Thursday's Child: The Isle of Skye

Thursday, March 5, 2015
There isn't any obvious reason why I'm writing about the Isle of Skye today: no particular news connections, and the weather isn't reminding me of anywhere other than the Antarctic, or perhaps the north of Siberia. But earlier this week, I had some old photo albums out and realized I'd never posted about our trip to this beautiful island when we visited Scotland in 2005.

Our day began with more interest for the adults than the children, as our first stop was at the Talisker Distillery. Andrew and I loved the tour, as well as the free sample we received on arrival. The girls were less enthusiastic, coming along on the tour but declining the dram of 10-year-old scotch eagerly offered by the proprietor. 


Facts about this distillery: at the time we visited, there were only six employees; the distillery was founded in 1830, meaning we visited during its 175th anniversary year; Talisker was reportedly Robert Louis Stevenson's favourite drink, and he mentioned it in his poem "The Scotsman's Return From Abroad."


Scotch tasting behind us, we set off for the real treat of the day - a seal-watching adventure. We put on protective rain gear supplied by the company and took off for a two-hour tour of the Sound of Sleat. 




Skye's Cuillin Mountains were beautiful, as were the myriad of inlets along the coast. We saw multitudes of seals and flocks of seabirds - and a single basking shark. But the highlight of the trip, according to the girls, was getting drenched in the sea spray, and arriving back at the dock soaking wet, despite all that protective gear!




Winter soup

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street -
The House was hooked,
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat - "

- from "Like Brooms of Steel", Emily Dickinson

Is the beginning of March too late to post a soup recipe? I feel like I've made more soup this winter than ever before, and with good reason. February 2015 was officially the coldest month in Toronto history. I spent most of the month looking for food that might warm me from the inside out.

I think I've made this soup every winter since I've been married. Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and bean soup) is comfort food at its easiest and most warming. I don't know where I got the recipe, but I urge you to try it. Because from the sound of the weather forecast, we've still got a few weeks of winter yet to come.


Pasta e Fagioli

5 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 – 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 cups chicken broth
19 ounce can white beans, rinsed well and drained
2 cups drained canned tomatoes (drain before measuring)
1/2 cup dried macaroni

In a heavy saucepan, cook the bacon until browned and beginning to crisp. Add onion and stir until golden brown. Add garlic, celery and carrot and stir for 2 – 3 minutes.

Remove pan from the heat and drain fat. Return to heat and add chicken broth, stirring to combine.

In a bowl, mash about a third of the white beans. Add mashed and whole beans to the soup, along with the tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add macaroni and simmer until al dente, about 6 – 8 minutes or according to directions on the package.

Add chicken broth as required (soup will thicken as it stands).


Thursday's Child: Miami, Florida

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Last week, I wrote about spending some time in Key Largo over the Christmas holidays. Before coming home, we spent a couple of nights in Miami, which meant we had time to see the two districts I was most interested in – Little Havana and the Art Deco district.

Little Havana was first established by Cuban immigrants, many of whom settled in Miami because of its proximity to their homeland. More recently, it has welcomed other Central and Southern American immigrants, but the Cuban influence remains strong.



Calle Ocho (8th Street) is the hub of Little Havana. We began our walk at the Brigade 2506 Memorial. This statue was erected in honour of the Cuban exiles who were killed attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.





Calle Ocho is rich with Latin influences. We ate Cuban ice cream, and saw art galleries, a cigar factory, and the Cuban Walk of Fame. Of note, one of the recipients of a star on the Walk of Fame is singer Gloria Estefan. Her father was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured and given a 30-year prison sentence. Two years later, he and the other American prisoners were returned to Miami after $62 million in ransom money was paid.



We couldn’t leave Little Havana without having lunch at its most famous restaurant, Versailles. Even at noon, the line to get in was formidable. It was worth the wait. The menu was huge, but I had to try the traditional Cuban ropa vieja (shredded beef). It was terrific.


Our hotel was located in the Art Deco district, and a neighbourhood walk was on my must-do list. The Hotel of South Beach has retained its beautiful Tiffany tower from when it was a hotel of the same name.  The original Tiffany Hotel was designed by L. Murray Dixon, a leading architect who designed many other buildings in the district (including the Tides, the Raleigh and the Regent hotels).

Walking north on Ocean Drive and back along Collins and Washington Avenues, we had our cameras out full-time. Most of the buildings were, of course, in Art Deco design. The Breakwater Hotel (pictured at the top of the blog) pays homage to a Mayan Temple, while other buildings were built in Streamline Moderne or Mediterranean Revival styles.

Here are some of the beautiful buildings, and one interior, that impressed us.








We loved this gorgeous antique car parked on Ocean Drive:


Sunrise at South Beach:



Key Lime Pie

Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's hard to believe I haven't posted my recipe for Key Lime Pie yet. It's one of my most time- and ingredient-splattered recipe cards for good reason: we all love it.

When we visited Key Largo over the Christmas holidays, I made it my personal mission to find the best Key Lime Pie in the state of Florida. I tasted some great ones, but I didn't find one that I like better than the one we eat at home.

This recipe has long roots. When I was in eighth grade, my family went to Florida. I came back with three things: a key chain from Disney World, a barely detectable suntan, and a recipe for Key Lime Pie. My mother made it for years, and when I moved out, it was one of the first recipes she gave me. The only significant change I've made is using fresh limes, even if I can't get key limes. To my taste, fresh limes always trump tinned key lime juice.

(By the way, as of last Tuesday, I've given up sweets for Lent, so this is the last dessert recipe I'll post for six weeks. Hope you don't mind coming along for the ride.)

Key Lime Pie
(recipe taken from the front of a postcard)

Shell:

1 cup graham wafer crumbs
1/3 cup melted butter
1 Tbsp sugar

Filling:

1 can condensed milk, chilled
4 egg yolks
3 ounces fresh lime juice
1 egg white (first amount)

Meringue topping:

3 egg whites (second amount)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 Tbsp sugar

To make the pie shell, combine crumbs, butter and sugar and pat them into a 9" pie dish. Chill in fridge at least 10 minutes before adding filling.

To make filling, beat condensed milk, yolks and lime juice until thick. In a separate bowl, beat 1 egg white until stiff. Fold into the lime mixture until just incorporated and pour into the crumb crust. (At this point, pie can be frozen or refrigerated until almost ready to serve. I like putting it in the freezer for a couple of hours to firm it up. Remove from freezer 10 minutes before serving.)

To make meringue topping, beat 3 egg whites, adding cream of tartar and sugar, until stiff. Cover pie with meringue and put under the broiler until browned. Serve.


Gwen, my mom and I in the Florida Keys



Thursday's Child: Key Largo, Florida

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Every winter it happens. The day arrives when I'm tired of the cold, and I just want to remember being warm. When I'm tired of the snow, and I want to remember leaving my house without swaddling myself in layers.

Today is that day. Not a lot of words, just a few photos from a recent trip to Key Largo.

Beautiful sunrises:



And gorgeous sunsets:





Family time spent kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, reading and relaxing:





Paradise!



Recipes Inspired by Musicals: Fiddler on the Roof

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Even if you’ve never seen Fiddler on the Roof, you likely know its most famous song. In “If I Were a Rich Man”, the Russian peasant Tevye sings about what he’d do if he had a lot of money:

“I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen,
Right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below.
There would be one long staircase just going up,
And one even longer coming down,
And one more leading nowhere, just for show.”

But the great music doesn’t stop there – “Sunrise, Sunset” is wistful, “Miracles of Miracles” is charming, and “Tradition” is the showstopping opening number.

I’ve written before that Andrew’s favourite musical of all time was Damn Yankees, but Fiddler on the Roof would be a very close second. When we saw it in New York, Alfred Molina was cast as Tevye. He was brilliant, as was the rest of the cast.

Cabbage soup is thought of as a poor man’s food, a way to stretch your leftover ingredients into a meal. If that’s true, Tevye and his family must surely have eaten it as much as anything else. Cabbage soup is a traditional Russian food, probably because it’s hearty and warm, and it’s a great way to clean out your vegetable drawer.

And you know what? Even if I were a rich man, I’d still eat this soup.

Cabbage Soup
(adapted from my mother’s recipe file)

1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup diced celery
1 - 28 ounce can tomatoes
2 - 5 ounce cans tomato paste
3 cups beef broth (first amount)
2 cups raw potatoes, diced
1 cup raw carrot, diced
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
4 cups cabbage shredded very thinly
1/2 – 1 cup beef broth (second amount) (optional)

In a very large soup pot, saute ground beef until browned. Remove ground beef to another bowl and drain most of the fat. Saute onion and celery until soft and browned.
Add tomatoes, tomato paste, 3 cups beef broth, potatoes, carrots, bay leaves, salt and smoked paprika. Combine thoroughly.
Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove bay leaves and add cabbage. (Note: it’s easier if you do it in that order. I didn’t, and ended up doing a bit of a treasure hunt for the bay leaves.). Add 1/2 to 1 cup beef broth, if required, to thin the soup out a little bit. Combine thoroughly, making sure the cabbage is covered by the liquid. Simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Note: this makes quite a large batch. If you're eating the soup for more than one meal, you may need to thin it out again before heating and serving.



Recipes Inspired by Musicals: The Phantom of the Opera

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera was the must-see show in the late 1980s.  It told the story of a phantom who haunted the opera house in Paris, and Christine Daae, the understudy with whom he fell in love. Phantom has since gone out of style but, at the time, no one could resist its flamboyant charms. In terms of sheer drama and visual spectacle, it’s hard to think of anything that equaled it, either before or since.

A quick breakdown of that drama: The crew at the opera house frighten the others with tales of the mysterious Phantom who terrifies singers and wreaks havoc backstage. The Phantom kidnaps Christine, and takes her on a tour of the subterranean lake below the opera house. The main soloist, Carlotta, receives a note that reads:

“Your days at the Opera Populaire are numbered
Christine Daae will be singing on your behalf tonight
Be prepared for a great misfortune
Should you attempt to take her place.”

If that isn’t enough, Carlotta loses her voice, the stagehand who backs her is killed and his body shoved from the rafters, and a chandelier crashes to the ground.  All of this happens in the first act.

So, pretty much a normal day at the office.


The only kind of recipe that could be inspired by The Phantom of the Opera is one so ridiculously over the top, it’s beyond irony. So frivolous and sugary and extravagant, all you can do is stand back and appreciate it for what it is.

I found that recipe in the Meringue Girls cookbook. These squares are the culinary equivalent to Christine Daae’s highest trill, or to a weeping phantom being redeemed by a woman’s kindness.

It won’t be obvious, but I’ve actually given you the “sensible” version of the recipe. I cut back on the sugar by nearly one half, and cut the squares much smaller than the recipe suggested. (I got thirty squares, where the recipe suggested twelve. Not even in my most desperate sugar cravings could I eat one-twelfth of this pan of squares in one helping.)

The only “great misfortune” that will occur is if you never try these dramatic, luscious, unforgettable meringue squares.


Chocolate Chip Cookie Meringue Squares

For the cookie base:

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 1/3 cups chocolate chips

For the meringue:

1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
4 egg whites

1. To make the cookie base:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” x 13” baking pan with parchment paper, with some overhang on the long sides. 

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, beat the melted butter, brown sugar and sugar with a mixer until well blended, about 1 – 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla, egg and egg yolk until light and creamy, another 2 minutes. Mix in the dry ingredients with a spoon until just blended and a crumbly dough forms.

Gently press the dough into the bottom of the prepared baking sheet, making sure the surface is even. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the cookie dough and press them down lightly. Bake for 15 minutes, until the dough is just cooked but still soft. Using a knife, spread the chocolate evenly over the top. Let cool for at least 15 minutes.

2. To make the meringue:

Pour egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk on high speed just until the whites form stiff peaks. Add one tablespoonful of sugar after another to the bowl while still beating. Continue to whisk on high for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is smooth and the sugar fully incorporated.

3. To assemble:

Using a rubber spatula, dollop the meringue on the cookie base and spread it to the edges. Cut a sheet of parchment paper about the same size as the pan and lightly press it onto the meringue. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and bake for 5 minutes more, until the meringue peaks are lightly golden.

Let cool completely, then cut into 30 squares.