Friday, 27 January 2012

Aside #22: Happy Birthday Will and Grace!

January 2012

Warning.  If you're not a cat fancier... read no further.  This posting will be an unabashed, 'ah gee-whiz aren't-they-adorably cute' tribute to celebrate the 4th birthday of the Ragdolls, Will and Grace.  (With full apologies to Spice Girl cat whose birthday is in a few weeks).  I'm sure Husband will read this entire posting to both cats, whom we affectionately also call 'Sir BB' or 'Big Boy' and 'Brat Girl'. 

Before I go further, I absolutely MUST thank the West Coast-ish photographer who took most of these pictures over the Christmas holiday period.  Her talent is evident in every shot.  There's many more pictures I could have posted.  My policy for this blog has been not to give names or faces but, nonetheless, the quality of the photos is due to her.  Many thanks!

(BTW:  The cake is from our 2011 Holiday drop-in and was made by a local firm with a unique name -- Girl With the Most Cake .  Each layer featured a different filling, vanilla bean, lemon, and Dark Belgian chocolate!  It was a work of art and delicious... and a suitable shot for Birthday wishes as well).  

So... our children.  Husband and I recall that four years ago, we drove to a Ragdoll cat breeder located in Navan, Ontario called Darlin' 'lil Dolls, and saw the kittens for the first time.  They were no bigger than our fist as they crawled around exploring the big brand new world that was to be theirs.  

Even at this early viewing, their personalities were evident.  The white kitten looks peaceful in sleep but when we approached her she gave a little kitten-y 'hiss'.  She told us plain as day that .... yes, she was cute, and no, we couldn't hold or touch her.  We were entranced.  But then we noticed a very laid-back brown kitten who was destined to be shipped to Germany as a show cat.  The breeder, using her best marketing strategy, tugged at our heart strings by saying she didn't want to ship him that far and break up the pair.  Will Boy yawned and stretched for a scritch... and, presto, he was ours.  

We picked up the kittens at Easter at around 8 weeks old. They were still so tiny.  We held a naming contest with friends and I nixxed suggestions such as 'Tooth' and 'Claw' or 'Fang' and 'Chew' (not!).  Eventually, Will and Grace were proposed as names and they stuck.  It took some time for the old one, Spice Girl, to accept the new intruders.  She moaned non-stop about the kids for a week but, eventually, she stomped up to the couch, jumped on it, and gave both kittens a bath from head to toe.  Neither seemed to mind.    

Their personalities grew more evident over time.  Will, after an initial scare in surgery when he almost died from an infection (and CH, it is possible to spend $3K on a CAT! He wasn't 'toast'), has turned into a sucker for a roaring fireplace and belly rubs anywhere anytime.  He's a big rangy guy whose role in life is to sleep in the cutest position possible.  He's a champion at both cuteness and sleeping.  He and Spice remain best friends and he protects the asthmatic old girl from too much raucous activity.

Speaking of raucous activity, there's Grace or Brat Girl. She's impossibly cute and downy soft with her white fur and tufts of hair that give her a cute little bed head.  But attitude R her.  She NEVER sleeps, preferring to patrol the windows all day and keep track of all the household activity inside and the birds at their feeders outside.  She nestles for hours in the paper tray in Husband's office as it gives her the best vantage point to keep tabs on birds and Husband.  

Her main activity is the demand to go outside where we have a screened-in cat gazebo and cat condo.  She can't quite grasp the concept of winter, or cold, or snow or the word 'NO'.  She loves to play vulture kitty by jumping from shelf to shelf to the top of a large cabinet separating the livingroom from the TV room.  Once up there, she nestles among all the china and glass, and stares down at us watching TV.  She 'Requests' that we turn to her favourite TV programs -- TV Fireplace Channel, TV Loon Calling Channel and TV Aquarium/ Lots of Fish Channel -- and she then tries to climb inside the flat screen TV. (Not)  

Grace adores Husband and from kitten-hood on has been known to run pell-mell across a room and throw herself at him, where she will hip cuddle with him for hours.  Me, she ignores except to escort me to the door in hopes that I will take her outside.  

There's a special place in our hearts for our third Ragdoll cat, Spice girl, even though we almost never see her.  She sleeps 22 of 24 hours a day.  Her health is not good -- she's a fragile, asthmatic, senior cat who snores, sneezes and wheezes full-time.  We spend a lot of time and money on meds, steroids, puffers (yes, a cat puffer) and vets.  She has gone downhill in the past year but is currently holding her own.  

Spice adores us and it's mutual.  More puppy than cat, with the sweetest nature ever, she loves us unconditionally even as we give her meds.  She pats our faces... she holds paws with us, especially when she's having a bad day.  She drinks fresh running water and used to play patty cake in the sink.  She and Husband have a 'Good Morning' routine that involves much conversation and coaxing to get her to eat her breakfast. Spice yells at me from the bottom of the stairs when she thinks it's time for bed, then escorts me up the stairs and settles on the bottom of the bed with a sigh of contentment that all is right with her world.  And the world is a better place because of her. 

Suffice to say, the 'Rags' are helping to make this icy January bearable.  There's nothing better than sitting with two cats curled in front of the fireplace and one on the couch as we read newspapers and sip coffee.  

So, Happy 4th Birthday Will and Grace!   We wish you many more.  

Will's favourite pose  

Grace, ever hopeful 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

SmartCook Raves About Ravishing Radishes

January 2012

SmartCooks here.

Radishes.  Versatile.  Flavourful.  Colourful.  Fast-maturing.  Easy to grow.  Relishes cool seasons.  Varieties include spring, summer and fall.  Adds texture and colour to the plate.  Can be eaten raw, roasted, cooked, braised.  Are hot, sweet, mild, spicy.  Lovely names (Cherry Belle, Bunny Tail, French Breakfast, Easter Pink, Snow Belle, White Icicle, Purple Plum, Beauty Heart Watermelon, Spanish Black, April Cross Daikon). Not to be confused with horseradish.  They're low calorie, rich in minerals and nutrients.

Truth be told.  I'm hooked on radishes!

A Brief History

The origin of radishes varies according to the source being read.  They likely originated in China and became part of their diet around 400 BC. During the building of the pyramids in Egypt, radishes were eaten by the builders in order to promote muscle and endurance. Radish seed was also ground for oil long before olive oil arrived on the scene.  In ancient Greece the replicas of golden radishes have been found.

Radishes are still celebrated today.  The most famous is a unique folk festival that takes place each year on December 23, in Oaxaca, Mexico.  There, many folk dress up and giant radishes are carved and taken to the street as part of Noche de Rabanos, or “The Night of the Radishes.”

Health Benefits

Health wise... the radish is described as "one hot little power packer". It is a great detoxifier for the blood, an excellent digestive aid because of its roughage and high water content.  It is low in calories, has only a few carbs, lots of vitamin C and can even work as a breath freshener.  hmmmm.

Websites also describe the mineral content of radishes e.g., ascorbic acid, folic acid and potassium, a good source of vitamin B6, riboflavin, magnesium, copper and calcium.

Ravishing Radish Recipes 

I have three favourite ways of preparing and eating radishes -- in a salad, pickled, or roasted.   

1) Radish and Vegetable Salad
(4-6 servings)


1 1/2 cups sliced red and white radishes (e.g., Japanese radish, French breakfast, Black and Pink Lady)
1 cup seeded, sliced cucumber
1 cup diagonally sliced carrot
1/2 tsp salt
3 T red wine vinegar
1/2 cup water


In medium bowl, combine radishes, cucumber, carrot and salt. Toss to mix and let stand for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring vinegar and water to a boil. Remove from heat and cool. Transfer vegetables to colander and press gently to allow liquid to drain off.  Return vegetables to bowl. Pour vinegar mixture over vegetables and toss to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time. 

Note:  Delicious if just use radishes as well.  

2) Pickled Daikon Radish and Carrots 
(Famous in Vietnamese Banh Mi street sandwiches) 


1/2 lb carrots, shredded in food processor, sliced in thin rounds or thin match-like strips.
1/2 lb daikon radish, cut same as carrots.
3 cups warm water
3 T rice vinegar
2-3 T sugar, depending on desired sweetness
2 tsp salt


Mix warm water, vinegar, sugar and salt until everything is dissolved in a pitcher or bowl with a lip to make pouring the mixture easier.

Peel, wash and cut daikon and carrots to desired size.  Combine both together in bowl and blot dry with paper towel.  Fill carrot and daikon mixture into a tight lid jar, bowl or similar container. They should be cleaned in a hot water or dishwasher beforehand.  

Pour liquid salt mixture into carrot and daikon container till full.  Close lid and let it pickle for about 3-5 days, or till desired sourness.  For immediate use, let marinade for about 1 hour.  Lasts 4-6 weeks in refrigerator.  

3) Roasted Red Radishes with Thyme
(4-6 servings)


1 pint grape tomatoes
1 red onion, cut into eights
1 lb assorted small radishes (2 bunches), trimmed, leaving 1/2 inch stem intact
2 T good quality olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme 
Coarse salt and pepper to taste 


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Spread the tomatoes, red onion and radishes on the baking sheet.  Drizzle with oil.  Add thyme, gently stir and season with salt and pepper.

Roast, without stirring, for 25 minutes or until the radishes are soft but still colourful.  

Serve immediately.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Celebrate Chinese New Year with Ma Po Tofu (even modified)

January 2012

SmartCooks here.

Happy Chinese New Year.  

On Monday, January 23, 2012 (or year 4709), the Year of the Dragon will start, one of the 12 animals used in Chinese calendar (and the only mythological animal).  The dragon apparently epitomizes yang portion of one's personality i.e., warm/male energy.  

To celebrate Chinese New Year, I had a craving for a slightly spicy dish and came across one called Mapo Tofu and then did a little research on it, tried a few versions, and found a vegetarian option as well.  The dish originated in the Sichuan (Szechuan) province and is a 'simmered' dish, fast-making, and spicy.  It is a combination of tofu, spicy chili bean sauce, and minced meat, either beef or pork.  The authentic version of it are supposed to have both 'heat' spiciness and 'mala' or numbing spiciness.  It is also described as spicy hot.  

History of Ma Po Tofu

The history of the dish has kindof a strange legend and I read a few different versions of both its origins and name.  

Ma Po Tofu is named after a woman -- Wen Qiaoqiao -- who lived during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  After losing her husband in an accident, the woman and her sister in-law, both of whom were poor, developed a dish based on tofu and beef or pork (there's a subtext involved about rivalry with a local beef store).  The new dish was so delicious that they their house into a small restaurant and built a good business around their signature dish.  When Qiaoqiao died, the dished as named ma po tofu (pock-marked grandmother) to remember her. The name stuck and is famous in Sichuan cuisine.  It's hot and spicy and delicious.

What You Need to Prepare the Dish

Needless to say there are various versions of the recipe around.  I found one with many substitutes and then found a vegetarian version using tempeh that works as well.

So, first of all, what's involved in the real dish. Some ingredients are best found in Asian supermarkets, such as fermented black beans, or douchi, which is preferred, or a black bean sauce (as shown left) 

a spicy chili-bean broad bean paste (salty bean paste, on right), known as doubanjiang, 

and Sichuan pepper  which has a unique lemony flavour.   
The first time I made it I made it as chicken and tofu, and substituted the black beans for hoisin sauce (it was still delicious) and used a Japanese pepper instead of Sichuan pepper.  

The second time I prepared it I used pork and tofu and made a trip to the NEW, super large Asian Supercentre, in Orleans in a small strip mall on 10th Line Road featuring Goodlife and other businesses.  Its merchandise is set out in various aisles e.g., Japan, China, India etc.  It will eventually feature South Asian, Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, African/Latino and European products and food i.e., a wider scope than T&T.  

Unfortunately, the trip was mostly an exercise in frustration as there are dozens of brands of black bean paste and sauce and most labels are not translated into English.  The fellows stocking the shelves were no help, for example, two had never heard of Sichuan pepper at which point a customer intervened and pointed me in the right direction and told me not to listen to him.  But I persevered looking for ingredients and the resulting dish was glad I did.  

Vegetarian versions either:  a) leave out the meat and keep the tofu and sauce; b) use vegetarian 'meat' or tempeh; or c) substitute another vegetable such as cauliflower or tomato for the  meat (e.g., Mark Bittman in The Food That Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living).  (Thank you again HD!) 

For all versions, it cooks quickly so be sure to have all ingredients at hand, including the rice, brown rice, brown rice noodles etc ready! 

Ma Po Tofu (with pork or beef) 
3-4 people 


350 grams of firm tofu, cut in 1-inch cubes
6 cups water 
1 T salt
2 T peanut oil
150 grams lean pork or beef, ground
2 T fermented black bean (Asian supermarkets)
3 T fermented chili bean paste (Asian supermarkets)
1 tsp red chill powder
1 T dark soy sauce (I use low-sodium)
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock 
1 tsp ginger, minced
1 or 2 scallions, green part chopped 
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn, ground (Asian supermarkets) 

Thickening ingredients: 
1 T potato starch (or corn starch) 
1 T cold water 

Serving Suggestions:  brown rice, brown rice noodles.  


Bring 6 cups of water with 1 T of salt to boil.  Parboil the tofu cubes for 3 minutes, then drain. 

Heat oil in the wii.  Add minced pork (or beef) and stir-fry until loose  Stir in fermented black ben, fermented chill bean paste, chill powder, dark soy sauce and chicken (or vegetable) stock.  Add tofu and stir gently to keep tofu from breaking.  Simmer for 5 minutes.

Combine ingredients for thickening mixture and add to the wok.  After 1 minute, remove from heat and dust with Sichuan peppercorn and garnish with chopped scallion.  

If desired, serve with rice.  

Ma Po Tofu (Vegetarian) 
3-4 people 

Canola or peanut oil
125g (4oz) of tempeh
2 T finely chopped garlic
2 T finely grated ginger
1 tsp fermented black beans, rinsed
½ tsp (or more) sambal olek\
Greens from 1 large bunch of spring onions, sliced
¾ cup water
1 heaping tsp shiro (white) miso
500g (1 lb) silken tofu, sliced into 1 cm (½ in) cubes
1-2 tsp brown sugar
 2-3 T soy sauce


Pour 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based frying pan and set it over a medium-high heat. Crumble tempeh and add to hot oil.  Stir frequently, scraping up any bits that stick to the pan, for 10 minutes. All should be crisp and a deep shade of golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper/a clean tea towel and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the same frying pan, turning the heat down to medium-low. Add the garlic, ginger, fermented black beans and sambal olek. Fry with care for 30 seconds. Don’t let that garlic burn. Toss in the spring onion greens, stir, then add the water, miso and tofu. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the tofu is just cooked. 

Add the tempeh to the pan, followed by the sugar and soy sauce, to taste. Serve over brown rice or noodles.  

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Aside #21: CSA Basket, Meet You in the Summer of 2012!

January 2012

Community Supported Agriculture from Bryson's Farms .  I signed on last fall as an experiment and gave half a dozen bi-weekly deliveries of baskets a trial.  But, last week, I hoisted my standing order until the summer.  sigh...

I loved the vegetables -- all organic, heirloom, interesting varieties of vegetables, with some I'd never tried before like daikon radishes, purple top turnips, Kabocha squash, and kale micro greens.  Many are NOT found in supermarkets like Bloblaws.

But post-holidays, I was finding the quantity too much for one person to consume.  Even with all the salads and vegey meals, there was always a lot left over just as another basket arrived.  Greens in particular. I was giving away lettuce and greens to all.  The fridge bins were over-jammed.  Plus, January is a typical cut-back month in terms of food quantities soooo.... all to say, I stopped the order. 

Not to say that I will quit organic vegetables or Bryson Farms.  Bryson is now at The Fieldhouse at Parkdale Market every weekend, part of a 10-local farm initiative to make us locavores happy with Bryson Farms (vegetables), Le Coprin (mushrooms), Halsall (honey), Fromagerie les Folies Bergères (sheep, cow, and goat’s milk cheeses), Hall’s Apple Market (apples and cider), Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane (maple syrup), Trillium Meadows (red deer and wild boar), Beking’s (eggs), Acer Farms (hormone- and antibiotic-free Red Angus beef), and Dusty Lane Farms (hormone-free lamb).

I fully intend to re-register for a CSA again as the spring and summer months approach.  Garlic scapes, wild garlic, early tomatoes, spring asparagus, kale, swiss chard, garlic festivals.  New recipes await. So, until then....

Friday, 6 January 2012

SmartCooks Lights a Candle to Candle 79 Cookbook and Recipes

January 2012

SmartCooks here lighting a candle to Candle 79 Cookbook:  Modern Vegan Classics from New York's Premier Sustainable Restaurant.  Oh, that I could have found this book/e-app during the Holiday Season!  

For Christmas dinner, I searched for a vegetarian meal menu, with soup, entree, and 2 sides (salad and vegeys). I surfed half a dozen well-known blogs and sites that feature vegetarian dishes (e.g., Bon AppetitFood 52) as well as strictly vegetarian sources (e.g., Vegetarian Times etc). Nothing jelled.  So I eventually pulled a menu from a number of sources.  (And it was Scrumptious! as was the whole meal!)

It was only after Christmas that I came across Candle 79 Cookbook and downloaded the e-book (thanks to the wonder of Kindle iPad apps). The Cookbook represents the best of the Candle 79 restaurant, whose mandate is to bring elegance to vegetarion cuisines and make concepts such as 'local', 'seasonal,' 'organic', and 'vegan' part of the culinary mainstream.  The Cookbook has well over 100 recipes, all easy for a home cook, divided into appetizers, soups, entrees, salads, desserts, drinks, brunches etc. 

Candle 79 Restaurant was started about 20 years ago by Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza who won $53,000 playing a lottery. They decided to invest the money in a restaurant devoted to vegan cooking and opened Candle Cafe and then later Candle 79. 

According to a New York Times review, the Restaurant ambiance and dishes made him "see the light" about vegetarian cuisine. The clientele includes luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Woody Harrelson. 

PLUS the Restaurant boasts eco-friendly liquor. (Husband will be thrilled  that there's Maker's Mark bourbon, which has a low-carbon distillery so he can drink in good conscience and digest the vegetarian food more easily).

I looked up Smoked Paprika Hummus, which the New York Times food critic described as "one of the more enjoyable hummuses" he has had in New York.  The authors recommend dried chickpeas, which need to be soaked overnight, but also says canned chickpeas will do (so I did). 

Here's the recipe from the Cookbook.  It makes about 3 cups and is perfect for three days' worth of 4 p.m. snacks just before a January Get Fit workout.  The hummus pictured is served with grilled paratha bread (Indian flatbread), olives, roasted garlic and a drizzle of red pepper oil.  

Smoked Paprika Hummus

1 cup dried chickpeas, or 2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
1⁄2 tsp sea salt
1⁄2 ts freshly ground pepper
2 T finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1⁄3 cup tahini
Optional garnishes: roasted red bell peppers, roasted garlic, lemon slices, olives, mint or parsley sprigs

(((If using dried chickpeas, put them in a saucepan or bowl and add cold water to cover by about 2 inches. Soak in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse.  Put the chickpeas in a saucepan and add cold water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat, cover, and simmer until the chickpeas are tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Drain and let cool, reserving 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of the cooking water.)))
Combine the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, cayenne, paprika, salt, pepper, parsley, olive oil, and tahini in a bowl and stir to mix well.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until well mixed.

Add 1⁄4 cup of the reserved cooking liquid (or water or vegetable stock if using canned chickpeas) and process until smooth and almost fluffy.

Add more liquid if necessary. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Transfer to a serving bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Best served at room temperature.
To serve, drizzle a bit of olive oil over the hummus and sprinkle a bit of paprika. Serve with desired garnishes.

Aside #20: It's an App-App-(H)appy World Right at My Fingertips.. and I LOVE It!

January 2012

Ahh, the marvels of personal technology devices.  I light a candle to them every day -- they've  transformed both my professional working life and my personal life in the past three years alone.  

And I've walked willingly toward the mobile tech light -- I consider this technology to be a part of an overall commitment to a less cluttered, more sustainable, locally focussed lifestyle for cooking, home styling and work!  They have become an integral part of how I organize and manage my daily life and routines.  

(And, virtual hug, I would not be as technically literate as I've become without a lot of assistance from a close friend and colleagues who patiently guide me toward the app-y world of tech-enlightenment.) 

So, some illustrations of my own tech evolution ... 

Daily newspapers are now read on Press Reader on my iPad.  I can start reading early morning editions as early as 3 a.m. if I can't sleep.  No more newspaper recycling in our household which was famous for two or more black boxes a week.  One black box... Gone!  Press Reader costs a fraction of what it would cost to have access to more than 200 Canadian newspapers and 1,500 newspapers world-wide!  It looks exactly the same as reading the ink-smudging versions and a flick of the page without the ink on fingertips is a welcome benefit.  

Given my background in communications, I can monitor Breaking News on every major global news network 24/7/365 through a social media app called HootSuite, a Twitter social aggregator developed by a young Vancouver-based Canadian inventor!.  This one app completely outperforms the media monitoring capability of my 23-person Media Centre.  If there's Breaking News anywhere in the world, it's at my fingertips in seconds.  It's a working tool necessity for my professional life and its possibilities for marketing and trend analysis are only at the very nascent stage.  

When I find an interesting book in a store or read a review of a book I might like, I can download it in seconds (and at a fraction of the cost) to an app like Amazon's Kindle, or Kobo, or Apple's iBooks.  I can even try a few pages of a preview before buying the entire book.  If I decide to order, the download happens in seconds -- one click and the book is in my iPad Book Library.  I've systematically moved out all but a few treasured, cherished hardcover books from the house as part of an overall lightening of the burden of possessions.  

And, there's more.  There are hundreds of interesting recipe apps (e.g., Martha Stewart Food magazines and apps) to whet the app-etite (small joke).  I can even keep track of interesting recipe finds in an Recipe-keeping App (like Recipe Tracker).  Martha Stewart has THE most interactive apps.  Her corporation has figured out how to maximize the range of possibilities of the app-iPad-technology-recipe world.  A browse through a few of her magazines or apps gives audio and video clips, fast-click recipes and nutritional information and tekky additions (like sparkling lights on a Christmas tree).  

The food blogging community like the Food 52 app ladies have integrated mobile wireless apps as part of their overall marketing strategies.  Food 52, developed by two former New York Times restaurant reviewers, is not as interactive as Martha Stewart's, but features a wider range of locally grown and vegetarian recipes. Their app launch coincided with the launch a hardcover book, and well-timed promotion via Twitter, Facebook, daily listserv newsletters and their main website.  The mobile wireless app is the perfect compliment to the book. 

(Aside:  Government is still struggling with customizing these new marketing strategies for government communications strategies and the volume and speed of all these new social media technologies is stretching the capacity of departments and the communications community to the maximum.) 

When I want music, my entire music collection is stored, categorized, alphabetized, etc right at my app-fingertips on my iPad (with my entire music library stored in my nifty-new, super-duper, all bells-and-whistles Mac laptop). I have systematically disposed of old-tech records, cassettes, CDs and DVDs.... a further lightening of the 'stuff' in my life.  I watch whatever I want in Movies or old sit-coms whenever and wherever via Netflix, iTunes Movies or Crackle apps either for free or for a fraction of the cost of renting or movie-ing out.  My Entertainment Everywhere, as Apple would say.  HD most of the time! 

And, yes, I'm addicted to some gaming apps -- like getting three stars on every level of Angry Birds (boooo piggies!), building virtual We cities, and, Smurfs (for shame! ....)  I am keenly aware these games can be time-suckers and wasters but, darn, they're fun anyway.  I'm like a kid in the candy shop when I browse through the possibilities.  We didn't have anything remotely like this as kids and I now watch with envy as the little folks   manoeuver through their Leapfrog electronic games.  I'm still smarting from a New Year's Eve experience of being beaten at Leapfrog Explorer by a three-year-old.  My dinosaur knowledge is definitely NOT what it should be.  

And, of course, there's the late-night challenge of playing Scrabble via Facebook on the iPad.  Family feud linking Edmonton, Ottawa, and St. Thomas siblings? ... no problem.  Or a game with a colleague down the hall at work? ... easy-peasy.  Competitive? Absolutely.  

Boggle is a recent addition is driving me bonkers trying to stare at a one-dimensional Rubik's cube of letters and make as many words as I can in 3 minutes....   Competitive, me? (yup, even against a computer).  In a pinch, I can even use the iPad as a notebook although I find the technology for note-taking somewhat lacking.  I'm holding my breath on this aspect until the stylus evolves from its current blunt and bulky eraser form to one resembling a pen. The BlueTooth keyboard is also nifty, but cumbersome for day-to-day note-taking... 

That's a fraction of my wired household.  Add to that two HD big-screen Apple TVs, airplay and airport routers, wireless music anywhere in the house and no less than 5 flat-screen TVs in various rooms and ... well ... techno-world R us. 

The technology allows me to SHAPE my world the way I want it and to broaden my horizons and fashion projects and hobbies to my personal liking.  I don't want to live without it and can't wait to see what's next on the horizon.... 


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

SmartCooks Discovers Chicken and Cashew Curry and the Spice Hunters/Chasseurs d'Epices

January 2012

SmartCooks here.

Thanks to a recent expedition to Grace in the Kitchen with the ladies (aren't holiday excursions wonderful!), I came across an intriguing spice/recipe concept marketed by two Canadians -- Ethne and Philippe de Vienne from Montreal, co-owners of the shop called Epices de cru, who call themselves the Spice Hunters.  And indeed they are!  Wait until you taste recipes like Chicken and Cashew Curry! 

Former Montreal caterers, the two partners started the Spice and Tea shop and began what, for them, is a 30-year long passion for travelling and collecting the best spices in the world and making spices and recipes available to their customers and now the public.  Their website is chic-a-bloc full of intriguing facts and recipes. It includes an on-line store! 

I bought Spice Hunters 2:  Asian Family Cookbook, (bilingual, tumble print edition), with a box set of six spice blends from the regions they visited (Sri Lankan, China (Yunnan), and the Spice Coast), including fenugreek seeds and a stick of very fragrant Sri Lankan cinnamon.

After browsing through their website, the articles written about them in the Globe and Mail (Spice Hunters) and Food and Wine and through numerous TV appearances.  I'm hooked.  I see a trip to Montreal in my future.

The Spice Hunters 2 recipe/travel diary book 24 recipes featuring recipes and spices from Sri Lanka, China (specifically Yunnan cooking that I'd been researching), and the Spice Coast.  The book also contains travel notes and observations, as well as tips for grinding, grilling and infusing spices.  A whole new world has been opened up.  Plus their website has loads of additional recipes to use with the spices.  

A couple of intriguing facts of interest, especially related to some of the spices I've featured in previous blog postings.  For instance,

-- Ras el Hanout (thank you again Mr. Ian), contains 24 ingredients, including saffron and three kinds of dried roses.  'Ras el hanout' means the 'best of the shop', according to the de Viennes (see right side).  

-- White curry, featured in Spice Hunters 2, is a treasured find from Sri Lanka, a mix that includes cinnamon, cardamon, pandan leaves and cloves.  The de Viennes explain that curry does not need to be turmeric-coloured, orange, yellow or deep red.  Instead, it is the blend of spices that matters.  And the cinnamon they use is not what most people in North America use as cinnamon, which is called cassia or a ruddy bark.  Their cinnamon is fragrant, with a sharp sweetness that is versatile in all forms of cooking.

So, with head a-swirl with spice knowledge, I decided to give White Curry a whirl and cook 'Chicken and Cashew Curry'.  The travel portion of the book shows how cinnamon is produced in Sri Lanka (a labour-intensive activity) and notes that the recipe was inspired by a green pepper chicken curry from the Spice Coast and a cashew curry from Sri Lanka.  

Be sure to have a mortar and pestle for these recipes.  One small note from me.  I cooked the chicken, as directed, in the coconut milk.  However, when serving myself, I used a slotted spoon and did not smother the quinoa grain in coconut sauce... personal taste choice.  I found the chicken curry flavour more than intriguing enough... and loved it all.  It was a delicious dish and easy to make!  

Chicken and Cashew Curry 


1 lb deboned chicken (I used organic chicken breasts)
1 1/2 T lemon juice
3 T White Curry, ground (included in the box set or order on-line)
Salt, to taste (I used pink Himalayan)  
3/4 cup raw cashew nuts 
3 T vegetable oil
1/2 tsp fenugreek (included in box set or order on-line)
2 tsp green pepper or 1 tsp black pepper, cracked
2 slivers cinnamon (included in box set or order on-line)
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
Pinch ground cinnamon


Cut the chicken into medium-sized cubes.  Mix with lemon juice, ground White Curry, and salt.  Set aside.  

Rinse cashews and place on a paper towel and pat dry.

Heat the oil on low heat and brown the cashews (2-3 minutes).  Remove the nuts and set aside on a paper towel.

Add the fenugreek with the remaining oil and roast for a few seconds.  Add the pepper and cinnamon and let cook a little longer.

Add the onion and continue cooking until golden (3-4 minutes).

Place the chicken in the pan.  Raise the heat to brown the chicken lightly.  

Pour in the coconut milk and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce becomes thickened and the chicken is almost cooked (10-15 minutes).

Add the cashews and cook a few more minutes.  

Garnish with a pinch of ground cinnamon.

Serve with rice, quinoa or another grain.

Monday, 2 January 2012

SmartCooks Roars Over Tigress Pumpkin Corn Muffins

January 2012

SmartCooks here. 

Pumpkin corn muffins -- yummy.  What an excellent way to start the New Year ... corn meal, fresh pumpkin, a few interesting spices (like aleppo pepper), yogurt and eggs... all baked together in a muffin pan and they smell divine. 

I make these muffins by the dozens and keep them in the freezer.  Each morning, while coffee is brewing, I pop two into the microwave for a minute and a half, cut them in half, add some no-sugar preserves or fresh fruit and cheese and, voila, a healthy, filling breakfast.

I found the pumpkin corn muffins recipe on one of the more unusual food blogging sites.  The blogger calls herself the 'Tigress' and has been managing two webblogs for years i.e.,
-- Tigress in a PIckle (or as she puts it, "pursuing the proliferation of pickles and other savory pottages", (although I think she meant to spell it 'potages').  No matter. 
-- Tigress in a Jam  or "a preservationist's jam on the sweeter things in life and alchemy". 

Both websites have the most unusual, but delicious, recipes on them (e.g., Pickled spring turnips, Kohlrabi garlic scapes kimchi Shizzles with picklz: Shallot pie).  Her writing is quite different, making extensive use of lower case, cat/tiger terminology (e.g., pawnotes) and stream of consciousness writing.     

Tigress calls herself a locavore and spends half a year in a little white farmhouse with a big garden (small portion pictured) in the southern Berkshires of Massachusetts, where she gardens, plants, cans, ferments, pickles, preserves, photographs, and blogs about 'pilgrim' style living off the land.  The other half of the year is in Manhattan as an electronic music events producer. 

In addition to blogging, she Twitter posts pictures of her Burmese cats (mahfouz & thor) as well as artistic shots of interesting Scandinavian architecture and Japanese fashion, which are passions of hers.  Her photography is downright beautiful, although most of those pictures I get via Twitter feed on my ipad.     

Both websites are worth browing and trying the recipes. I tend to experiment with her recipes as she is a bit 'dash of this or that' type cook.  But for today... pumpkin corn muffins.  If you don't have aleppo pepper, can also substitute chipotle powder or Spanish smoked paprika. I've even mixed the paprika and the aleppo pepper. The spices add a subtle taste and do not overwhelm, even if you goof (like I did one time!) and add in a full tsp or more of both spices. 

In both cases, Tigress suggests grinding your own cinammon from a cinnamon stick.  So I did this.  It is NOT easy at all but worth it for the fresh cinnamon taste.  An alternative would be to order some quality cinnamon from the Spice Hunters in Montreal... their cinnamon sticks from Sri Lanka are softer and easier to grate and MUCH more fragrant. 

Squash purée can also be substituted for pumpkin.  There are many ways to make a squash puree (roasted at 400 in the oven or microwaved for 10-15 minutes until it is easy to stick a fork through the skin.  Let cool, then mash the squash and voila, squash puree.  Leftover squash can be easily frozen until the next batch of muffins is needed.  Or, easy-peasy, I once had the leftovers of a LARGE container of butternut squash soup and used it for a couple of batches of muffins.  All delicious. 

Pumpkin Corn Muffins (12 muffins)
 1.5 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup coarse cornmeal (stoneground) 
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4-1 tsp aleppo pepper (or chipotle powder, or smoked spanish paprika)
3/4 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1 packed cup pumpkin/winter squash purée
1/2 cup maple, light brown, or raw sugar
1/2 cup yogurt
2 large eggs


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and grease muffin tins. (I used Pam). 

In a large bowl mix together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and pepper.

In a separate bowl whisk together cooled butter, pumpkin, sugar, yogurt, and eggs. add to dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Do not overstir.

Place on middle rack of oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until nothing sticks to a toothpick when inserted in the center. Gently release muffins and cool on rack.

Muffins freeze well.