Christmas Pudding

This year I wanted to try something different and twist up my Christmas baking routine. Instead of ginger cookies and German zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), I went for Christmas pudding — a classic British Christmas sweet that dates back to the Victorian era.
I went online and watched a few YouTube videos (like this one here) and recipes that helped me figure things out. I actually made two Christmas puddings, and for the second one — that I’ll bring to my Uncle’s house on Christmas day — I strayed and made up my own version. Here’s the recipe — along with lots of photos to help you out (I find that helps if you’ve never made something before).

MARY’s XMAS PUDDING 

Ingredients: 

  • 1 cup dried chopped dates
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cup dried sultanas (raisins)
  • (*** note any 3 1/2 cup mixture of dried fruit will work. You can use dried apricots, currants, raisins, dates, even figs)
  • 1 cup sweet vermouth (the red kind)
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 cup organic flour
  • 1 cup golden sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 grated organic apple
  • the zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 2 sprinkles of nutmeg

Here’s how it’s done: 

1)  Mix the dried fruit together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Pour the vermouth over it and mix with a wooden mixing spoon. Cover and let sit for 2 hours – 3 days. The fruit will take up the vermouth flavour (*** note you can also use brandy or rum instead of the vermouth, but just use less (1/2 – 3/4 cup) as it has a much stronger flavour).

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Soak fruit in sweet vermouth, brandy or rum for a a minimum of 2 hours. 

2) Add the remaining ingredients to the dried fruit and mix batter well – it will resemble a cake batter. Grease a mold or pudding basin with butter – I used a cake pan that I bought at a flea market in France. It turned out to be the perfect size.

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Use a larger grater for the apple, a smaller one for the lemon zest (the lemon pee). 

3) Pour the mixture into the greased mold and pat down lightly. Next, cut a round piece of waxed paper to cover the cake mold – leave about two inches over the sides – and grease it. Place it over the mold (greased side down so the pudding doesn’t stick to it) and then cover it with tin foil. Using a string, tie the foil so it is as air tight as possible and so no water can get in while the pudding steams.

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This was the only string I could find. It did the trick, but a smaller string will certainly do.

4) Take a large pot (your mold needs to fit in when the lid is on the pot) and place a saucer upside down on the bottom of it to rest the cake mold on (the mold can not touch the bottom of the pot, or it will burn). Place the filled cake mold on it and fill it with water about 3/4 up the sides. Place the lid on and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer or very light boil (I left mine on setting “1”).

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5) Simmer/ steam for 3 1/2 (3.5) hours with the lid on, checking to make sure there is enough water in the pot — at least half of the mold/ pudding basin should be covered. Let cool for at least 45 minutes, and then turn the mold over and tap until the pudding falls out. It should be the perfect shape of the mold you used and slide right out!

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6) Enjoy — typically with brandy butter or egg nog cream or whiskey cream. I didn’t bother with a butter or cream — I like it enough on its own and I’ve never been one for icing or sweet sauces. That said, I do think a nice cream would marry well with this quintessential Christmas dessert!

 

Celebrating An Ancient Culinary Tradition

This article was published via THE HUFFINGTON POST – you can read it here (November 11, 2016).

I’ve never tasted anything quite like the dessert I was exposed to last Thursday at The Depanneur on College Street in Toronto. My day was pleasantly filled watching the Syrian ladies of The Newcomer Kitchen roll up their sleeves and create a three-course meal for their popup dinner that takes place every Thursday of the week.

Shortly after walking in the bustling kitchen, I discovered that the menu de jour consists of Fatayers, a savory, open-faced pastry filled with either meat (in this case beef) or a cheese and black sesame seed mixture, a bulgur dish with lentils that sounds incredibly healthy, a cucumber salad much like Tzatziki and something called Harissa for dessert.

The kitchen is sizzling. At one table about five women quickly chop onions and carrots for the main bulgur dish, some of them succumbing to watery eyes, while three others huddle around a large square bin discussing how to make the Fatayer dough. Speaking in Arabic in a serious, yet still warm tone, I have no idea what they are saying. All I know is that getting the dough to turn out right is one serious affair in this kitchen.

Soon enough two ladies are kneading a large white ball of dough. I notice that one woman is fluttering between the groups — I soon learn her name is Rahaf and that she develops the pop-up dinner menus each week. She explains she’s going to start to make Harissa, the dessert. A few of the women come closer to help her. One of them reads the ingredients in Arabic from her smartphone, the others help her measure the flour, the semolina, tahini, water, and more.

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Instead of using milk, the ladies measure out skim milk powder. I ask Rahaf why, and if that’s the way it’s done in Syria. She tells me the “new generation” prefers using milk powder for this recipe because it’s easier. But there’s also another reason: “Even the taste, the flavour, it’s better,” she adds. Rahaf tells me she did a lot of baking at home, learning many things from her mother.

The woman beside her nods and says she would bake often alongside both her mother and her mother-in-law. She tells her mother liked to make Harissa in winter, which would be about as cold as it gets in fall in Toronto. After most of the batter preparation is done, one of the women reaches for two glass bottles. I realize from the packaging that one contains rosewater, the other orange blossom syrup. “We have many versions of this recipe,” says Rahaf as she measures out the rosewater and orange blossom syrup using a teaspoon.

I learn the Harissa dough needs to sit before it’s baked. Rahaf tells me the cake is usually eaten alongside a tea-like beverage back in Syria, the name of which I’ve never heard before. My curiosity for this exotic dessert grows and, even though I know it will be a while before it’s done, I can’t wait until it’s finished baking.

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I eventually sit down and talk with Len Senater, the owner of The Depanneur and the key person behind the Newcomer Kitchen, which has been running since March of this year. The history of the initiative unfolds before me, and I learn how Len was inspired to reach out to the Syrian community after hearing grim stories of them being stuck in hotels on the fringe of Toronto earlier this year. Len right away wondered what living in a hotel for weeks and weeks without kitchens would mean when it came to eating and cooking. “I was like what the hell are they eating? Are they going down to the Esso and just grabbing themselves some Doritos? It just sounded terrible,” he remembers.

Len quickly put together an ad-hoc group of volunteers and got to work. He envisioned opening up the Depanneur’s fully stocked kitchen, which has been open for five years now, to the newcomers so they could cook for themselves. The volunteers tried to reach out to the Syrian newcomers, first trying the settlement agencies, before one of them met Rahaf and her husband at an event.

Rahaf, who speaks English very well, was able to explain the idea to other women—and it wasn’t long before a group of Syrian women and children were headed to The Depanneur. For some it was the first time they’d ever left the hotels, came downtown or used public transit. Almost instantly the women took over the kitchen and spectacular food started flying out of it. They then sat down for a meal, and Len witnessed a transformation in their faces from when they first came in. “All the sudden they came to life,” he recalls, “it was amazing.”

The women came back the following week, and within a few months The Newcomer Kitchen and the concept of popup Syrian dinners was born. Each Thursday of the week, a three-course menu is offered with pickup (or food delivery courtesy of Foodora) between 6 – 7 pm (tickets for the dinners are available on The Depanneur’s website). As Len tells more about the project, which he views as eminently scalable, I can tell it’s enveloped his heart and soul. Since the project he’s certainly added more Syrian dishes to his recipe repertoire.

“This [Syrian cooking] tradition isn’t owned by restaurants and fancy restaurants and cookbooks, celebrity chefs and T.V. shows,” he says. “It’s owned by the mothers and the grandmothers who’ve been making these dishes for generation after generation.”

Before I leave the Harissa is done baking. Rahaf smiles and hands me a plate holding a square piece with a blanched almond right in the centre pointing up. I take a bite—it’s gooey and divine and was surely worth the wait.

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3 Must-See Food Films

A few weekends ago I attended an environmental film festival called Planet in Focus here in Toronto. It was my first time attending, and the caliber of films selected truly impressed and inspired me. At the festival some amazing films about food were selected. If you are concerned about what you eat and our food system, I highly recommend checking out these 3 films:

THEATER OF LIFE 

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Filmed at the 2015 World Fair/ Expo in Milan, Italy, last year, this film explores the world of social gastronomy, an emerging concept revolving around equality in food access. The film covers a project in Milan that brought in top chefs from around the world to cook for the homeless under the leadership of Brazilian chef and philanthropist Massimo Bottura. The film does a fabulous job at exposing the raw life of the city’s struggling homeless while also featuring tremendous culinary footage as some of the world’s best chefs prepare delectable-looking dishes from leftover ingredients from the World Fair. The film’s beautiful food footage goes through your stomach to bring the homeless into your heart.

Director: Peter Svatek, National Film Board of Canada and Seville International

10 BILLION – WHAT’S ON YOUR PLATE? 

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This documentary is a well-rounded look at a question many are asking: how will be able to feed 10 billion people by 2050? Director Valentin Thurn has done the research for us. He traveled the world and interviewed many individuals with answers — some more optimistic than others — to that question. From staff at a seed saving project in India, to a plant breeder for Bayer, to a scientist working to create “meatless” meat (yes, you read that right), to an insect farm in Thailand, to a giant poultry processing plant in India, to a hydroponic vegetable factory in Japan, 10 Billion: What’s On Your Plate provides a candid look at our diverse industrial food system. This film will definitely broaden your food horizons and leave you thinking.

Director: Valentin Thurn, Alte Celluloid Fabrik GbR

SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY

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This film explores the incredible and overlooked world of seeds in an up-close and downright beautiful way. Featuring multiple images of colourful and stunning seeds — from plants like beans, vegetables and “Indian corn” — amidst stories of unique (and well-known) individuals around the world working to save seeds for generations to come, the film explores an important issue: our shrinking supply of life-giving seeds. A cautionary tale at the core, the film gets to the point in the beginning by reporting how up to 96% of the vegetable seeds available in 1903 have disappeared. This documentary issues a wake up call to the corporate take over of seeds and the dwindling diversity of the world’s seed bank. You will never feel the same about seeds again — guaranteed!

Directors: Jon Betz & Taggart Siegel

 

Peace Photos from Europe

I’ve been back to Toronto for almost a month after my amazing two-month journey through Europe. Today I thought I’d share some signs of peace I found along the way — While I was in Geneva, there was a photo exhibit at the Palais des Nations showing people standing up for their basic human rights around the world. In some of the photos, it was obvious that people are longing for peace, especially in countries where human rights are not upheld (the captions are included are those that I found on the plaques underneath the photos).

These photos may not cheer you up — they may even make you a bit sad. I don’t want you to be sad, though :). I’m just trying to show what is out there in the world and give a voice to the voiceless through my writing and documentation. At the end of the post, you will see some happier peace photos.

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“Kurdish demonstrator in traditional outfit.” 

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“Demonstration for peace in Venezuela.” 

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“Global Day of Action against military expenditure.”

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“… two Palestinian mothers demanding the release of their sons and 4,750 other prisoners.”

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“Demonstration by Kurdish women who traveled from several European countries demanding their rights.”

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I met an awesome girl from Nice. She let me stay in her top-floor bachelor apartment in old Nice for a week. I walked in and saw this hanging from her low ceiling. 

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A Willy Wonka impersonator who ‘peaced me’ in Madrid. 

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This giant joker caught my attention – he was in Madrid – inside what looked like some kind of gambling place, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, he made me smile.  

 

Exploring France’s New Wine Museum via/ The Huffington Post

This article was originally published via The Huffington Post (click here to view it).

I luckily found myself in the France’s port city of Bordeaux this past week. I wanted to go there to taste and explore some of the area’s world-famous wines, like those from the Médoc and Graves regions, and also to visit the historical city centre. The day I arrived, I found out from a local that the country’s president, Franҫois Hollande, was also in the heavily-visited wine capital to celebrate the opening of the city’s new wine museum: La Cité du Vin. Taking three years to build, the mega museum is housed inside a remarkable gleaming and swirling bronze structure along the Garonne River.

Continue reading here.

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La Cite du Vin, Bordeaux, France 

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Scents galore inside La Cite du Vin 

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So much learning to be done at La Cite du Vin! Plan for at least 2 hours! 

Notes from a Food and Peace Travel Diary: Part IV

About a week ago I left France and headed to Spain with a BlaBlaCar – a ride share, a common way of getting around these days in Europe (I would love to see a similar structure take off in North America). The drive flew by as I crossed the Pyrenees from Bordeaux towards Madrid with a smiling driver, about my age, who kept turning around to offer the two of us in the backseat peanut M & M’s. How kind, so kind that I found myself slipping my hand into the family-sized bag, even though I would normally turn away from the rainbow-coloured balls of sugar.

I’ve always wanted to return to Spain – the last time I was here was in 2004 when I spent a few days in Barcelona while nannying in Germany. I remember loving how lively it was, how the people happily relaxed in the many parks, soaking up the strong sunshine and playing instruments. I remember the beautiful beaches and the narrow streets and the Gothic-like buildings with their wrought iron balconies brought to life by plants and flower pots. This time I headed to Madrid, the country’s capital, where I spent about four busy days before heading on to San Sebastian in the north, the Basque country.

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Palacio de Cibeles, Madrid, 2016

One of the things I loved about Madrid was all the street artists. I was there on a Sunday, so I headed to the “Rasto” (el Rasto), a giant flea market that runs every Sunday not far from the Plaza Mayor. It wasn’t long before my eyes met a charming Willy Wonka impersonator. As I stopped to take a photo, he peaced me (I’m inventing this word: he made a peace sign) before I dag in my purse looking for what coins I had. “Muchas gracias,” he said, keeping still, as I continued on my way.

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Plaza Mayor, Madrid, 2016

I told people in Madrid that I’d be going to San Sebastian before making my way to France – and often I was told how the coastal Basque city is known to have the best food in all of Spain. This got me quite excited and instantly set my culinary curiosity on fire. I arrived today and decided that I would go and try pintxos. According to Wikipedia, pintxos, or pinchos, are “a small snack, typically eaten in bars, traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country and Navarre.”

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San Sebastian, 2016

Pintxos are everywhere in this city — maybe even more common than pastries in France. I found a traditional looking place, Casa Alcalde on Calle Mayor, and hungrily strolled inside, where my eyes were drawn to a wooden corner bar full of platters displaying colourful, carefully-prepared creations that I’ve never seen before. I told the girl behind the counter that I don’t eat meat, but fish would do (I break the vegetarian rules while traveling sometimes). Being in the land of cured ham — commonly known as Spanish ham — my pescatarian request instantly reduced my pintxos selection by about half. But with a choice of over ten, if not twenty, small snacks to choose from, I was still left with some hard decisions to make.

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Pintxos, San Sebastien, 2016

I filled my plate with four exotic creations and ordered a beer. The girl told me to keep my toothpicks (each pintxo was held together by one) and that when I was done eating and ready to pay I should bring them to the counter. That’s how they know how many pintxos each customer eats – and so they know what to charge.

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As I emptied the flavourful plate filled with textures of all kinds, I took a look around at the pictures on the wall — colourful pictures of red-lipped senoras with flowers in the hair and dainty embroidered shawls and paintings of bulls, Spain’s longstanding spirit animal. The ill-fated el torro. I looked up and saw about 20 Spanish hams hanging from the ceiling right above my table. The brown-coloured skin reminded me of mouldy food for some reason. I decided not to focus on it. As I bit into each of the four pintxo’s, I thought about how the decorated walls bared resemblance to Spain’s notorious, often overlooked food culture. It’s rich and vibrant, long-standing and, I would say, quite loud.

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Let the Clean 15 Be Your Guide

Is Organic Healthier? Better?

Lately there have been quite a few articles floating around the internet on the question of whether organic food is better for us. The question is not new by any means, but I’m still shocked at how many do not seem convinced that organic is the healthier option. Often the argument of “science” is used to back up the claim that organic is by no means healthier. It’s like someone being sick, but not believing it until a doctor tells them so.

I’ve always thought that research involving diet and health is difficult to undertake simply because it takes time. In today’s world, science experiments are quick — any study taking more than a month is most likely considered long-term. We have to admit that our culture does not look at things through a long-term lens. We want answers now — not tomorrow! Next week? And surely not in 10 years. Think about how long it took to find out that smoking was dangerous: over twenty years! This is because diseases and illnesses develop over time, not overnight!

The other thing about human health is that it is never black and white. There are so many factors impacting health — and so many unique combinations. Where does someone live? Do they breathe fresh air? Walk? Get exercise? Ok, they eat organic, but what kind of organic food do they eat? Eating organic junk food will likely remove any of the health benefits. Do they drink alcohol (something else we avoid: alcohol consumption has been linked to cancer).  Many factors impact our health, making studying human health even more difficult.

My personal opinion is that, like the unfortunate example of smoking shows, just because “science” has not proven something to be true, in no way means we shouldn’t believe something or trust our intuition. I always like to ask people this question: if someone were to hold two apples up in front of you and tell you that the one on the left had been sprayed with a myriad of chemicals by someone wearing a gas mask, and the one on the right had been grown the way nature intended, which one would you want to have? It’s that simple.

Something that I use to guide what I purchase organic is the “Dirty Dozen” list. Created by the U.S.-based Environmental Working Group, the list ranks pesticide contamination of 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on results of more than 35,000 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

What does the 2016 list tell us? Well, strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches — a lot of fruit — celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes and sweet bell peppers (those big red hothouse ones) top the list for the produce containing the most pesticides. This means that we should buy these items organically when possible to avoid pesticide exposure. See the full list here.

The Group also has a list called the “Clean Fifteen” – produce containing the least amount of pesticide contamination. At the top of this list are avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions and asparagus. This means that if you don’t want to purchase all things organically, — or if you simply can’t, whatever the reason — filling your shopping bag with conventionally-grown items from the Clean Fifteen list is another way to avoid pesticide exposure.

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According to the Clean 15/ Dirty Dozen, strawberries have a lot more pesticide contamination compared to asparagus.

In  2000, Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development recommended that: 

the government develop an organic agriculture policy for the transition from pesticide-dependent farming to organic farming.  This policy should include tax incentives, an interim support program during the transition period, technical support for farmers, the development of post-secondary organic farming programs and enhanced funding for research and development (R&D) in organic agriculture.

While some of these recommendations have been accomplished in Canada over the past 16 years, many simply have not. We are waiting — but what for, I’m not sure. We do not always need to wait for science to show us the answers. We need to trust our intuition. Yes, technology in agriculture has allowed us to come along way (increase yields mainly), but we also need to be mindful of human health when it comes to food production. And I don’t always purchase organic — but if it were more available and affordable, I certainly would!

Through answering this question, I’ve been once again reminded of the age-old quote by Hippocrates: “Let food by thy medicine, and medicine thy food.”

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