Thursday's Child: St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I said it last week, but it bears repeating: Europe is so magnificent that even the less popular cities are full of astonishing beauty.

Before we planned this summer’s trip, the only thing I knew about Krakow was its reputation for being the loveliest city in Poland. I couldn’t have told you anything else, but because it was a not-too-distant drive from Berlin (our other destination), it made for an intriguing choice.

Of course I read about Krakow before we went. But even so, I was awestruck at the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica. Located just off Krakow’s Main Market Square, we visited the basilica because, well, it was supposed to be beautiful and we were in the area.

Then we walked into a place of worship that’s the equal of anything else we’ve seen. As gorgeous as Notre Dame. As impressive as Hagia Sophia. As ornate as St Petersburg’s Church on Spilled Blood

And the trip planner, the one who blogs about her travels and constantly dreams about where she'll go next, hadn't even heard of it before this summer.

St. Mary’s is home to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. This three-panelled carving depicts the lives of Jesus and Mary. Carved from linden wood, the altarpiece is made up of over 200 figures and decorations. It’s considered one of Poland’s great treasures, and was dismantled and hidden for part of the Second World War, although it was later discovered and taken to Germany. It survived heavy bombing and was returned to Krakow in 1957.

The altarpiece, the vaulted stained glass windows, and the high cobalt ceilings dotted with golden stars, all added to the sense of magnificence. My words won’t do it justice, but I hope our photos can.

The exterior of the church is equally fascinating as what lays inside, and that’s because of the legend attached to it.

We were fortunate to be near the basilica at noon, because of the tradition that takes place there, on the hour, every hour, every day of the year. After the clock chimes, a trumpet player enters the ornate watchtower and plays a short tune four times, once each through the north, south, east and west windows. Each time he plays a few bars, then stops abruptly. (The entire ritual is played daily on Polish National Radio at noon.)

Of course, there’s a reason for that. The tune is the hejnal, a short piece of music that used to be played at the opening and closing of the city gates, and as a warning of fire or enemy activity. During the Tartar invasions in 1241, a watchman in the tower noticed invaders preparing to climb the city walls to attack it. He played his trumpet to warn the townspeople of danger. The enemies saw him and pierced his throat with an arrow in the middle of the song. But in the meantime, his warning had given Krakow citizens ample time to meet the challenge.

See the trumpet, just inside the upper central window?
And in an enduring tribute, they play the shortened tune in his honour, once an hour, every day of the year.

A stunning church with a bittersweet story? It just doesn’t get any better than that.*

*Yes, there are other, more prosaic legends behind this tradition. But this is the story I like the best, and I’m sticking with it.

All-season quesadillas

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honourable career:
For the sake of others,

- from "The Traveling Onion" by Naomi Shihab Nye

It seems like a transition of seasons right now. Warm enough to eat brunch outside today, cool enough to need a sweater while doing it. Warm enough to buy swiss chard and onions at the farmers' market, but cool enough to turn them into quesadillas.

The hardest part of posting a quesadilla recipe is taking a picture that does it justice. Generally, a photo of a cooked quesadilla makes it look a half-moon of fried bread. A photo of the ingredients before they're added to the quesadilla is more evocative, but doesn't tell the whole picture. I've compromised today by taking photos of the assembled but not-yet-cooked product, hoping it conveys just how delicious these quesadillas really are. Because whether it's the middle of summer or the coldest day in the winter, I could come up with a hundred good reasons why these quesadillas would be just right.

Swiss Chard and Caramelized Onions Quesadillas
(from Fresh From the Farm, by Susie Middleton)

1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (first amount)
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
kosher salt
1 tsp minced fresh garlic
4 cups thinly sliced Swiss chard leaves (from 8 ounces of chard, stemmed)
4 – 6” tortillas
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
4 tsp extra-virgin olive oil  (second amount)

In a small bowl, combine the sherry vinegar and honey.

In a 10” heavy nonstick skillet, melt the butter with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and 1/4 tsp kosher salt and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until the onions are very limp and light golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the Swiss chard and a pinch of salt to the pan and toss with tongs until wilted. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the vinegar-honey mixture on top, tossing well. Transfer the chard-onion mixture to a plate to cool a bit and wipe out the pan.

Return the pan to medium heat and add 1 tsp olive oil. When the oil is hot, add one tortilla to the pan. Place one quarter of the cheese over half the tortilla, then cover with a quarter of the chard-onion mixture. Fold the empty half of the tortilla over, and cook until browned on both sides. Keep warm until all the tortillas have been prepared and serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Main Market Square, Krakow, Poland

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Europe is full of treasures. So full, in fact, that it’s easy to focus on the most obvious ones – the grandeur of Rome, the romance of Paris, the poetry of Venice. But any time I visit one of its lesser-known cities, I’m reminded of how deep its treasures run, and how spectacular those other cities are.

That’s how I felt when we visited Krakow, Poland, earlier this summer. Other than its devastating history in the Second World War, I didn’t know much about it. While there, I was beguiled by the beauty of this Polish city that has so often been a target for foreign conquest, and that has had to live with a sorrowful past.

Tower detail

Fresco on one of the buildings surrounding the square
The focal point of Krakow is its Main Market Square. At nearly ten acres, it’s the largest city square in Europe, and is full of beautiful touches, like the mural and the tower detail pictured above. When Krakow was still the capital of Poland, and the country was a monarchy, royal processions often ran from outside the city at the north, through the town square to Wawel Castle in the Old Town’s southern section.

The photo at the top of the blog gives you a partial idea of what the square looks like. It shows the northern and eastern sides, rimmed by stores and restaurants. But what looks like the western side (at the left of the picture) is actually Cloth Hall, which bisects the square from north to south.
Cloth Hall
Cloth Hall was originally built as a centre for international trade. It had its beginnings sometime around the start of the fourteenth century, when a roof was erected over a number of commercial stalls. The current version was built in the mid-sixteenth century in a Renaissance style. At the peak of Cloth Hall’s importance, merchants brought exotic goods from the east to trade for local products. It still operates as a centre of commerce, as its first floor is lined with stalls selling amber, leather goods, crafts and other souvenirs.

View from tower
Originally, the town hall sat in the middle of the square too, but it was torn down in 1820, at the same time as many of the city’s defensive walls. The town hall tower was left standing, only because the protests of Krakow’s citizens prevented it from being torn down too.

Krakow’s Main Market Square has been called the world’s best, and having been there, it’s hard to disagree. It’s architecturally beautiful and has a majestic aura, but in addition it has been transformed into a lively gathering place that showcases some of the best of this wonderful city.
Town Hall Tower in Main Market Square

And what’s that lovely church that dominates the square? It’s St. Mary’s Basilica – more about that next week.
Taking pictures in Main Market Square


Sunday, August 10, 2014
"So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it."

- "Happiness", by Raymond Carver

Seven things that make me happy:

1. Raymond Carver's poem. And any moment of unexpected happiness that takes me by surprise.
2. Having the girls home for a day off from their jobs at camp.
3. Discovering a new book that's so well written, I fall in love with it. This year I've read a number of books that I've adored - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, This is How You Lose Her, Dear Life, and Road Ends, to name a few.
4. The scene in Singin' in the Rain, where Gene Kelly sings the intro to the title song.
5. Spending time with the people I love, my family and friends.
6. Spending time by myself.
7. Fresh fruit at the peak of the season, and the desserts I make with it.

This recipe almost merits a separate entry on the list, since it uses two of the freshest fruits available right now, peaches and raspberries. I've cut down the sugar quite a bit because raspberries and peaches are at their peaks, and they're nearly sweet enough on their own. If you're baking out of season or like a very sweet dessert, you could add more. Whatever makes you happy.

"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me."

- from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", by T.S. Eliot

Peach Raspberry Cobbler


6 sliced peaches (peeled)
2 cups raspberries
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Cobbler Topping:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar (first amount)
7 Tbsp cold butter
1 Tbsp cold shortening, cut into small cubes (if you have time, put it in the freezer for an hour)
7 Tbsp milk
1/2 – 1 Tbsp sugar (second amount)

Preheat oven to 375, and lightly butter a 2 quart casserole or 8 x 8” baking dish.

For the filling, gently toss peaches with raspberries, sugar, flour and cinnamon. Pour into prepared baking dish.

For the cobbler topping, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and 1 Tbsp sugar. Grate butter into the dry ingredients and add shortening cubes. With hands or a pastry blender, cut the butter and shortening into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the milk and toss with a fork until well combined. Remove from bowl and knead a few times until the mixture comes together. Cut into circles with a cookie cutter or overturned glass, and set on the fruit mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 – 1 Tbsp sugar.

Bake 45 minutes until topping is browned and mixture is bubbly. Cool slightly before serving. 


Sunday, July 27, 2014
"The world's joy
is spluttering,
sizzling in olive oil.
to be fried
enter the skillet,
snowy wings
of a morning swan -
and they leave
half-braised in gold,
gift of the crackling ember
of olives."

- from "Ode to Fried Potatoes" by Pablo Neruda

I come by my love of potatoes honestly. My mother's side of the family is entirely of Irish origin. Her father's great grandfather came to Canada in 1835, while her mother's great grandfather came in 1838. In other words, they were well-established Canadian settlers more than a decade before the Irish potato famine. My ancestors continued farming in Canada and, in fact, some still do. Growing up a farmer's daughter, I remember potatoes being part of nearly every supper my mom put on the table.

The potatoes in this recipe weren't fried, but everything else Neruda wrote about them is true. They entered the oven on snowy wings, and, once roasted, exited half-braised in gold. (I don't know about you, but just reading that line made me want to eat them all over again.) The potatoes came straight from the farmer's market, so good they required only the subtlest of add-ins, like the jade of green onions and Neruda's ember of olives.

Roasted Fingerling Potato Salad
(adapted from The Globe and Mail)

1 pound (1/2 kg) fingerling potatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1 Tbsp olive oil (first amount)
kosher salt or freshly ground sea salt
2 thinly sliced green onions (scallions), white and light green parts only
1/2 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup crumbled feta

1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp olive oil (second amount)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss potatoes with 1 Tbsp olive oil, and season with salt. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender. Cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine lemon juice and 1 Tbsp olive oil.

Toss potatoes with green onions, celery, parsley and red pepper flakes. Dress with the lemon juice mixture. Add feta and combine gently. Serve warm or at room temperature.

"I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them."

- Nora Ephron

Thursday's Child: Amherst Island, Ontario

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some of our travels take us closer to home than others. Last weekend we visited Amherst Island, a couple of hours east of Toronto, to visit a close friend and to enjoy one of the concerts in the annual Waterside Summer Series.
Andrew’s former piano teacher, Bev Harris, has been director of the summer series for ten years, but this was the first time we were able to go. We stayed in a bed and breakfast on the mainland, then took the ferry across to meet Bev (along with her cousin and husband, and two stepsons) for an early dinner at Stella’s Café, just around the corner from the ferry landing. We enjoyed meeting her family over a casual meal that ended with a slice of delicious homemade peach and cherry pie.

After eating, we drove to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, a lovely church that’s home to the music festival. The building was erected in 1883 by the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Northern Ireland who had immigrated to the island. That winter, they carried the limestone from the mainland over the ice of Lake Ontario, in horse-drawn sleighs. The church has been enlarged and renovated since then, and stained glass windows added, but the exterior dates back 131 years.

The church was completely full for the 7:15 show, which featured cellist Denise Djokic, her brother Marc on violin, and pianist David Jalbert. The performance was stellar, one of the best evenings of classical music I’ve ever attended. I loved the Sibelius pieces for violin and piano, and the Debussy sonata, but my favourite was the delightful “Spring” by Astor Piazzola. (How could I not have heard this wonderful piece of music before?)

After the show, we were invited as Bev’s guests to an after-party, where we met her neighbours on the island, as well as the performers. I was charmed by the friendly, down-to-earth musicians, especially Denise, who I spoke with at length. And I can see why Bev has so many performers that want to return year after year. The festival provides a rare chance to perform for a small, appreciative crowd, and then mingle with the audience after the show.

Bev and her group have done a terrific job putting together the music festival. I’m already looking forward to going back next year!

Double play

Sunday, July 20, 2014
Day 1: The Sauté 
These are the saddest of possible words:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double -
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

- "Baseball's Sad Lexicon" by Franklin Pierce Adams

For those who don't memorize baseball stats from a hundred years ago, Tinker, Evers and Chance were the triple-play combination on the Chicago Cubs teams of the early twentieth century. Although they weren't the most prolific triple-play infielders in history, thanks to this poem they're probably the most famous. The Cubs have not won a championship in 106 years (a record being avidly pursued by hockey's Toronto Maple Leafs).

The only thing better than your team turning a double play on the baseball field, is you turning a double play in the kitchen. I love to cook, but there's no greater satisfaction than getting two different meals from one preparation.

This dish, that uses vegetables available at the farmers' market now, is a great example. We ate it freshly sautéed for dinner a couple of nights ago, and thought it was terrific. The following day, Andrew and I enjoyed it for lunch baked into an omelet with a little added parmesan.

The only way to top that would be making a bigger batch, so I could make it into a frittata for that ever-elusive triple play.

Day 2: The Omelet
Corn and Yellow Bean Sauté with Bacon and Herbs
(from Fresh From the Farm, by Susie Middleton)

Note: For meal #2, I made a two-person omelet and added leftover sauté with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan. Next time I'd try it in a frittata with grated Gruyere.


2 strips bacon
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup small-diced yellow onions
kosher salt
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups small-diced yellow beans (or green beans)
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 or 3 ears)
1 tsp minced fresh garlic
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 lemon
1 Tbsp chopped fresh chives

Cook the bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until crisp. Transfer the bacon to paper towels and drain off all but 1 Tbsp of fat from the pan. Add the butter to the skillet and turn the heat to medium. When the butter has melted, add the onions and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and are just starting to brown, 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the olive oil, yellow bean, and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are somewhat shrunken and both the beans and onions are lightly browned, 5 to 6 minutes more. Add the corn kernels and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the corn is glistening, slightly shrunken, and slightly darker in colour, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until fragrant and well-mixed, about 1 minute. Crumble the bacon and add to the pan. Stir until heated through and remove the pan from the heat.

Season with a few generous grinds of pepper and a light squeeze of the lemon. Stir in the herbs. Let sit for another couple of minutes, then stir again, scraping the bottom of the pan, and season to taste with salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

Andrew suggested I tell my readers if you Tinker with the recipe, you might end up with something you'll love for-Evers. I told him there was no Chance I'd print a pun that bad. However, the blog post ain't over 'til it's over, so here it is.