acid. They also act as a "nutrient booster" by enabling the body to absorb more fat-soluble nutrients, such as alpha and beta-carotene and lutein, in foods that are eaten with the fruit.[ii]

As far as I know, no one has found a way to add coffee to the healthy side of the ledger but they’ve certainly done so for tea.  Tea contains antioxidants that benefit heart health and help to fight cancer.  It hinders the activity of two enzymes in the brain that contribute to Alzheimers.  Tea also contains fluoride and active antibiotics that kill off decay-promoting bacteria in the mouth so it’s good for your teeth.[iii]

It seems that even lard is being given the thumbs-up.  Naturally occurring, unprocessed animal fats don’t contain trans fats.  New York City's health commissioner recently compared trans fats to such health hazards as lead and asbestos. By that standard lard, which is free from trans fats, is healthier for you than vegetable shortening, margarine, and even butter.  Lard contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). Its level of monounsaturated fat is 45 percent.  Butter’s level of monounsaturated fat is 23 percent.[iv]

So…If nutrition experts now are contradicting what nutrition experts told us then, how do we choose the healthiest possible diet?  I think the answer’s really pretty simple:  Eat a wide variety of foods, grown as close to home as possible, as close to their natural state as possible.  Avoid foods that have been “messed around with.”  I think Michael Symon has it right when he says “ok let me get this straight...heart conditions have doubled since the popularity of butter substitutes...obesity has doubled since the popularity of light and diet foods...and diabetes has quadrupled since the birth of diet soft drinks...huh?....EAT REAL FOOD!!!”


Photo credit:

Saturday 9 April 2011

Pantry Supper

There are times when, having cooked all day for my customers, I’m ill inclined to cook dinner for the two of us.  On those days, rotisserie chicken is my favourite take out supper.

I never feel guilty for bringing home a rotisserie chicken.  It’s often less expensive than an uncooked chicken from the meat counter and, served with some rice and a salad, it makes a nutritious meal. I like the leftovers too.  I can make a sandwich supper, a casserole, or a pasta dish from the left over meat and then use the carcass to make stock.

We had rotisserie chicken for supper last night so tonight I planned on sandwiches.  I didn’t want to go to the store so I looked in the fridge and pantry and then planned my menu accordingly. 

I baked white bread today so I knew what my sandwiches would be built on.  I added savoury cranberry relish, chicken breast meat, brie, and thinly sliced granny smith apples.  Once the sandwiches were assembled, I buttered each side and grilled them until they were golden brown.  I finished them in a 350 degree oven just until the cheese was melted. I served my chicken sandwiches with homemade tomato soup.  Heaven!

It’s easy to forget how comforting soup and a grilled cheese sandwich can be, but I’m tired today and grateful for the ease this kind of supper brings.  I’m also very pleased that my sandwich experiment turned out so well.  It’s a good day when you can produce such a lovely supper from just what you have on hand.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

Hors d’oeuvres, amuses bouche, canapés, finger food…Whatever you call them, I’ve promised to produce 400 of them for an open house tomorrow. 

Prep is the big thing in this project:  Once all of the components are ready, the finished pieces can be put together assembly line style.  Good planning is important on a job like this.  Good knife skills are important too.  It wouldn’t be good to run out of an ingredient in the middle of prep (which usually falls around 1:00 am, when the grocery store are closed), nor would it be acceptable to have some servings larger or smaller than the rest.  Consistency, consistency, consistency is the mantra of the day.

So where is the creativity in a job like this?  It’s in the planning of the menu and in the way the finished dishes are assembled.  A good tray of hors d’oeuvres can be as pretty as a painting.  It should look so inviting that people can’t wait to sample it.

How do you work your way through all that prep without being bored out of your mind?  I listen to books on tape while I work and, when I’m weary, I remind myself that all this effort will lead to a beautiful and tasty end result.

Wednesday 6 April 2011


While I was researching my blog on Froot Loops I came upon an article about Cap’n Crunch.  Did you know that the promotional material and the cast of characters for Cap’n Crunch were designed first, and then a cereal made to fit with the promotion?  Pretty interesting, eh?

The big hook that gets buyers to purchase Cap’n Crunch is that it stays crunchy even in milk.  I’m not sure I want to know how they managed that (Do you remember Chevy Chase talking about “non-nutrative cereal varnish” in Christmas Vacation?) but I do know that the folks in the food lab have a very good understanding of their market.

Crunch is a big thing for us.  We value its texture in our food and, for the home cook, it can be a challenging thing to attain.  Most of us don’t fire up the deep fryer on a regular basis and we certainly don’t have a food chemistry lab in the room behind our kitchens.  Without them, it’s hard to add crunchy texture to our dinner table fare.

Without deep frying, crunchy textures are easiest to achieve through candy making or baking.  Unlike the rapid seer that creates crunch in a fryer, crunch in sugary foods is attained by cooking sugar at high temperatures.  When heated to a high enough temperature, sugar becomes brittle and that brittleness translates into crunch.

We can also achieve a crunchy texture by coating our food with crumbs (especially Panko), cornmeal, nuts, or dry cheeses like Parmesan before baking them.  In fact, Parmesan cheese when baked by itself, with no added ingredients, will yield a thin, crunchy wafer.

At the end of the day, though, the best way to create a crunchy texture in our food remains deep frying.  I’m not saying we should do it every day or even every week but once in a while, as a special treat, a dish from the fryer doesn’t go amiss.

When we do get the fryer out at our house, crispy onions are a favourite treat.  As with many of my dishes, making them is more a matter of technique than one of following a specific recipe.  If you’d like to try them too, here’s how:

Cut sweet or red onions in half and then slice them thinly.  Toss the slices to separate the individual pieces.  Put the onion pieces in a zipper lock bag and marinate them for several hours—or overnight—in a mixture of buttermilk, salt, pepper, and a little hot sauce.  When you’re ready to cook them, turn the onions and their marinade out into a bowl.  Stir in enough cornstarch to make a batter that is about the consistency of pancake batter.  Fry the battered onions in 350 degree oil until golden and crisp.  It won’t take long; just a couple of minutes.  Salt the cooked onions as soon as they come out of the fryer.  Place them on a wire rack set into a sheet pan and keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you finish cooking the rest of the batch.  Once the entire batch is cooked, serve them immediately. 

Crispy onions don’t store worth a darn and get soggy when reheated, so cook only as many as you need and enjoy this special treat as soon as it comes off the stove. CRUNCH!

Monday 4 April 2011


Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I’m obsessed with Top Chef.  When I first tuned into it a couple of seasons ago, I had no idea it would hook me.  But it has.  I’ve watched Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, and now Top Chef All Stars.  I find myself scheduling my social events and even my work in such a way as to ensure I won’t miss an episode. 

It’s not that I aspire to the level of excellence the Top Chef competitors have attained. I have a pretty good skill set and, although I strive constantly to improve it, I don’t aspire to running a kitchen full of sous chefs or to serving haute cuisine.

What, then, is it that fascinates me about this series?  I think it’s the passion these people bring to their work.  There’s a lot of hard work invested in any chef’s career.  Long hours, poor pay, and lack of job security are but a few of the challenges that face every young chef.  In the end though, every single one of the Top Chef competitors has earned their way to success through doing what they love, and doing it with passion.  That’s pretty rare these days and I admire (and envy) it greatly.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Froot and Fiber?

I was in the grocery line up yesterday, behind a young couple doing their weekly shopping.  The mom held a box of Froot Loops in her hands and was justifying the purchase to her husband by pointing out the large banner on the front of the box that said “Now Contains Fiber.”  It got me wondering:  What is the recommended daily fiber intake for a child? And does the fiber in Froot Loops provide enough of a health benefit to offset the oils, food colouring, and empty sugar calories? 

The answer to the first question is that, if a child is under the age of nine, their daily recommended fiber intake is equal to their age plus 5.  Thus, a child of two would have a recommended daily intake of 7 grams of fiber and a child of eight would have a recommended daily intake of 14 grams of fiber.  The recommended daily intake for girls aged nine to eighteen is 25 grams of fiber and the recommended daily intake for boys aged nine to eighteen is 31 to 38  grams of fiber.

A one cup serving of Froot Loops provides 3 grams of fiber, which would make up a significant portion of the fiber requirement for a two-year-old but wouldn’t make much of a dent in that of an eighteen-year-old boy. 

Here is the list of ingredients for Froot Loops, as provided by Kellogs:


I find it interesting that Froot Loops contain no fruit and that sugar makes up 44% of the 118 calories found in a one cup serving.

A one cup serving of oatmeal (rolled oats, not instant) contains 110 calories and 4 grams of fiber.  Unless you add it, it does not contain sugar.  It certainly doesn’t contain any of the oils, food colourings, or preservatives found in Froot Loops, and it’s less expensive. 

I understand the appeal of Froot Loops.  I love them myself.  They’re colourful and they’re fun.  They’re certainly more appealing to the eye than a bowl of oatmeal, and that makes it easier to get kids to eat them. 

Froot Loops are probably a healthier snack than potato chips or chocolate bars, but a good source of nutrition they are not.  Don’t be lured by that “Now Contains Fiber” banner.  Buy the sugar cereal once in a while for a treat but stick to the cheaper, healthier alternative for every-day breakfasts.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Icecream and Memories

Every town has a few places that they feel are distinct, unique to them, and part of the special character of their community.  In Victoria there’s the Empress Hotel, the legislative building, Beacon Hill Park…and the Beacon Drive In. 

The Beacon Drive In’s been serving burgers, dogs and ice cream to hungry sightseers since 1958. The patio’s a little more tarted up than it used to be but the building remains much the same as it always was.  I don’t think the menu has changed much either.

Located on Douglas Street, just a couple of blocks from the ocean and right opposite the main entrance to Beacon Hill Park, the restaurant is always busy.  Even in the winter months, when tourism is at its lowest ebb, a devoted group of local customers keep the Beacon Drive In hopping.

We went to the drive in today, for lunch, and while we were enjoying our burgers and shakes we noticed a constant stream of customers buying ice cream.  That might not be unusual in July but in early April, on a cold, blustery day, it bears remarking upon. 

Just why is the ice cream at the Beacon Drive In so popular?  Well…like the building and the rest of the menu, the soft ice cream they serve at the drive in hasn’t changed much in more than 50 years.  While other restaurants and take out places have bowed to health concerns and rising food costs by switching to ice milk, the Beacon Drive In still serves deliciously smooth, full fat, soft ice cream.

I vividly remember my first ice cream cone from the Beacon Drive In:  I was 8 years old and we had come to the park for a picnic.  It was August.  The grass on the slope of Beacon Hill was yellow and dry, the day was smoking hot, and I’m sure we kids were getting cranky from the heat.  Dad pulled the family station wagon into the cramped parking lot at the drive in and told us to wait in the car.  We complained.  Loudly.  Then Dad returned to the car with an ice cream cone for each of us, and what must have been a blessed silence ensued.  He drove us to Clover Point, where the cooling breeze off the water and that perfect, creamy smooth ice cream made the best of endings to our day out.

Since that first Beacon Drive In ice cream cone, I’ve been back many times and I’ve bought more than a few “first cones” for the kids in my life.  No matter how often I visit, though, the memory of that first ice cream cone on that hot August day comes to mind. When I talk to other diners at the drive in, they tell me that the place evokes fond memories for them too.

So what is it that makes a place like the Beacon Drive In part of the fabric of a community?  It’s just one of the thousand threads woven into the greater whole, each drawn through the loom on the strength of a memory.

Friday 1 April 2011

Humble Ingredient, Kitchen Star

“You can feed everyone sandwiches and if your kitchen smells like onions they’ll think you’ve been cooking all day.”  -Ina Garten

I love the smell of cooking onions.  Like Ina, I think they signal a cook’s presence in the kitchen.  I respond to the scent of cooking onions this way because we so rarely cook without them.  Onions are the architectural underpinning to most of our savoury dishes.  This is true world-wide.

Funnily, the onion’s importance in our diet has led it to be taken for granted.  It’s so common in our kitchens that we scarcely think of it at all.  Rarely do we make it the star of the show.  Think now:  When (if ever) was the last time you served a main dish in which onion was the predominant flavour?

I caramelize onions, pickle them, sauté them, bake them, deep fry them, and—of course—use them as an aromatic in virtually all my soups and stews.  Despite this, they don’t often achieve main dish status at my house.  I do make an onion tart from time to time, but that’s about it. 

Do you have an onion main dish that is popular at your house?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.