In the Beginning
Explore, trust your judgement and create!
Growing up on the farm, much to my mother’s chagrin, I really wasn’t interested in learning to bake pies or can vegetables … or cook anything for that matter. I preferred being outside, doing “men’s work” or driving a small tractor as fast as it would go around the property. I suppose it didn’t help that Mom – as awesome as she was in many other ways – was not a great cook. She was the product of her Anglo-Saxon-Canadian upbringing, so everything was pretty much boiled or fried to death, and meat served a little red or pink was just unfathomable! Dry Lipton’s soup mix and canned Campbell’s soup were her go-to’s. (She learned really well from my dad’s mother to make Polish/Ukrainian food, though – I’ll give her that.)
Even after I finished university and got married, I still wasn’t much into cooking … until our trip around the world (more on that in Travel). First, I fell in love with Thai cuisine. I had been there briefly on business, and it’s where we stayed the longest of the 17 countries we visited on our trip around the world. Seeing the amazing variety of fresh seafood and vegetables on display at every restaurant (many of which outside Bangkok were small huts) and tasting the diverse, exotic flavours ignited something in me. When we got home, I immediately set out to learn how to make Thai red curry (from scratch, with a mortar and pestle), Thai coconut chicken soup (Tom Kha Gai), proper Thai fried rice, etc.
On that big trip, we also spent a week in northern India. While my initial focus was on cooking Thai food at home, I gradually started cooking Indian, and then began exploring middle eastern, Indonesian and other cuisines.
India, as you know, is a huge country with a fascinating history. The sheer variety of Indian cuisine is mind-boggling – from the bold, savoury dishes of Punjab to the mild, sweet flavours in the south, and everything in between. What I find interesting about Indian cooking in general is how so many different spices are used – and often the same spices in slightly different combinations – to create that variety of unique tastes.
All this Thai and Indian cooking I did was before those cuisines caught on like wildfire in North America. In the small town where I lived, it was a challenge to find coriander (the best herb in the world IMO and very common in both Thai and Indian food). Most grocery clerks looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. But fast-forward a few years and along came the now-well-stocked International sections in the supermarkets with pre-made curry pastes, condiments, coconut milk, etc. and the plethora of Thai and Indian restaurants we now enjoy.
Of course, as a working mom, weekday meals had to be quick and easy. But I really didn’t want my kids growing up on fast food and frozen dinners. So I found some very good products that could quickly and easily be whipped up into a home-cooked meal.
Back in 2008 or so, a very good friend separated from her husband. He was an uber-picky eater, so up until then her meal choices were seriously limited. She loved all kinds of food but never cooked anything but plain “meat and potatoes” meals. After they separated, she spent a lot of time at my place and I gladly whipped up quick but interesting dinners for her. That inspired me to create a cookbook of my own – dedicated to her and focussed on quick and/or easy dishes, and some a little more time-consuming but meant to be made in bulk, then frozen & re-heated. That book has grown and changed over the years; you’ll find all the recipes in …. wait for it … Recipes. Check out Shortcuts for some good hacks. I’m not sure that friend used the book that much (and that’s okay!) but I’ve shared it with lots of others and keeping it up to date has been a source of enjoyment for me all these years.
Cooking for friends – especially now that I’m single and living in the city – is one of my favourite things; I like to make up meals without a recipe and often use friends as guinea pigs. They say they really like my food and keep coming back for more, so either I’m on the right track or I have very polite friends!
Most meals don’t really need a recipe in my view. Many people are afraid to create or experiment, but I believe that most of us have an innate sensibility. If you just go with your gut, you’ll get it right more than half the time, and the rest of the time you’ll have learned what not to do (and hopefully you’ll have a final product that’s at least edible).
Meal Kit Delivery Services
Busy life? Give yourself a break.
This may sound oddly inconsistent with my penchant for creating my own dishes, but I’m a big fan of meal-kit delivery services (like Hello Fresh / Goodfood / Chefs Plate). I’ve been a Goodfood customer for quite a while now and just love their excellent service. Most (if not all) of these services allow you to skip weeks, or put your deliveries on hold for a while, so you’re not bound to a weekly commitment. I use the service periodically to expand my horizons and complement my own cooking.
Budget-wise, meal-kit delivery services may not be the cheapest option, but I think they offer pretty good value for the money. A Goodfood meal for two, for example, is usually enough for three. If the meal features cuts of meat, throwing in an extra chicken breast or pork chop is all you need to do.
What’s so great about meal kits? Well especially if you work outside the house, the idea of coming home to everything you need, nicely packaged in a bag that you pull out of the fridge, and following clear instructions on a colourful recipe card with blow-by-blow pictures, is just heavenly! You’re busy enough; why try to be Superman/woman? You get precisely the ingredients and quantities you need, so there’s no food waste, and most of the packaging is recyclable so you can be environmentally conscientious. Best of all, you discover new ingredients and learn all kinds of new techniques.
Feeding Fussy Kids
Tips and tricks for today’s parents
I’m dismayed by the number of kids I’ve seen – both now and when mine were younger – that are fussy eaters. I’m sure there are some that are beyond changing, but leaving them aside, I believe most are not born that way; they’re made that way by their parents. And I believe that’s the result of two factors …
First, many North American parents assume kids can’t handle anything other than basic, bland food. Let’s not forget that children in Asia, Scandinavia, South America, etc. are not eating chicken nuggets and grilled-cheese sandwiches; they’re eating spicy dishes, fish, and all kinds of vegetables. Our kids are no different; they don’t have genetically weak, North American taste buds.
Second, many parents would rather accommodate their kids than risk a major ordeal. I say, like many things in life, no pain no gain. A little battle of wills when they’re young can save a lifetime of embarrassing and frustrating temper tantrums.
I’m no child-rearing expert, but here’s what worked for me:
Start them young – as soon as they can eat solid food.
Don’t make a big deal about what’s for dinner. Kids aren’t dumb; if you’re selling something really hard, they’ll conclude that it must not taste very good. (Even dogs know when you’re about to take them to the vet by your extra-friendly voice. Let’s give our kids some credit.)
Make a simple rule – only if you run into resistance – that they must try one bite of anything new and, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it. Like overselling, too much pressure will backfire. They want to feel like they’re in control (wink, wink).
If your version of a meal is quite spicy, dumb it down a bit, but don’t lose the flavour. For example, I used to rinse pieces of curried chicken with hot water.
Insist that when they’re at a friend’s house, they must eat everything that’s put in front of them. We wouldn’t want to insult Mr./Mrs. [insert friend’s name] now, would we? My boys learned to like cooked spinach this way.
Involve them in the cooking process. Think about yourself – when you’ve cooked the meal, you’re likely the most committed to eating it.
Now that my kids are adults, they are truly impressive cooks who will eat almost anything. They're comfortable enough to create a delicious dish or meal, often without a recipe. They’ll never miss out on whatever interesting food experiences come their way. And I’m a proud mom!
San Sebastian, Spain
A Foodie’s Dream
In 2019 I took my first solo trip – to Romania and Spain for an entire month (more on that in Travel/Adventure). I had always dreamed of going to some kind of cooking school and now I had the chance. As luck would have it, there was a MIMO cooking school in the gorgeous, 5-star Maria Christina Hotel in San Sebastian – a small, beautiful city on the northern coast of Spain in Basque country and a food lover’s dream. San Sebastian has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world and is home to “pintxos” – smallish (3-bite) canapes artistically skewered or stacked on a piece of bread – the Basque version of tapas if you will. My favourites were fois gras, and Gildas – Spanish olives, hot peppers and anchovies on a skewer – purported by many to be the first pintxos (although I’ve read different versions of the story).
Gilda (on right)
I can’t say enough about my MIMO experience. I took all of their seven daily classes, where I met some super-interesting and like-minded people, worked on my knife skills, practised creative plating, and of course learned to make some very unique Basque dishes. The chef-instructors at MIMO were oh-so friendly and tons of fun; leaving after seven days was sad indeed.
For many of my adult years, gin was my sin – gin and tonic, gin and Fresca (love that stuff!), gin and grapefruit juice, etc. I still like gin; some of my favourites are Bombay Sapphire, Aviation, Muff (from Ireland), Hendricks, Sipsmith, Gin Mare and Ungava.
Then a few years ago, I honestly can’t remember how it happened, but I discovered dirty vodka martinis. They have become my go-to starter drink at the beginning of an evening out (or in, from time to time). When I have a dirty vodka martini in hand while prepping an interesting dinner with my favourite music playing, life doesn’t get any better! One friend has coined the phrase “Wenditinis” and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the martinis I made for myself at home in “solitary confinement” were … drum roll … ”Quarantinis”.
On a recent trip to Europe, I discovered that dirty martinis seem to be, not so surprisingly, mostly a North American thing. Asking for one often gets you a glass of Martini Rosso. Lesson learned!
When I say I like a dirty vodka martini, most people ask me to explain what that is and what all the martini terminology means. So here goes Martinis 101 …
Martinis are generally made with either gin or vodka.
A martini can be wet, dry, or somewhere in between.This just refers to the amount of dry white vermouth added to the gin/vodka: a wet martini has more and a dry martini has less. My late friend Gavin (may he rest in peace) liked them so dry that he used a spray bottle to add just a fine mist of vermouth.
A “twist” is a bit of lemon zest.
A dirty martini has olive juice in it (and usually a few olives on a stick), which makes it look a bit cloudy and perhaps far less classy to some …. but I don’t care! Although most bartenders would use the olive juice in addition to the vodka and vermouth, I recently discovered that it's even better if you omit the vermouth for a dirty martini.
Just to add even more complexity, martinis can be shaken or stirred, and served neat (no ice) or on the rocks (think James Bond).
And there you have it – so many variables! Back when I was getting my math degree, I could have calculated the number of permutations/combinations, but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re so inclined, decide what you prefer and order or make yourself a martini. As an old friend’s mother would say, people will look at you and say “now that’s a class act” :)
(Written while enjoying a dirty vodka martini, of course.)