December 18, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown Part Three: It's the Little Things

Every year, when I’m cooking dozens and dozens of hors d’oeuvres for the Open House, I’m reminded of Mrs. Flax, the mother in the movie Mermaids.  Played brilliantly by Cher, Mrs Flax only cooks finger food because anything else, she proclaims, is too much of a commitment.

I know what she means.  A marshmallow kebab is assembled in a matter of seconds, while a lasagne takes time, patience and love. 

But a funny thing happens when you’re making hors d’oeuvres in bulk.  The same time, patience and love that you commit to a full blown meal works its way into every dip or meatball, every fondue and tapenade. 

We’ve done pretty much everything we can do now.  Dishes made ahead are defrosting; table set, serving dishes labelled and at the ready.  The servers will be here in less than five hours, the guests hot on their heels, hungry and happy and full of holiday spirit. 

As I share one more recipe and five more favourite Open House tips with you, I know that every dish we’ve laboured over, sprinkled with a lot of patience and seasoned with love, is worth the time and commitment we make to this seasonal celebration.  May your own holiday celebrations be just as meaningful, and just as much fun.

adapted from Martha Stewart Hors d’Ouevres Handbook
makes 3 dozen

These little risotto balls (arancini means "little orange" in Italian) are delicious warm or room temperature and can be made ahead.  I've adapted the recipe by adding a savoury meat filling that makes these little bites even more satisfying.

For the risotto
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 large shallots
1 c Arborio rice
½ c dry white wine
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 oz Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
½ cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup yellow cornmeal or fine dry breadcrumbs
2 quarts peanut oil, for frying

1. Bring stock to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and keep warm.  

2. Heat the olive oil over medium heat, and cook the shallots until translucent. Add the rice and the salt, stirring frequently to coat all of the grains, until the edges of the rice become translucent. 

3. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until nearly all of the wine is absorbed into the rice. Add 1 cup of the stock and cook, stirring constantly, until nearly all of the stock is absorbed.

4. Continue adding stock, ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly, until the rice is creamy but still firm, about 20 minutes. Season with pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley and Parmesan.

5. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large bowl. Allow the rice to cool completely, stirring occasionally. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm and thoroughly chilled. The mixture must be cold before proceeding with the recipe.

For the meat filling
¼ c olive oil
1 each small onion, carrot and celery stalk, finely chopped
¼ lb each ground pork and veal, mixed
1 c Marsala
½ c beef stock
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp minced parsley

1.  In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook until softened. 

2.  Add the meat, stirring to break up, and cook until just browned; do not overcook.  Add the Marsala, and turn heat to high; scrape up browned bits as you deglaze the pan.  Reduce liquid by half.

3.  Add the three remaining ingredients, turn heat to medium and simmer until thickened, about 15-20 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4.  If the risotto is chilled, proceed with recipe, otherwise the meat filling can be stored in the refrigerator overnight.  Reheat gently to release juices before proceeding with recipe.

5.   Place 1 generous tablespoon of the risotto in the palm of your hand, pack it lightly and make an indentation in the centre.  Place a teaspoon of the meat mixture in the centre of the rice.  Enclose the meat with the risotto to form a ball.  Don't worry if the meat is not perfectly centred in the ball. Repeat with the remaining risotto and meat, placing finished arancini on parchment-lined trays.  The arancini may be covered and refrigerated overnight at this stage.

6.  Place the flour in a small rimmed baking tray.  Place the eggs in a shallow bowl and the cornmeal or breadcrumbs in a small rimmed baking tray.  Roll the arancini first in the flour, gently shaking off any excess.  Dip the balls into the egg mixture, being sure to let any excess egg drip off before rolling in the cornmeal.  
7.     Heat the peanut oil in a large deep skillet.  Carefully slip as many arancini as will fit comfortably in the pan into the hot oil, and fry until golden, 2 to 4 minutes.  Repeat until all of the arancini are cooked.  Drain the arancini on paper towels and keep warm until ready to serve.
The arancini can be prepared and cooked one day in advance and reheated in the oven before serving, or formed and refrigerated, uncooked, two days in advance. 

Five Tips For Prepping a Party For a Crowd

1.  Do what restaurants do: sear your meat in advance and finish cooking a la minute.  Lamb chops are an Open House standard for us.  We marinate the racks and sear the meat in advance.  On party day, all that's left to do is the final broil.


...and seared, ready to be finished the next day 

2.  Don't limit yourself to hors d’oeuvres recipes.  Rethink your favourite main course dishes and think about how you can downsize them.  Have a killer lasagne recipe?  Make it, cook it, cool it, precut into little squares, freeze it and presto - lasagne "bites" that you can reheat on party day. 

3.  When we host a dinner party, I always seem to buy too much bread.  With a food ethic that says "never throw anything away",  I slice those half baguettes and freeze them.  Then, whenever I'm throwing a party, I thaw out the slices and toast for crostini/bruschette bottoms.  For the Open House, I also make my own.  One large baguette yields more than two dozen crostini and cost a couple of dollars; a fancy box of crostini yields far less than that, some of them broken, and cost $5.49.  You do the math.

4.  While I do have an extra fridge and freezer in the basement, I also use every available space to keep things cold.  The garage doubles as a giant fridge at this time of year, as does the back porch.  Especially handy for beverages (see tip #5).

5.  We always serve a delicious non-alcoholic punch that both adults and kids love.  I prep four batches in advance in empty extra large cranberry juice bottles, combining everything but the carbonated ingredients.  On party day, I pour a batch into the punch bowl, add the remaining bubbles, stir and serve. 

I'm off to do my last minute prep.  Wishing you a lovely Sunday, wherever you may be.

December 10, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown Part Two: Gingerbread Cookies

 Holiday Pop Quiz:
Gingerbread originated in which country?

a.  Sweden
  b.  Armenia
c.  France

If you’re anything like me, random facts, stats, historical footnotes and unusual bits of information intrigue and stick with me. For some reason, I can conveniently forget to pay the phone bill but miraculously remember that the name Wendy was made up for the play Peter Pan, or that Canadians eat more Kraft Dinner per capita than any other country in the world.

I especially love knowing those random and fascinating facts about food. Why mint with lamb? Is Greek yogurt really of Greek origin? And, as I baked more than 17 dozen gingerbread cookies this past weekend for our holiday Open House, I wondered - just where does gingerbread come from?

You’ll have plenty of time to decide if it’s Sweden, Armenia or France while you bake up a batch of my favourite, go-to gingerbread cookies. I’ll admit I’ve tweaked the recipe quite a bit over the years, adding more spices and heightening the ginger-to-molasses ratio. Before you do your own tinkering, try the original version below, from LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine.  And if you really need to know the answer about where gingerbread comes from before you break your first egg, scroll to the end of the post.

Gingerbread Cookies
from LCBO Food and Drink magazine
yields approximately four dozen*
*NB: The yield is entirely dependant on the size of the cookie cutters used.  Naturally, the smaller the cutter the greater the yield, but you are also limiting your ability to later personalise the cookies.

2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp powdered ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
6 c unsifted all purpose flour
1 c vegetable shortening
1¾ c brown sugar
1¼ c white sugar
4 tsp molasses
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ c milk

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2.  Sift together the baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and flour.  Set aside. 

3. In a stand mixer, cream together the shortening, the two sugars and molasses until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time and continue to cream until incorporated.

4.  Add a little of the flour mixture to the creamed ingredients, incorporating fully before adding more.  When the dough begins to stiffen, begin alternating flour mixture with milk, until both are incorporated.  Mix until a dough is formed.  Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least one hour.

5.  Roll out the dough on a floured surface, about a ¼ inch thick.  Cut out gingerbread with cookie cutters.  If you intend to use the cookies as ornaments, form a hole at the top of the cookie using a straw or chopstick, about a ¼ inch from the top. 

6.  Bake cookies until golden brown at the edges, about 20-25 minutes.  Cool on racks and store until ready to decorate.

Five Tips for Baking Gingerbread Cookies

1.  Start early.  Gingerbread is hardy.  If well cooled and stored in an airtight container, the cookies can be baked weeks in advance.

2.  Sift dry ingredients ahead of time.  If you`re making lots of cookies, sift the dry ingredients for each batch ahead of time and store in Ziplock bags.  It`s an extra step done and makes the work go much more quickly.

3.  Make the dough and prepare the cookies sheets in batches too.  Because the dough has to rest for at least an hour, I spend one evening making the dough and store it in the fridge and then do a massive baking the next night.  Instead of popping every tray in the oven as they're full, I do five full sheets at a time, eliminating the need to constantly open the oven door.

4.  Use chopsticks to form the holes...both before and after baking.  The holes tend to lose their shape during baking; a quick turn in each cookie ensures you`ll be able to thread ribbon through much more easily.

Reinforce ribbon holes in still-warm cookies

5.  Buy extra oven racks and use the convection setting.  I only really bake en masse once a year, but even so that one time made it worth it for me to buy three extra oven racks from my oven manufacturer for mass baking.  Plus, I`m able to use those extra racks for reheating hors d'oeuvres during the Open House.  I also started using the convection setting on my oven, shaving about 10 minutes from the baking time of each batch.

Click here for a super Royal Icing recipe that`s perfect to decorate these brown beauties.

So, where did gingerbread originate?  According to Wikipedia, gingerbread was brought to France via Pompeii in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis.  The recipe later spread to Sweden and to the nether regions of Europe, every country adding a twist to make it their own.  The constant is the spicy heat from ginger and the abundance of spices in general, reflecting the tendency to use the most rare and coveted ingredients for the Christmas feast.

November 29, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown: Part One

I used to adore Christmas. I was the one who got up before all my siblings, going down the stairs on my tippy toes to scope out the presents piled high beneath the tree, checking to see if the milk and cookies were gone, biting down a squeal of delight if there was magical snow on the ground. My older, wiser sisters slept more peacefully, knowing that the thrill of anticipation is best cultivated by waiting, waiting, a little bit longer for gratification.

The obligatory beauty shot with the Christmas tree, pre-Santa visit

Invariably a gift or two was forgotten. There would be a wayward box tucked high in the closet, perhaps with new pyjamas, or maybe, if I was especially lucky, a new doll. New dolls being a rarity in a house with two older sisters and frugal, hand-me-down parents. My mother would suddenly slip away, coming back with the errant package, hastily wrapped and “forgotten” by Santa. Even when I was old enough to catch on, these last minute random gifts seemed somehow special, apart from the rest, and those pyjamas, that doll, treasured all the more for almost having been missed.

Those Christmases of a lifetime ago seem almost as mythical as Dickens. Nowadays, Christmas is a very different affair. My parents are both gone. My sisters and I, although still very close, live many miles and lives apart. And, as hard as we’ve tried, we just can’t seem to interest our cat in either new pyjamas or dolls (although a brand new catnip toy does garner more than passing interest). Time for new traditions, new ways of celebrating and sharing a spirit of joy during the Christmas season.

And thus was born our annual Holiday Open House. An iron-clad tradition, it started as a modest affair with 30 friends and family popping by to nibble on hors d’oeuvres and share a convivial hour or two. Sixteen years and three kitchens later, it is the bellwether for us that the season of giving has truly arrived, and with it, a chance to reconnect, relax, share and celebrate all that is good about Christmas.

With more than 80 people now regularly in attendance, and all of the food prepared by us, I modestly think we’ve become somewhat expert at throwing a ‘do. One that we know is as eagerly anticipated by all who come as it is by us who plan it.

As we begin the four week countdown to the big day – December 18 this year – I thought I would take you along on the journey, sharing tips, tricks, recipes and survival tactics for how to throw a party with aplomb, verve, passion and enthusiasm. Because I do firmly believe that even the most disastrous of events can be salvaged with a bit of verve and a lot of enthusiasm.

Five Tips for a Memorable Holiday Gathering

1. Send proper invitations. By that I mean in the mail. You remember mail, right? When it was exciting to receive a beautiful silver envelope amongst all of the junk and the bills? People still get excited by personal invitations and for the little bit more time and effort, it makes a wonderful impact. Yes, I know I know; you can’t keep track of RSVPs electronically; you can’t automatically send reminders; you won’t know who FOR SURE is coming and with whom – but do you ever really anyway? For years we even made our invites by hand but time and common sense in the form of my husband prevailed. Do what we do and look for beautiful invitations on sale after Christmas. Plan ahead for the next year (but remember where you put them!).

From the complex to the silly: handmade invites of Open Houses past

2. Hire help.  For goodness sake, don’t be a martyr. Hire people to help you serve/clean/clear/take coats. Even if the gathering is small, hire a local college student (or pay your older kids) to pitch in and help. Even better – if there’s a local culinary or hospitality school, post your party there. You’ll get someone who’s enthusiastic about food. You’ll be more relaxed and more importantly you’ll be able to spend time with your guests. For our annual do, we hire five wait staff: two to do last minute prep for food, and three to do the rest.

3. Simplify your food choices. Finger foods are fun easy to prepare and many can be made and frozen in advance. I also stick with all savoury. Introducing sweets means coffee, tea, etc etc.

Pastry cirlces for mini meat pies that can be baked, frozen, and pre-heated as needed

4. Remember it’s the season of giving. Amidst all of the bounty, we try to remember those who have less than us. Every year we accept donations to our Daily Bread Food Bank. With the abundance on the table, it makes us feel great to collect those boxes and boxes of food.

The generosity of our guests in full evidence

5. Give everyone a little something special to take home. Every year we make each guest a personalised gingerbread cookie. It’s probably the most laborious thing we do, but perhaps the most satisfying. I love seeing the look on the kids’ faces when they’re handed a cookie with their name on it. And nothing beats the smell of gingerbread baking.

Stay tuned for more as we gear up and count down. This is truly one of our favourite things – perhaps it will become one for you too.

November 02, 2011

Plate to Page - Eating and Drinking in la Bella Toscana

How many days does it take, I wonder, to get perfectly accustomed to having wine at every meal? In la bella Toscana, it seems the answer is barely two. Just days into the Plate to Page workshop and already I’m anticipating the wine we’ll have with lunch at Il Salicone winery.

Il Salicone is not your typical Tuscan winery. It’s an artisanal operation, producing small batch Sangiovese blend wines that are more likely to find their way into demijohns for local purchase as they are to be bottled and sold at retail. There’s no proper restaurant; tables are set outside, mismatched glasses and plastic utensils belying the feast that’s to come. The three signore preparing our meal smile and say “buon giorno” as we walk through the kitchen and out onto the simple terrace.

There couldn’t be a more perfect day for it, with the sun so blazingly hot it feels more like July than October. There’s barely a whisper of a breeze and even the birds seemed fooled into thinking it’s summer, singing like crazy as they scramble for stray crumbs. The meal is brought out and almost offhandedly laid before us. Platters abound: chicken liver crostini; cheese with acacia honey; simple salume. Ribollita¸ a slow cooked soup of day old bread and seasonal vegetables are here, along with a choice of fritatte: cheese, pancetta or leeks. The Poggioalcanto we’re drinking is just right with this Tuscan spread: full and fruity, without the rough edge that many Sangiovese wines seem to have.

We sit back, sated. And then la signora comes out with one last bite – a plate of cantuccini, traditional Tuscan almond cookies. Twice baked to draw out the moisture, cantuccini are deliberately hard and dry, to store them for long periods of time, as was the original intent, or better yet, to dip them into our wine. I move to a shady spot to savour this last bite.  As I dip the cantuccio, it absorbs the liquid like a sponge, transforming it from buttery yellow to a deep plum, and softening it just enough to take a resounding bite. Sweet and acidic, soft and hard, the conflicting sensations combine somehow in the most satisfying way.

I drain the last sip in my glass, thankful that the next meal – and next glass of wine – is only hours away.


This blog post was conceived and written at the recent Plate to Page Tuscany workshop, in partnership with Marta Majewska, who blogs at Princess Misia.  Marta is a fantastic photographer, and shot the first and the last photo in this post, while I captured the words that described our experience, and the biscotti in the middle.  Thanks, Marta, for being an amazing assignment partner and a great roommate to boot! And hugs to Valentina Jacome, our other roomie, who blogs in Portuguese at Trem Bom.

And if you are passionate about food and blogging, and you haven't heard of Plate to Page Tuscany, get thee to their website.  The four organisers are not only truly successful food bloggers; they are absolutely delightful, and the very best hosts for an intensive, engaging writing and photography workshop.  The next Plate to Page is taking place in Somerset, Engalnd; be sure to register your interest!

With thanks to the P2P rock stars: Ilva Beretta of Lucullian Delights, Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cook Sister!,Meeta Kurana Wolff of What's For Lunch, Honey?, and Jamie Schler of Life's a Feast.  Watch this space for more P2P posts!

October 23, 2011

La Bella Italia: Panzanella Salad from la cucina povera

Always the freshest produce at the Italian market

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Born to Italian immigrants, I saw this first hand growing up. We reused and recycled long before it was fashionable; everything was saved and nothing went to waste. Nowhere was that more apparent than around food. The parmigiano rind went into the soup, adding depth and richness of flavour. Drippings were carefully strained and preserved. Coffee grinds and egg shells made a rich compost, the better to grow our tomatoes, zucchini and peppers.

That is also how the most delicious of Italian dishes have been born. La cucina povera – literally the poor kitchen – is represented by those dishes where a little had to go a long way, a piece of meat was precious, scarce and longed for, and nothing ever went to waste. Pappa al pomodoro – bread and tomato soup. Risi e bisi – rice and beans. Acquacotta – literally “cooked water” soup, into which all of the day’s scraps were combined to make a warming (and delicious) broth.

Rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see at Fattoria di Montalbano

The view at breakfast - an idyllic spot to start the day

We began our recent two week Italian holiday in an agriturismo just south of Florence – Fattoria di Montalbano. We had rented Il Trebbiali, a six bedroom villa on the grounds of the Nustrini farm. Charming, comfortable and with a big homey Tuscan kitchen, I had visions of cooking up a storm of Italian delicacies. As it happened, dinner was more often than not a gorgeous plate of salume and cheese, accompanied by delicious Chianti.

Enjoying a sundowner at Il Trebbiali

On our last night at Il Trebbiali, we planned to use the last of what was in the fridge. And so it was that I experienced firsthand la cucina povera. Upon inspection, there wasn’t much left, but I knew what was there would be great. I’d assemble a plate of the remaining finocchiona, prosciutto and pecorino; the fresh sausages we bought at the local marcelleria would be grilled, and we’d finish with perhaps my favourite of the cucina povera repertoire: panzanella – a tomato, bread and cucumber salad that humbly combines a handful of ingredients into a splendid dish.

Panzanella Salad
serves four comfortably, and two greedily

A half a loaf or more of good quality day old Italian bread. The bread must be old; this is not the time to use a fresh loaf
Olive oil
One garlic clove, cut in half
6-8 really ripe but firm tomatoes. Forget the hard tasteless fruits of winter and greenhouses
1 English cucumber
4-6 leaves fresh basil, torn
More olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Slice the bread into thick pieces. Rub the cut clove over one side and generously brush both sides of the bread with olive oil. Grill the bread over a charcoal grill, turning the pieces until both sides are browned and toasted. Set bread aside to cool.

2. Roughly chop the tomatoes and put them in a large serving bowl. Some recipes for panzanella call for the tomatoes to be peeled and seeded; I say - this is a rustic salad. La mamma would have dispensed with such niceties when trying to feed a hungry family.

3. Trim the cucumber and chop into bite sized pieces. Add to the tomatoes. Add the basil.

4. Cut the bread into large crouton-style cubes. Add to the tomatoes and toss all three ingredients until well combined.

5. Add a generous amount of olive oil (at least 2 tbsp) and salt and pepper to taste. Toss, taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

The salad can be made ahead, enough so that the juices develop and the bread absorbs some of the tomato flavour but not so much that you have soggy bread.  If you are making ahead, add the basil just before serving and give a final toss to combine ingredients.

Serve at the end of a Tuscan meal, preferably during sunset, and finish with a delightful bottle of Chianti.

Buon appetito!

October 20, 2011

La Bella Italia

It's been so long since I've updated duckandcake, but it's not a shortage of stories that's stopping me.  In between life, which has been full tilt and non-stop busy, Richard and I escaped to Italy for a blissful two week holiday.  Stay tuned as I share stories, great places to stay and visit, recipes and most of all our wonderful food experiences. 

Pranzo in Spoleto and a taste of posts to come...

A presto, amici!

September 03, 2011

Just Peachy: Homemade Peach Salsa

I can’t believe it’s already September. It’s the time of year that becomes measured by the retail count-down calendar. Back to school is barely over before Halloween candies and Thanksgiving turkeys creep into the grocery aisles. And when I hear that first Christmas carol on the radio, I know that snow and short dark days are not far behind.

But I know I'll forget all of that when I see what’s at the farmers’ market today. An embarrassment of tomato riches. Ripe peaches and plums. Early apples, mouth-puckering tart. Glorious corn. It’s when I wish we had a houseful of kids so that I can buy bushels of produce.

A year after I discovered the joys of canning and preserving, I’m itching to buy those bushels anyway and lock summer in a jar.  The sad truth is that I just don't have the time.  It’s the choices around time that are the hardest ones to make of all.  I’ve been away from home for far too long and too much these past three weeks to buy three bushels of tomatoes and lock myself in the kitchen making sauce.  Striking the balance between what feeds our soul and what feeds our relationships is a constant struggle.  So, right now, I'll spend my weekend reconnecting with my husband, my house and my life, satisfied in the knowledge that I managed to make the most of some gorgeous summer peaches three weeks ago.

Peach Salsa
makes about 8 8-oz jars

Although I have several cookbooks devoted to canning and preserving, my go-to is the Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving.  I use it more as a guide than a step by step, especially when it comes to sugar quantities.  This is my version of the Bernardin peach salsa, modified to let the peach flavour really shine.

½ c white vinegar
10 c peeled and chopped peaches
1 chopped red onion
2 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
¼ c chopped cilantro
2 tbsp honey
½ tbsp cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper

1.  Put all ingredients in a large non reactive pot and stir gently to combine. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring constantly.  Reduce heat and bring to a rolling simmer for five minutes, continuing to stir until the salsa is thickened slightly.

2.  Ladle hot salsa in prepared jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.  Remove jars from water, check for proper sealing, cool and store.*

Use this mildly piquant salsa with with pork, fish or grilled meats

*If you haven't canned before, refer back to my post on Italian Plum Jam, which includes a step-by-step pictorial and some great links to preserving websites

August 28, 2011

Made in Japan: On-Line Auction for A Fund for Jennie

On March 11, we all watched with horror as Japan experienced first a devastating earthquake and then an even more destructive tsunami. Amidst the tragedy and uncertainty, what happened next was truly inspiring, as the world gathered to take the Japanese people in its arms and give them comfort, in whatever way it could.

The tsunami was on my mind this week while I was in Tokyo on business. On the surface, Tokyo is the same as ever – an exciting, eclectic city, filled with wonderful people and the weird and wacky things that make Japan so unique. Taxi drivers with their white gloves and immaculate crocheted covered seats. Shops dedicated to making and selling just one thing: crackers, say, or egg omelettes. The tiny restaurants and cafes that serve completely fresh and seasonal food as a matter of course, their popularity measured by the long and patient lines of patrons waiting to be seated.

Sakura (cherry flavoured) tempura-style bun from Agemaju Asakusa Kokonoe, a little stall that sells nothing but five flavours of tempura-style buns

But deeply, fundamentally, something has changed in Japan. As one person described it to me, “Meaningful experiences matter more than ever, especially with our families. And making a difference for others has never been so important.”

Making a difference was on my mind this week, too. The Twittersphere was full of a call to action; a communal gathering to comfort, to offer succour, to try and assuage another deep and fundamental wound. When Jennifer Perillo lost her husband suddenly and cruelly a few weeks ago, friends and strangers alike responded with the deep need to help make a devastating blow bearable in whatever way they could. From making peanut butter pies to launching a donation fund, to creating the most amazing online auctions, we’ve tried to gather Jennie in our arms. I’m sure you’ve read about this and, like me, have marvelled at the generosity of people.

I wanted to do my part to help, and with the perfect opportunity to pick up some wonderful Japanese products, I’m launching my own online auction for Jennie. Made in Japan features items you’ll be able to bid on that have come with me direct from Tokyo this week, and represent a wide variety of Japanese goods to surprise, delight and enjoy.

Included in the Made in Japan auction:

Two knives from Sugimoto, a company that has been making knives since the 1830s. The tiny shop at Tsukji Market is worth seeking out. I bought two knives from Sugimoto last year and am a big fan. The auction features a stainless steel Western style 6” general purpose knife and a 4” single edge honed traditional Japanese carbon blade, wood handled vegetable knife (for right handed cooks). Also from Sugimoto – a pair of fish tweezers for picking out the fine bones from your next salmon fillet.

A set of two beautiful lacquer ware cups from Urusi. The finish is satiny smooth and cups can be used for either hot or cold beverages

Two sizes of suribachi with a surikogi. The suribachi is a Japanese mortar used with a pestle (the surikogi). In Japanese cooking the suribachi is used to crush sesame seed. Smaller versions can be used to grate fresh wasabi or ginger.

Set of eight small appetizer dishes; two shapes, each with four different patterns

Delightful baking supplies.  Two packs (100 each) of whimsical cupcake holders and a stencil for making special personalised cookies

A shichimi togarashi set (pictured right) from Yagenbori, a company that has been in business since 1625. They make the delicious seven spice blend known as shichimi togarashi, which is blended to order with every purchase. This blend is the “medium” version; my favourite way to use it is in sautĂ©ed kale, and the set includes a wooden holder for the spice

Yuzu Sencha tea with Matcha from Jugetsudo.  This tea is delicious hot or cold and makes a particularly refreshing drink with its unique yuzu flavour. Plus matcha powder, with recipes

Sweet treats, including sugar coated soy beans and pretty sugar candies

And my favourite item: coasters in three colours with the following message: Welcome.  Please relax slowly while drinking the drink. Sage advice indeed.
The value of the auction items is $450.  Bidding starts at $100. To bid,
leave a comment below with your bid amount.  Bidding will end on Friday, September 2 at 11:59 pm Eastern time – just before the stroke of midnight. NEW: I will include shipping for anywhere in continental North America.

As the Japanese say, hito wa itawari atte ikite ikanakereba narimasen: people have to live by caring for each other. Bloggers Without Borders is still accepting donations to A Fund For Jennie, with the proceeds going directly to Jennie and her two girls. Click here to give whatever you can; every dollar counts and helps.

Arigatou gozaimasu – thank you very much, and good luck!

August 08, 2011

BSP2 Part Two: Who Made the Quinoa Salad?

For someone who travels as much as I do, you'd think I'd be a light packer.

I consider it a success if I can manage to pack for a week with just five pairs of shoes (I’m counting my running shoes as part of the five, mind). While I do plan ahead, and know exactly what I’ll be wearing when, I like to have options, shall we say. And then there’s the matter of the “shop opp”. Even with the smallest of suitcases, I always bring a fold up bag that expands to duffel size proportions. Because you just never know when a shop opp will present itself.

But when I went to Big Summer Potluck, I was determined to bring just a carry on. Criteria were simple: only three pairs of shoes – max. Room for an optional top (or two). And most importantly: space for my potluck salad ingredients, which included six cups each of cooked red rice and quinoa. I felt practically empty-handed as I wheeled my cute little pink Zuca through the airport.

I’ll spare you the details of the delayed flights, the six-lane freeway closure, the fact that I couldn’t find watercress for the salad. What matters is I finally arrived at the Anderson home –the setting for the first evening gathering and our kick-off potluck dinner – salad in hand.

The fabulous Anderson home

High stakes when you bring food to a food blogger event and it’s being hosted by Pam Anderson. Even higher when’s it’s a gluten-free affair. But people who are obsessed with food are generous souls, and seek nothing more than to gather round the feast. Because we all know that every dish is made with love, spiced with humour and served with pride.

And so my quinoa salad was eaten down to the last bite. And me, the very proud lighter packer, went home with the biggest (and heaviest) prize of all – a glorious candy apple red Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Betty, as she is proudly named (thanks Jenny), now sits on my kitchen counter. A constant reminder of the generosity of spirit that is BSP2. With thanks to Kitchen Aid and eight second hugs all around for the fabulous Andersons and Erika of The Ivory Hut.

Betty, comfortably at home at chez duckandcake

Red Rice and Quinoa Salad with Dried Cherries, Walnuts and Capers
serves 4 as a side dish

I knew the salad was a hit when The Tough Cookie came downstairs during dinner and demanded to know "Who made the quinoa salad?"  This salad is dedicated to Gail, who will make it, and Jackie, who will eat it.

1 cup each cooked red rice and quinoa, rinsed and drained
⅓ c chopped walnuts
⅓ c dried cherries
1-2 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
Zest of one lemon
¼ chopped mint
½ c chopped watercress (or chopped spinach)
2 tbsp minced chives
Salt (optional)*

*Salting the rice and quinoa while cooking, and the addition of capers to the salad, should make the salad plenty salty.

Combine all of the ingredients together in an attractive bowl and serve. The salad is a great make-ahead dish; refrigerate several hours ahead and bring it to room temperature before serving.

August 03, 2011

Big Summer Potluck 2, Part One: On Becoming a Food Blogger

A breakfast feast at BSP2, featuring fresh peaches, gluten-free muffins and homemade jam from Sugarcrafter

I remember the first time I wondered if I was really a bona fide blogger, even a part-time one, which was all I was aspiring to be. I was having that most perfect of Saturday morning indulgences – a pedicure – and as the aesthetician and I chatted, I mentioned I had a food blog. “I have a blog too!” she said. It was a mommy blog, and she had started it a month earlier. We exchanged URLs, and when I got home I looked up her site. I had written nine posts that month – quite an accomplishment, I thought, for my little hobby. Erika had written 80. Not eight – 80. Whoa.

I had dipped a toe in the water of food blogs barely six months before. Ready-made Blogger template; barely a notion of how to tag, let alone what it would do for my Google ranking. Monetize? I had gingerly put two food-related ads on my blog; the cheque must still be in the mail. Every new follower was a triumph and it didn’t matter that the number hardly changed from week to week (well, it did, but this was a hobby, right?). I thought I took decent photos with my little point and shoot.

I was amazed at the size and diversity of the food blogging community. I threw a stone in the pond and I joined Foodbuzz, Cook Eat Share, The Daring Kitchen, Charcutepalooza. With each ripple, I saw the community was legion, and I couldn’t even make out the distant shore. Relationships mattered, and Twitter provided a way to form immediate connections, even if at arm’s length and more like cousins twice removed than siblings.

The beautifully simple table setting at Linden Hill Gardens

And that’s how I heard about Big Summer Potluck. It hardly mattered what it was; what did matter was that it seemed to be a MUST ATTEND event (and if @thepeche said so, I was smart enough to believe it). It seemed a friendly thing – somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania – and with just the right amount of people; not too big to be overwhelming, not too small to feel out of step with all those who would surely know one another. And so I bought a ticket. With that weird blend of low and massive expectations, I made my way by two planes and an automobile to Ottsville, PA, quinoa and rice salad in tow.

I learned a lot.  Not about SEO, or monetization, or tagging or writing the perfect post.  I learned that a moment can be an idea.  That the hardest part of getting a great photo is getting past yourself.  That you need a point of departure - what, exactly, are you trying to say with those words? That photo? The post?  And that it's okay not to know the answer to those questions when you start.

Chickens at Linden Hill - living in the moment

At BSP2 last weekend I wondered again if I was a bona fide blogger. But for the first time, I finally got permission to be exactly the kind of blogger I can be, with the expectations not formed by some amorphous and invisible host of judges, but by me. That was the life lesson, amongst many, that Shauna James Ahern, the wonderful Gluten-Free Girl, imparted.  Get real and be real, girl (and boy).  Expose your messy self.  It's what matters and what makes a connection count.  Yes, indeed.

The radiant Penny de los Santos.

Perhaps by now you’ve read some of the amazing and moving blog posts written by others who were at BSP2. If you haven’t you should know that Penny de los Santos is a wizard – not just with her camera, but with her ability to spellbind a room and recreate a photograph that all of us could see as clearly as if it were in front of us. [Click here to see the incredible photographs that Penny was describing and the read the beautiful story They Remember Home by Annia Ciezadlo].  I have never been so inspired and felt so connected to a speaker before – but that’s because this was a personal conversation and Penny offering her art (and self) up to us with arms wide open.  And that was her point, really.  As Penny says, photography is a metaphor for life - and that magical moment of making a connection, of drawing people in - is what really matters.

Expectations? Beyond exceeded.  But that's what happens when you think you're going to a food blogger event and you find yourself connected to an instant family of friends.

So am I a bona fide blogger?  If what that means is that I am passionate about what I write, that it matters to me, and that I am being my real self - then I think the answer is yes.  It matters less that I have the requisite photo of ingredients with "easy and delicious recipes that you can make for dinner tonight!" (guilty as charged).  It matters more that I am connected - to myself first of all, and then hopefully to you too.  I hope you stick around to see how it all comes out. 

[With a huge 8 second hug and thanks to Maggy of Three Many Cooks and Erika of The Ivory Hut for an amazing event. Can't wait 'til next year!]