Friday, December 31, 2010

Here's to 2011! But first, a look back...

The year in a snapshot

A happy New Year! Grant that I
May bring no tear to any eye
When this New Year in time shall end
Let it be said I've played the friend, 
Have lived and loved and labored here, 
And made of it a happy year. 

~ Edgar Guest


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Home-cured Salmon, a.k.a. Lox

Earlier this year I received a letter containing some very sad news: my favourite smoked salmon shop in downtown Vancouver was closing down. Usually I would order a fillet or two of fresh smoked salmon for Christmas feasting. So you can imagine my dismay.

But then I remembered that the Swedish have a way of cold-curing salmon with salt. So I did some research and discovered that there are as many recipes out there for this delicacy as there are ways to spell it (there's gravad lax, or gravlax, or just plain lox). However you want to call it or spell it, it's yummy. And dead easy. I tweaked a few recipes and found a way to get it done in 24 hours. So here goes - just in time to serve up for your New Year's Eve party. Or simply to liven up your everyday bagel and cream cheese.


2 sashimi-grade salmon fillets, preferably sockeye, about 1 pound in total
1/2 cup coarse salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup lemon juice

Combine the salt, sugar and chopped dill. Layer half the mixture in a flat-bottomed glass dish.

Lay the salmon fillets on top.

Cover the fillets with the remaining half of the salt mixture.

Place a heavy weight on top of the fillets - you could use a plate, or a bag filled with salt, rice or beans. Make sure the weight is distributed evenly on top of the fillets.

Place the dish in the refrigerator. Check every few hours and drain off the liquids that have accumulated.

After 12 hours, add the lemon juice and return to the refrigerator for another 12 hours.

When the salmon has been cured for a full 24 hours, rinse the fillets under cold running water.

Slice very thinly.

Serve with lemon wedges, chopped capers, minced red onion, and mustard-dill sauce. (I used Hellman's Creamy Dijonnaise mixed with chopped fresh dill.)

You can also serve it with rye crackers or bread, or provide tasting spoons.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Maria's Dinner Table

I just hosted my first-ever Christmas lunch. We started with homemade lox (cured salmon) and a selection of Quebec cheeses, followed by Cornish game hen and roasted vegetables.

My cousin Monica contributed her specialty crème brûlée for dessert.

The late Rev. Joseph Galdon, SJ said it best: "From the earliest times, the custom of breaking bread together has been symbolic of sharing and accepting and loving one another. A 'companion' is one with whom we eat bread (cum panis) eat together is to love."

One of the things I love most about Christmas is bringing out some well-loved family treasures, like my grandmother's silver, and the ceramic Nativity set my parents got in Mexico years ago.

From my family to yours, a happy and blessed Christmas!

Photo credits: rizalvaro


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

German Christmas Market

If you live in Vancouver and haven't had the chance to visit the German Christmas Market, you have until December 24th to check it out! The Market has been a huge success - hopefully the start of another great Christmas tradition in this city.

Admission is only $2 from 11:00am-2:00pm, so go for lunch and try the roast pork, bratwurst, or raclette sandwich, along with a mug of mulled wine or hot cider, and a stuffed baked apple or strudel for dessert.

My first evening at the Market and I couldn't believe my luck - roast pig on a spit!

Prepping my raclette sandwich.

Delicious melted raclette served on focaccia bread with ham and baby gherkins on the side.

You can also do some last-minute Christmas shopping while you're at it: delicious stollen from the Artisan Bake Shoppe, beautiful alpaca scarves, ornaments, pottery, toys, embroidery - there's something for everyone. Ein gesegnetes Weihnachtsfest!


Saturday, December 18, 2010

No-bake Christmas cookies

If you are looking for an easy-peasy Christmas treat, try this recipe for no-bake butter cookies, otherwise known as polvoron. This is a tried-and-true recipe from my grade school days. I've tried others but this one has proven to be the best. Nicely wrapped in colourful paper, it makes a great gift.


1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup powdered milk
1 cup butter, melted

In a dry skillet, heat the flour, tossing frequently, until lightly toasted. (The colour will change from white to beige.) Watch carefully so that it doesn't burn.

Remove from heat and add to a large bowl along with the sugar, powdered milk, and melted butter. Mix well.

Use a polvoron spring-form mold (available at Filipino stores) to shape the cookies. I've found that the trick is to pack the mixture in tightly and to do it while the butter and flour are still warm.

Chill the cookies until solid. Wrap in pre-cut squares of tissue paper.

Makes 24-32 cookies, depending on the size of the mold you use.

Variations: you can add cocoa powder or finely ground nuts to the mixture....just remember to adjust the flour proportions accordingly.


Friday, December 17, 2010

'Tis the East, and Montreal is the Sun

In the movie Letters to Juliet, a rift grows between Sophie, the leading lady, and Victor, her chef- fiancé, because (crazy as it may sound) Sophie's idea of a romantic Italian getaway does not involve driving all over Tuscany in search of vintage wines, well-aged cheeses, and chefs willing to give up their trade secrets.

Obviously Sophie had never read Under the Tuscan Sun.

The consensus among the women in my family was that if any of us were to be cast in the same role in real life, there wouldn't be a problem.

Take for example my recent trip to Montreal. My mom, my sister and I went clothes shopping for an hour and a half, tops. But the majority of the shopping we did was for Christmas goodies at le marché, la boulangerie, la fromagerie, la patisserie, et l'épicerie. Not only did we get to spend quality time together, we spent it doing what we enjoy the most: savouring good food.

This trip's shopping itinerary included stops at the following landmarks:

Anatol, on Boulevard St-Laurent, between Dante and Saint-Zotique. This tiny store is packed to the rafters with spices, baking ingredients, mixes, nuts, candy, coffee, tea, for sale in bulk at fantastic prices.

Milano in Little Italy, just next door to Anatol. All the Italian ingredients you could possibly want, under one roof.

A dazzling display of Christmas panettone at Milano.

A little closer to my parents' home, Atwater Market is a one-stop place for specialty meats, cheeses, breads, and produce. (We also like Jean-Talon - click here for a write-up and stunning photos that my sister posted on her blog last summer.) We got the Christmas tree at Atwater Market this year, too.

Produce on display at Atwater Market.

The pineapple: symbol of hospitality.

Incidentally, there is a wonderful discount houseware store called Warshaw in front of Atwater Market where you can get (among other things) whimsically shaped dishes for plating up your culinary creations. I'll be featuring some of the ones I got in future posts.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Footprints in the snow

I've just spent a week at an old manor house on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

This is usually my summer playground; this is the first time I've come in the winter. The apple trees are bare; the green fields and trails I've come to know and love are covered by a thick white blanket of snow. The woods around the house look like Narnia when Lucy first came through the wardrobe. In fact, there's even a lamp post.

The first afternoon I went out for a walk, I stuck to the paths which the caretaker had cleared with his tractor. I wanted to see the water, but didn't dare to try and find my way to the riverbank, up and down hillsides knee-deep in snow, so had to content myself with this distant view.

But on the second day, the sun came out, and I noticed that someone else had been intrepid enough to break her own path down the hillside.

Now I know what it means to literally walk in someone's footsteps. I followed the trail along the stream, but eventually found that instead of going up through the sumac grove and down to the dock where we go to sunbathe and swim in the summer, it went back around to the house.

But by this time I had realized something.  The snow was deep, but it was not impassable.  Knowing that someone else had already come this way made me confident enough to strike out on my own.

A tough job becomes enjoyable, even exhilarating, once you put your heart into it. And when I made it to the dock, I was rewarded by the cold, clean wind blowing off the water, a thin skein of wild geese flying like an arrow through the sky,  icicles festooning the river reeds, and huge slabs of ice floating by in the water just below my boots. Hard to believe right now that in a few months all this white and gray will burst forth once again in glorious green, that I will stand with bare feet on these same wooden boards that will bake and sizzle again in summer heat.

"The world has to be crossed. But there are no roads made for you. You yourselves will make the way through the mountains, beating it out with your own footsteps." (The Way #928)

So often in this adventure of life, we can paralyze ourselves with imagined dangers, fear of the unknown, or just plain love of comfort.  The good news is that we are not alone.  If we just look hard enough, we'll find another person who can show us, if only by their own silent example, how to beat out our own path to reach something truly worthwhile. All we need to do is have enough faith and daring to start out in their footsteps.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Giving patients back their dignity

Photo courtesy of Dr. Larina Reyes-Smith.
When Dr. Larina Reyes-Smith sees me in the parking lot at Richmond Centre Mall, her face lights up like she's spotted an old friend (we've met once before, briefly) and she gives me an enormous hug. She does the same thing to the restaurant greeter, whom she recognizes as a friend of her son's.

This gesture, expansive, generous, loving, and utterly indiscriminating, is a little glimpse of her character that helps you understand why she decided to specialize in Addiction Medicine - and why she loves her work and her patients with such passion.

"The addicts I treat," she says adamantly, "are some of the most grateful and generous people I know. Every one of them is beautiful and unique."

She may have a big heart, yet Dr. Larina is no softie. Her small stature and gentle smile mask an inner core of steely determination: something she needed in order to overcome the many obstacles she encountered before she was able to practice medicine in Canada.

“I don’t know if it was because I was a woman or because I was a foreigner,” she muses, “but I encountered a lot of discrimination.”

Dr. Larina was a member of the first class of medical students to graduate from the Ateneo de Cagayan. Immediately after graduation she left the Philippines for England with her husband Neil, a British national whom she met at university. They lived in England for four years before settling in Canada.

Dr. Larina recounts an incident during her medical training at St. Paul's Hospital which gave her the first glimmer that Addiction Medicine was the field for her.

"There was a patient, very big and very drunk, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, who suddenly got up, said, 'I'm out of here,' and pulled out his IV. He took one step and fell flat on his face.

"I remember feeling not pity or compassion so much as a profound embarrassment for him. I wanted to cover him up. And that's when I began to realize that I wanted to work with this population to help them recover the dignity they've lost."

Dr. Larina eventually became one of the first doctors in British Columbia to become trained and certified in Addiction Medicine. "It's a relatively new field," she says. "We're still in the process of setting up our own board and becoming a recognized body."

In the meantime, Dr. Larina has wasted no time in establishing protocols, training nurses, and working in various clinics, first in the Downtown Eastside and now in Surrey, to help addiction patients.

Together with five other doctors she wrote "Stepping Forward", a policy paper for the British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA) outlining ten recommendations for the implementation of province-wide addiction treatment. Among the recommendations are to treat addiction as a chronic illness and to provide detox on demand.

"If a person makes the decision to quit now and starts going through the withdrawal symptoms, he's not going to be able to wait three days - let alone three weeks - to be admitted into a detox program," Dr. Larina points out.

She uses the same combination of compassion and practicality when it comes to looking after her patients' spiritual needs. "While I was at Vancouver Detox, it occurred to me that many of these patients needed someone just to listen, to talk, to pray with them. I arranged for Street Ministry of St. Mary’s Parish to come and visit with whoever needed them." The group now exercises a flourishing ministry within the detox program, with quite a few inspiring stories of recovery and conversion. One former patient, John Oakley, recently published a book of photo-poetry entitled Loving Blessings from God.

A young nurse once asked Dr. Larina how she manages to keep from becoming jaded in her line of work.

"Treating this population, I've learned that beauty and creativity can flourish even in the midst of suffering," says Dr. Larina. "I can't ever become jaded. The day I become jaded is the day I quit."

Read this article in the December 2010 issue of Living Today magazine (flip to page 14).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mmmmmmonkey Bread!

What better childhood memory than one that's fragrant with cinnamon, sugar, and freshly baked bread?

My friend Michele remembers how her mom used to bake bread every Monday. "She'd make enough bread for the whole week. And she'd use the same dough to make cinnamon buns for dessert."

Imagine coming home to a warm house filled with the aroma of baking bread. Is there anything more wholesome, more comforting - and more nostalgic? Certainly the days when moms regularly made their own bread are all but gone. But it's good to know that the recipes are still there for us to pull out and dust off whenever we want to take the time to bake bread at home.

Here's an old-fashioned treat that kids will love. It's easy enough that they can help you do it. You don't need any special equipment for it other than a bundt pan. Make it a real family event - perhaps some snowy afternoon this winter. While waiting for the dough to rise, play board games or read books....then watch their faces light up as you pull out the finished product and turn it out onto a plate.

adapted from a recipe from

For the dough:
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup warm water
2 packages instant yeast (1 package = about 2 1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
If you are confused about yeast, you might find this article helpful.
2 eggs
4 cups sifted flour

For the glaze:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 tsp. cinnamon

In a microwaveable bowl or measuring cup, heat the milk for about 90 seconds on high. Add the butter, sugar, and salt and mix well. Cool to lukewarm.

Warm up a large bowl by running hot water over it. Measure in the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast evenly over the surface of the water and stir together until dissolved.

Add the milk mixture, the eggs, and 2 cups of the flour.

Mix until smooth with a sturdy whisk or wooden spoon.

Stir in the remaining 2 cups flour. At this point I like to roll up my sleeves and use my hands to mix and knead the dough until it comes together in a large ball.

Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and set in a warm place. Allow to rise until doubled in size (about an hour).

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

Mix well and add the chopped walnuts.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Punch the dough down. Pinch off small pieces and roll into them into 1 1/2 inch balls. Dip the balls into the melted butter and sugar mixture.

Arrange the balls in layers in a buttered bundt pan.

Allow to rise again, covered, in a warm place for another half an hour.

Bake in a preheated oven for about 40 minutes or until done. Remove from pan while still warm.

Serve with hot chocolate or ice cream!

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