Sunday, 28 July 2013

Blackfriars Buildings and Bridges

July 2013

I was back in my hometown -- London, Ontario -- this week for a couple of days. I'd rented a car and had an hour to spare so I decided to drive back to the neighbourhood of my youth.  Cliche, I know.  But I did it, thinking it would be the same sleepy, quiet hollow it was for the decade or more that I lived there.  But instead i ran into community concern over buildings and bridges .... Read on.

Living near the Core of London, Ontario

My early years were spent living near the core of London, Ontario, first on one side of the Thames River high on a hill overlooking the river in a post WW-II era apartment complex with tons of kids.  

When I was six, we moved to Moir Street on the other side of the Thames River, living first in one one house (left picture).  It was a rough personal transition crossing the river ... a six-year-old yanked from a living situation with dozens of kids (and even kid 'gangs') ... to just me, sitting forlornly on the steps of a new house, the only six-year old on a street of older, retired folks who rocked on their front porches every evening and worried about the lively family of 5, then 6, who moved in and took over the little street.  Apparently I went into such a black funk that my mother brought some of my playmates from the apartment complex to visit and to help me adapt.  Poor me.

A few years later, we moved next door to a larger house on Moir Street (pictured, right side of photo below).  It was larger to accommodate a larger family, had a garage and even an apple tree in the backyard. 

Once acclimated, I thrived on Moir Street, making new friends and exploring the neighbourhood.  It didn't have a formal name then but, to me, it had defined boundaries that formed a square -- busy streets that I couldn't cross on three sides of the square (Wharncliffe, Dundas and Oxford) and the river and Blackfriars Bridge bridge on the fourth side. 

The warren of tiny streets and narrow alleys was my safety zone, a playground where I walked, biked, skipped and roller skated.  The houses ranged from rundown, deserted wrecks (we were convinced some were 'haunted') to Victorian relics from the early days of Ontario history to well-manicured boxy bungalows and two-storied homes.

The neighbourhood is also shaped like a bowl.  We lived at the bottom of the bowl in what were once the flood plains for the Thames River. In fact, the area had been flooded twice in the past century before the Springbank Dam was built and a breakwater constructed along the sides of the river (in picture, left).

By the time we moved in, the area was flood-free, and I used the breakwater walls for climbing practice in the summer months.  

Blackfriars/Petersville Community

As I drove up and down the little streets last week, I was struck by signs dotting nearly every lawn:  "We love Blackfriars!  Build homes, not boxes".   Hmmm... what's going on I wondered? 

A bit of research turned up facts I hadn't known:  the area of my youth was known as 'Petersville', named after one of the original London families. In recent years, it has become known as Blackfriars Community, to honour the century-old Blackfriars bridge spanning the river.  

The signs were there to protest development plans for three houses (like the one pictured left) to tear down the single-family homes and erect 10-bedroom rental duplexes designed for students.  Rumour is that the area would go from a family to a student community.  

Organizing and lobbying by community residents have halted those development plans (at least for now).  Letters to the editor and petitions to City Council urge the City to maintain the density ratios and historic character of the area.  So far, City Council has agreed with them, and, in fact, has fast-tracked an application to make the area -- now formally known as Blackfriars -- a 'heritage conservation district' which would in effect provide the sought-after protection.

Blackfriars Bridge 

I kept going, hoping to drive over the old Blackfriars Bridge that I remembered as the fourth side of my 'square' world.  Blackfriars Bridge is located, wait for it, at 0 Blackfriars Lane.  

In my early years, the bridge both fascinated me as an idyllic wonder (like the painting, right) over the river and scared me with the clackety-clack of vehicles on the wooden boards.

Alas, there was no nostalgic trip over it this time.  The road was barricaded with signs announcing it was 'closed due to construction'.  Not even foot traffic.  

Back to a little more digging.  I was surprised to learn that it was built in 1875 and is now 138 years old, if my math is correct.  It is one of only 19 wrought-iron bridges remaining in North America and one of the few still permitting vehicular traffic.  No wonder it now recognized as a London landmark, with a heritage designation!

The bridge was closed to vehicles earlier this year for maintenance, apparently just one of a string of ongoing repairs to maintain the structure.

Ominously, the City is also considering its future and an expensive structural inspection will likely determine its fate. Community residents are watching closely for the options that Council may recommend, ranging from a pedestrian-only to more hardier repairs to support traffic. 

Hopefully, there won't be a dumb decision to have it look like its namesake in London, UK that also crosses the Thames River.  Personally, I find the UK version of Blackfriars Bridge pictured right to be pretty ugly.  Give me iron quaintness anytime! 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Japchae: Korean National Party Dish

July 2013

SmartCooks here.

Vacation, bliss.  At long last.  Time to relax, get back to the blog, learn more about international food dishes.  

A Korean dish, Japchae, is my latest find.  It means literally a 'mixture of vegetables' and is made with cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch.  The vegetables are cooked in sesame oil and low-sodiumsoy sauce.  I would characterize it as a summer food i.e., serve it cold or warmed.  

Origins of Japchae

Japchae (also spelled 'chap chae') originated in the early 17th century, when the Joseon Dynasty was reigning in the Korean peninsula. As legend goes, when King Gwanghaegun hosted a big party at his palace, one of his lieges, Yi Chung, created a dish of vegetables to please the king’s palate. The king liked this dish so much that he rewarded his liege by promoting him to the position of hojo panseo (equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury).  Foodie indeed.

Sweet Potato noodles were not part of the original dish but made their debut in the early 20th century.  The long noodle (called 'danymyeon) symbolize long life/long happiness so purists do not cut them.

Today, Japchae is usually served at parties and special occasions like weddings and landmark birthdays. It's also popular street cart food.  At Korean restaurants, it is often served as a side dish or "banchan".  It can be made with beef/chicken/tofu or just with vegetables.  

'Doing the Carb Count":  Sweet Potato Cellophane noodles

Ever curious about 'better carbs', I googled 'sweet potato' vs 'pasta' noodles with some surprising results.  The good news is that the noodles are gluten-free, low sodium and contain no fat, a big plus for many.   But, not surprisingly, they have about the same calorie/carb count as whole wheat pasta, meaning about 170 calories in a portion of noodles and 43 grams of carbs.  Nonetheless... for a treat... 

Cooking the Dish

The vegetarian version from Savoury and Sweet Life was straightforward (the author was a guest blogger at Herbivoracious, photo at left).  There are a few guidelines for preparing the dish i.e., 

Noodles:  They should look translucent but still be pliable.  Don't overcook them.  

Vegetables:  The most common (so ones I tried) are shiitake and oyster mushrooms, onion, spinach (Korean or North American variety), carrots, bell peppers, green onions and garlic. 

Preparation:  Everything should be thinly sliced, either with a knife or julienned with a mandoline. 

Must-have's:  Everything is mixed with some soy sauce (less sodium), sugar, sesame oil, pepper, and sesame seeds.

If using beef or chicken, the best recipe was from a blogger called Beyond Kimchee, which follows the same guidelines as above but includes instructions for cutting meat into small 2 inch long by 1/4 inch thick pieces, marinading it and then adding it to the noodles.  Recipes for the vegetarian and meat versions of Japchae are given below.  

It's too hot and humid here in Ottawa (42 degree C and rising) to even consider cooking or eating anything today but there's always tomorrow!  And judging from the political events playing out today, I've cancelled holidays in C'Town this week and am back to the A/C at work for briefings.  Enjoy!  

Japchae Recipe
(Inspired by Sweet and Savoury Life, Herbivoracious and Beyond Kimchee blogs) 
Serves 2-3 as a main dish


1 bundle of potato starch cellophane noodles (packages contain 2-3 bundles)
2 cups of fresh spinach
1/2 medium yellow onion, julienned
1 carrot, peeled and cut into match sticks
1/2 red bell pepper, julienned
8-10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 stalks green onions, sliced in 1.5” slices (green parts only)
½ block of firm tofu, cut into small rectangle pieces (approx. 1.5”x1”x1/4”)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Olive or Canola oil
LIght soy sauce (amounts will vary, see directions)
Sesame oil (vary amounts in directions)
Salt and pepper
2 T sugar
3 T toasted sesame seeds


Noodles:  Boil one bundle of noodles for 5 minutes until softened and al dente in texture. Drain the noodles and do not rinse. Add noodles to a large bowl and cut them three times with kitchen shears (or not).  Add 2 T (each) of low-sodium soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Toss noodles until sauce is evenly distributed.  Set aside. 

Spinach:  Using the same pot as the noodles, add enough water to boil spinach for 1 minute. Remove spinach from water and allow to cool just enough to squeeze as much water out as possible. Cut spinach in thirds, and massage it while seasoning with 1 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add spinach to the noodles.

Vegetables:  Heat a wok or large frying pan on high. Add 1 tsp of olive or canola oil and cook and stir sliced onions for 2 minutes. Season with 1/2 tsp of sesame oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add onions to the large bowl of noodles. Repeat the same process as the onions except reduce cooking times to 30 seconds for the carrots, 2 minutes for the bell red pepper, 1 minute for the shiitake mushrooms, and 10 seconds for the green onions.

Tofu:  Fry tofu squares for 1 minute per side – but do not add to the bowl of noodles. 

Assembly:  Add 2 T of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 T of sesame oil, 2 T of sugar, and ½ tsp of pepper to the noodles and toss everything until well mixed.  Add 1 T of olive or canola oil to the hot wok and add minced garlic. Allow garlic to cook for a few seconds and add the entire bowl of mix noodles and vegetables to the wok/pan. Stir-fry everything for 2-3 minutes and turn off heat. Gently add tofu and transfer noodles to a large serving platter. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top. Serve warm or cold.

Meat versions:  Cut beef or chicken into strips of 2 inches long x 1/4 inch thick.  Marinade meat in 1 T low-sodium soy sauce, 1/2 T sugar, 1 T rice wine, 1 tsp chopped garlic, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 1/4 tsp pepper.  Saute in hot wok a few minutes, then remove.  Keep sauce in pan and add noodles and vegetables to it and stir fry.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Picnic-Pick Pickled Vegetable Slaw with Mustard Seeds

July 2013

SmartCooks here.

I overbought at the Farmer's Market last weekend.  No surprise there.

It meant of course that before setting off for another week in Charlottetown, I was faced with the choice of either 
a) bringing a plastic bag of fresh vegetables and a freezer pack in my carry-on luggage; or 
b) making pickled vegetables that last up to a month in the refrigerator.

I chose b) and made 3 batches of vegey slaw earlier in the week.  

Smart choice.  

Upon my return from C'Town Friday night, delightfully crunchy fresh pickled vegetables awaited me, making it super simple to pull together a light dinner of zesty lime chicken sliders (with a dash of vegetable slaw) and a watermelon and cumber salad.  Excellent... fast... low fat.

What inspired me was a Smitten Kitchen posting where Deb vows that doing this was fast, easy, and crunchy without the mess and bother of canning and sterilizing.  Sold.

Plus, you could use any combo of vegetable on hand to make the slaw.  Particularly crunchy are radishes, bell peppers (of any colour), carrots, sugar snap peas, kirby cucumbers, cabbage, parsnips, zucchini, red onion.  she warns against adding red radish because the red colour bleeds into the other vegetables. I ignored this advice and went with red radishes and so far, all is good.

The only potential hassle with this recipe is cutting up all the vegetables.  I saved time and used a mandoline with a julienne blade.  I have a julienne peeler but in the interest of time went with the fast route.  A knife works just as well. Just get 'em all into skinny matchstick size. 

The vegetables will be lightly pickled within an hour, and done in a day. They will last for weeks in the refrigerator as long as they stay immersed in the brine.  

The slaw is coming with me this weekend as we head out into the (finally!) July type weather for a bike ride/picnic/farmer's market visit.  Definitely my pick for fav picnic-friendly fare!   Enjoy! 

Picnic-Pick Pickled Vegetable Slaw with Mustard Seeds
(Inspired by Smitten Kitchen) 

Pickling mixture1 cup distilled white vinegar

4 T sugar
2 T Kosher salt
2 T yellow mustard seeds
1 cup cold water
Vegetable Slaw mixture
4-5 cups mixed julienned firm, raw vegetables (from list above)
Jalapeno or Bird's eye chili slivers (optional)

Bring vinegar, sugar, salt and mustard seeds to a simmer in a small pot over medium heat, stirring only until sugar and salt dissolve. 

Stir in water and let cool to lukewarm.  Divide vegetables between jars. (I used 3 jars).  Pour vinegar mixture over vegetables and refrigerate.