Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Dinner in an instant (pot)

An Instant Pot is a Canadian-manufactured pressure cooker whose claim to fame is that it can also be used as a slow cooker, steamer, saute pan,  and yogurt maker (!). It’s been a hot seller, and already available in baffling variety of models, with a great number of supporting cookbooks and web resources.

I at first wasn’t interested in the device, as it was described as a handy one-pot option for people who don’t like to cook. I got more intrigued with the reports of the speed which you could cook certain things—baked beans, brown rice, whole squash. Maybe it would allow me to cook those types of dishes and foods more often.


I used some birthday money to take the plunge. This required first doing some research into the varieties of models available to figure out what I wanted. I thought that maybe I would want to make yogurt some day (?), so I’d go to at least the Duo model, instead of Lux. But I didn’t really see the need to be able to control the thing with a phone app (!), so I wouldn’t spring for the “Smart”.

I then tasked Jean with figuring out where to buy the Duo from. We ended up getting it at Best Buy: The 6-quart Duo Plus.

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There’s a bit of a learning curve to this thing. I did read the manual, and some web resources, but Jean and I were still fumbling our way through the first recipe we tried, honey-garlic chicken. Like, first we had to sauté, and we missed that we were supposed to wait until the indicator said Warm before adding the food. Then it was on to pressure cooking, and it took a few tries to get how to set the cooking time, and how to tell when it was actually cooking. And then we had to decide on a technique for “releasing” the pressure cooker five minutes after it was done.

So all in all, this supposed 30-minute recipe took over an hour. It was, however, absolutely delicious.

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And did kind of look like this. Photo courtesy the Diethood blog.

Since then I’ve also tried:

  • Adapting my Mom’s baked bean recipe to the Instant Pot
  • Making roast potatoes with rosemary
  • Steaming basmati rice
  • A momo meatballs with cilantro chutney recipe
  • Cooking whole beets
  • Making pina colada rice pudding

And so far I’ve learned:

Mentally add in a 10 to 20 minutes preheat time to each recipe

Long-grain rice in 4 minutes? Baked beans in 40? Well, not quite. Because recipes will tell you how long to saute or pressure cook something, and how long to let it sit before releasing, but will never estimate the preheating time—perhaps because it can vary with the model or how hot it got in the previous phase. So in addition to prep and cook time, you have to consider that preheat time.

It’s not always faster

Baked beans, chicken with bones, brown rice, beets—even with the preheating, all of these were definitely faster in the Instant Pot than they would have been in the oven or stove top. But for long-grain white rice…? About the same. And, you have to make a lot of rice at once, which isn’t ideal if you’re trying to limit carbs.

It doesn’t do crispy

It’s been terrific at producing tender meat, creamy rice pudding, and flavorful and tender baked beans. But in roast potatoes, I prefer more crispness than you get cooking them this way (though I still might do it again if I were low on time).


What I’m most eager to try next is a macaroni and cheese recipe (from a book) and a chicken adobo. I’m looking forward to trying risotto (which I’m too lazy to make the traditional way) and seeing how it does with whole squash.

Oh, and I guess one of these times I’ll have to try making my own yogurt (!).

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Case where the Instant Pot definitely beats the alternative (from https://www.motherearthnews.com/)


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Four days in January

Now that I’ve come up with it, the title of this post seem vaguely ominous, as though I’m about to recount some tragic event that, in four short days, changed my life forever.

But no, sorry, this is nothing that interesting, I’m afraid. (Mind you, I am glad I haven’t recently experienced a great tragedy.)

Jean’s work has been requiring more travel lately, including three weeks in Barrie (about a 2-hour drive away). The first weekend in between, he came home. The second one, he decided to go a conference in Toronto. I would join him there.

This conference is annual, and normally I just stay over for one, maybe two nights. But with us having seen less of each other, I went there Friday after work and took Monday off, such that we could spend three nights and (part of) four days together.

Due to heavy Toronto traffic, my Friday bus was late arriving. Meanwhile, Jean was dealing with the fact that he couldn’t get into his hotel room, because the hotel (Doubletree by Hilton) had mistakenly registered him as staying only one night, even though we had booked for four (and had the paperwork to prove it). Initially, they also weren’t sure where his luggage was. (Turned out it was still in the room.) That all got straightened out shortly before I arrived.

Originally we’d been planning to meet with my younger sister and her husband for dinner, but she’d contacted us a couple days before with the realization that her son had a basketball game and her husband would be out of town, so… We made other plans. Which was just as well, as with the bus delay and hotel troubles, we would have been late for dinner.

But we were on time for the alternative we booked, old reliable Ki, where we once again had a really nice meal of their “modern sushi”, with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

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The jalapenos gave this a nice kick

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Sushi and sashimi assortment

Saturday morning Jean had more conferencing, and we had an early dinner booking, so in the afternoon, we just did a bit of ambling about on Toronto streets…

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Hospital street art

Til the weather became rainy and unpleasant, at which point we decided to explore the Toronto underground. This told us that… A lot of stores in the Toronto underground are closed on Saturdays. Kind of weird.

Dinner was at the very popular Richmond Station, which we’d really enjoyed this past summer. Given its popularity, we were only able to get reservations at either 5:15 or 10 pm. We went with 5:15 pm. We were able to do the chef’s surprise menu, which made it easy. They were able to give us five courses before they needed the table again, and everything was lovely, from the raw oysters…

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To the truffle mushroom soup, and on to the trout with cauliflower and barley…

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to the beef main course, and the hazelnut ice cream dessert, and polished off with some chocolates and macaroons.

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The wine we had was a French Pinot noir that was a pretty flexible match.

We were back at the hotel early enough to watch Eddie the Eagle on Netflix. Pretty much the definition of “feel good movie”, that one, but it’s well done. Eddie the Eagle was the British ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics who had taken up the sport only a year before, and came dead last in the competition, but was thrilled just to land on his feet (and, incidentally, set a British record for that sport). This movie was good at showing that this really was an accomplishment! Landing at Olympic ski jumping is not easy.

So, I’d recommend it. (Canadians, though, will have to look elsewhere than Netflix to watch it. They dropped it on February 1. Hence my hurry to watch it in January.)

Sunday late morning we met with my other sister at the Crown Princess for dim sum. Food and conversation were good, as usual.

Then we headed to the ROM, where they were featuring three special exhibits. Once we got through the rather long entry lineup, we went to the first one, on the Vikings. And found it somewhat underwhelming. Definitely I learned more about the Vikings, but that included the fact that they didn’t leave behind that many artifacts. I was expecting something more spectacular, I guess.

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I was amused by Zuul’s tag line

The Wildlife Photography exhibit, on the other hand, was really great. Lots of fantastic photographs (none of which we could take photos of, of course). As for Christian Dior exhibit? Honestly, we didn’t go ub because of the lineups. Which is really unfortunate, because when we first got to the exhibit door, there was no lineup. Had we realized, we would have gone in then and looked at the Wildlife Photography afterwards. But we didn’t, and we didn’t.

Our dinner that night, with some friends, was at our first new (to us) restaurant, Pearl Diver. It was a little bit noisy, but friendly service and definitely good at preparing its signature cuisine, seafood.

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Jean’s meal was Spanish-style: No sides! But they weren’t all like that.

And snowy Monday was basically about getting ourselves on the road, back to our respective destination cities.


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Reservations about resolutions

Angela: [voiceover] What I was thinking, as like a New Year’s resolution, is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts. Cause I’m, like, way too introspective… I think.

Generally, I find the whole ritual of trying to think of something to change about yourself or your life just because it’s January 1 is silly. Sure, sometimes a change is a very good idea—but it doesn’t need that kind of schedule. Deciding that something in your life just isn’t working or could be better shouldn’t be a once-a-year event. Whenever it needs to be happen, you should try to make it happen.

But, what does occur annually, just before January 1, is that you have down time. That time before and between Christmas and New Year’s when everything just… slows… down…

OK, not everyone gets that down time. Jean is in a line of work where they get super-busy from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

But, I get that down time. Most people do. Even if you are at work, it’s so quiet and slow-paced. But likely you’re off and you have all this time to read… And to think…

Angela: [voiceover] … but what if not thinking turns me into this shallow person? I better rethink this becoming less introspective thing.

All that reading and thinking can lead, sort of organically, to maybe deciding to try to change something about your life, about now.

I got a bonus dose of that sort of time this year, because Jean wasn’t feeling well in the days before Christmas, so we did fewer activities than we otherwise would have. That meant I upped the amount of reading I did. I got through a number of books, including In my humble opinion. My so-called life by Soraya Roberts, a nice refresher of essays about that beloved series, and suppliers of handy quotes for this post.

But I was also keeping up better with online news, and newspapers, and magazines, which led to some pondering about how I could more routinely keep on top of my reading? But I haven’t quite cracked that nut, given that the biggest obstacle seems to be my job, which is probably wise to hang on to for the time being.

Angela: [voiceover] …okay, so I’ll stay introspective.
But I do resolve to stop doing Jordan Catalano’s homework.

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Angela doing Jordan Catalano’s homework

One Globe and Mail story I read then was called Minimal carbs, lots of fat, incredible dieting results – but not enough science. It was about all the anecdotal evidence that people with diabetes often do really well on a high-fat, low-carb diet—though the point of the article was that there wasn’t scientific study of this, and there should be.

I am not diabetic, but my husband is, and I do the cooking. This got me wondering: Is this how I should be feeding him? I found another article, Low Carb-High Fat Diet And Diabetes: A Detailed Guide For Beginners, whose prescriptions were not only mind-blowingly different from what I thought of as a “healthy” diet, but also sounded fairly gross: pile up on meat, eggs, and high-diet dairy. Don’t eat much fruit or grains, and even limit root vegetables. And beans and lentils.

So bacon is the health food, and apples are the villain now?

There was no way I was going to eat this way. For one thing, I seemed to be keeping myself pretty healthy, and I somewhat feared that switching over to more saturated fat and less fruit and vegetables might be detrimental to me. Plus, there were all those ethical and environmental issues around meat eating.

(As an aside, I once told Jean’s Mom that we ate vegetarian twice a week, and she reacted with stunned amazement that such a thing could be possible. “Deux fois par semaine!” Funny.)

Anyway, I was rather relieved when Jean seemed equally unenthused about this approach. “I don’t like meat that much, ” he pointed out. “I get sick of eggs. I like fruit. I like potatoes. And this granola is actually really good!”

The funny thing is we’re discussing this at Christmas time, when we’re busily eating things like sticky toffee pudding and tourtière. (Hey, we still gotta live.)

Angela: [voiceover] The thing about resolutions is, it’s hard to remember them around somebody like Jordan Catalano.

Once back home, I experimented with moderately increasing Jean’s protein and fat intake, like giving him back bacon (organic and “humane treated”) as side dish on vegetarian night, while he rethought eating five tangerines in one go (“But they’re so good!”).

Then the Globe and Mail ran a follow-up on their “we need to study high-fat diets for diabetics” story with A diet high in fat is best – with the right kind of fat. It said that, no no, we have studied this thing, and the best diet for diabetics isn’t a high-fat, low-carb diet; it’s really the Mediterranean diet. I found a more full report on that here: Best Diabetes Diets.

Jordan: This is wrong.
Angela: What?
Jordan: You, doing my homework, it’s wrong.
Angela: Well I was just trying to help.
Jordan: It’s like I’m taking advantage of you or something.
Angela: You’re not taking advantage of me.
Jordan: Yeah I am. It would be different if we were like… but now you’re just… you know, a friend or whatever. [pause] I can’t do this anymore.

“So what is the Mediterranean diet?” asked Jean, by now pretty weary of my dietary resolutions du jour.

“Lots of fruits and vegetables. Fish, lean meat, and low-fat dairy. Plenty of healthy fats like olive oil. Nuts. Wine. Whole grains. Limit red meats. Avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates.”

“So,” he said. “Pretty much how we were eating before?”

“Uh huh.”

Angela: [voiceover] I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life I actually stuck to a resolution.


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On the eve of 2018

I’m not sure how many times we were asked if we were going to the Rainbow Rhythm New Year’s Eve dinner / dance. Often by the same people, multiple times.

But New Year’s Eve, for us, has traditionally been a night for consuming gourmet food, which is not exactly what’s served at the Rainbow Rhythm dinner / dance. The dance people don’t quite get that we’d rather just eat that night, nor are they generally willing to spend as much for a dinner as we are.

So what are you doing that night, instead?

To have some kind of answer, fairly early on I’d booked an 8:00 dinner at The Berlin for New Year’s Eve night. Figured we could cancel it if something better came up, but at least we’d have somewhere to go that night if not. We’d been the previous two years and found it pretty good.

But The Berlin experienced a shakeup earlier this month: Founding chef, Jonathan Gushue—who’s become a bit of a celebrity—decided to leave. He’s headed back to his native Newfoundland to be head chef at a high-end restaurant on Fogo Island. In his place they’ve brought in Ben Lillico, who is all of 23 years old (and looks about 18). Despite his youth, though, he does have some great experience, including a stint at Langdon Hall.

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The Berlin’s new chef

Without intending it, we ended up trying Lillico’s cooking just a few days after he started at The Berlin—at the admittedly easier meal of brunch. Brunch there includes your choice of hot items from the kitchen, along with the buffet table, and we were very happy with the meal.

As New Year’s approached, The Berlin announced that they would be offering a 7-course meal for $95 that night, which sounded intriguing. Initially seating times were listed as 5, 7, 9, and 11, so I switched our 8:00 reservation to 9:00. Then they decided that 2.5 hours might be a more comfortable amount of time for that many courses, and offered seating at 4:30 (!), 7:00, and 9:30. Hence, we would be dining at 9:30.

We had to figure out how to get there and back, since they were offering wine pairings (for $50), which meant that we both planned to be drinking. We tried to reserve taxis, but the local companies don’t take reservations for New Year’s Eve night. Over the Limit (who drive your car home with another car following) were already booked up. We figured Uber’s surge pricing would make that a pretty expensive option.

And so, despite it being -19C that night (air temperature, no wind chill), we took the bus. Buses are free on New Year’s Eve, and Grand River Transit has this very good route planning thing that tells you exactly how to get from point A to point B, including all walks and bus transfers involved. We bundled up, and darned if the buses weren’t exactly on schedule the whole way, such that we arrived exactly when Grand River Transit said we would, at 9:12 pm.

We had a short wait before our preferred table, facing the kitchen, was ready. As we sipped our bubbly, Jean noted that the entire kitchen staff seemed to have changed. We asked our waiter about it later, and he confirmed that when Jonathan said he was leaving, pretty much everyone else in the kitchen gave notice, too.

But the fact the crew had only been together for three weeks by this point did not show in any stumbles in either food or service. Really, I think this was the best New Year’s Eve dinner we’ve ever had at The Berlin.

The amuse was bay scallops escabeche (we asked, and it means cooked in an acidic mixture) with pickled root vegetables and crème fraiche. The seafood had lovely flavor and texture. Next up was this lovely item:

Foie Gras Terrine - Fantastic!

Which was a foie gras terrine with beets and celery. Rich and fantastic. It was served with 2 oz. of Southbrook Farms Whimsy, which is a sherry style drink. It made for an effective contrast with the foie gras.

Truffle Mushroom Soup

The incredible truffle mushroom soup was also served with a contrasting wine, a Chablis from Burgundy. Not a match I would have thought of, but it worked really well.

Seared Ling Cod in Smoked pork Broth adn Sunchoke mask - The mash was the highlight

The ling cod served next was fine, but the highlight of the dish was actually the mashed sunchokes, as set off by the lentils and smoked pork broth. The wine here was a delicious 2015 Sangiovese, light enough to not overpower the fish but picking up on the smoky flavors.

We had a pear palette cleanser next.

Pear and Ice

And the main course was venison prepared in caul fat, which (we asked) made it extremely tender and less “gamey” tasting than venison normally is. That was served with roast parsnips, onions, and juniper sauce. The wine served was a bigger red, a Gingondas from the Southern Rhone.

Venison

That left dessert, which was this absolutely incredible chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet. It was served with Southbrook Farms Framboise, a raspberry wine that is very well suited to chocolate.

Chocolate torte and Rasberry Sorbet

We managed to finish up somewhat before midnight, which meant that we got through to the taxi company with no delay. (There was no suitable bus route back home at this time of day.) That also meant that we rang in the new year while still in the cab, but there you go.

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Christmas 2017

The Christmas season started with a lot of dancing. Mid-December, our dance class event in community centre gym was very well-attended. For Jean and I, it was one of those nights where our dancing was just clicking and we were able to move around the floor with ease. (Which we could bottle that.) We also enjoyed the music choices (our dance instructor played DJ), which included a slow-fox version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a strict-tempo jive of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The following night was a fancier dinner/dance at The Victorian Park Pavilion, which is a beautiful venue. We forgot to request seating with people we knew, though the people we ended up with were fine—until one lady started bending Jean’s ear about the wonders of raw-food veganism, or some such.

The meal served was not raw-food vegan, though, but a traditional turkey dinner—and quite good, particularly considering the $35 per person fee. No booze on offer, though! Since we couldn’t bottle it, our dancing didn’t click quite as well that night. Music was a bit more “traditional” as well. But still a nice night out overall.

Finally on this theme, one couple in our dance class hosted a house party that did not feature dancing, but was still a very enjoyable evening of food and conversation. Amazing what these dance classes have done for our social life.


Jean and I did not do a gift exchange with each other this year—though a few new kitchen gadgets still trickled in, as Jean had planned ahead in case, and figured we needed them anyway. But we did do a Christmas dinner à deux, featuring roast duck, wasabi mashed potatoes, broccoli with tahini, and cranberry-pear sauce. Served with a nice California Pinot noir. Then, sugar pie for dessert.

Though we haven’t had the greatest luck with Christmas air travel in the past, we decided to book flights to Timmins this year. Our departure was set for 11 pm the night of December 21—we thought that the airport would be less busy at that time. I had that day off, but Jean was working. Or, he was until about 10 am. At that point he called me to come pick him up at the office, as he was experiencing the serious low back and abdominal pain that indicated kidney stones.

At home, he sat in the tub and drank tea until the worst of it passed. It would still be a few more days, though, until he really felt right again.

It was snowing, and Christmas, so we allowed for a lot of time to get to the airport and check our baggage. Everything went really well, though, so we had a lot of time to wait. At least I got plenty of reading done.

We boarded the plane pretty much on time, but then had to wait in a lineup on the runway for de-icing, for what turned out to be an hour. After about 45 minutes I finally turned airplane mode off on my phone so I could email Dad that we were still in Toronto, so maybe he didn’t want to wait up for us. He agreed that he didn’t.

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Ornament from Dad’s tree

Timmins was nippy when we arrived, but our rental car was already running and setting out front of the airport exit. (And boy was the rental guy happy to see us. We were his last customers, at about 1:30 am, and he’d started at 7 am that day.) Dad didn’t even hear us arrive; the next morning, he wondered if we even had, until he noticed that the guest bedroom door was closed.

Friday and Saturday were pretty mellow, partly because Jean still wasn’t feeling up to snuff yet. We did visit with his Mom, of course, and saw some of his other siblings at her house. And Neal and Sarah-Simone came over to Dad’s for a visit on Saturday. We also tested out the Skype connection with Joanne and Jon ahead of Christmas morning, and ran an errand at the LCBO (booze store, for non-Ontarians). But that was about all the excitement.

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Though this might have provided some excitement, had Dad’s brownies actually contained the ingredient suggested on the lid! (Hilarously, Dad stores his homebaked brownies in a container that previously contained hemp products.)

Christmas Eve morning Michelle, Jackson, and John arrived—Hugh decided to stay in Toronto for the Macphie family Christmas this year. That livened up the house a bit. And in the afternoon we paid a visit to our friends Paul and Sylvie, which is always nice. We got tales of their new cottage, and Jean and Sylvie exchanged photography tips that Paul and I pretended to understand.

We had a nice salmon Christmas Eve dinner at Dad’s that night, then they went to church while we got ourselves (eventually; we did get a bit lost) to my cousin’s for Réveillon #1. Fewer people in attendance this year; my uncle Gilles, for one, was not feeling up to going. But that made for a nice opportunity to talk to those that were there—my cousins, their kids, and their kid’s kids, and my aunt and uncle.

We did have to leave before the game portion of the evening to get to Réveillon #2, at the Lefebvre’s. And now I have to apologize because Jean was kept so busy at this event—first playing Santa to hand out the kids’s gifts, then reciting the left/right story for the random gift exchange—that he didn’t take any pictures. And it just didn’t occur to me to do that instead.

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Ornament from Jean’s Mom’s tree. Not taken on Christmas Eve.

And this year’s gift theme was hats, so that would have made for a lot of amusing photos! Jean, for one, got right into it and provided a whole collection of ridiculous hats: a poop emoji mask, three pucks in a nylons (a hat trick! Think about it), and so on. I supplied this book:

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Which did greatly amuse the recipient, niece Natasha.

A large-format version of the following photo from our anniversary party was provided as a family Christmas gift to Jean’s Mom.

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The Lefebvre family (with part of the McNair family in the background)

The McNair Christmas gift exchange was still the stealing game, but with a couple differences this year: The price limit was set at $30, and the number of gifts to be bought was divided up such that Neal and Michelle didn’t have to buy extra just because they had kids. So each family bought three and Dad bought two, and that covered everyone…

(Except that Michelle was so busy she didn’t quite read all the rules, so she caught the $30 limit but not the fact that she didn’t have to buy as many as item, so we had a couple extras, but that’s OK.)

So we Skyped in Joanne and Jon for the whole thing. Jackson got Hugh in on Facebook on his phone, but only as required—that is, only when Hugh had to pick or was involved in a steal. Otherwise Jackson would just hang up on him. This turned out pretty funny, because I don’t think anyone was involved in more steals than Hugh! So he kept have to be reconnected and then brought up to speed on what exciting new items had arrived since he had last been with us.

The most laughs, though, were courtesy of Jean’s contribution, a leftover ridiculous hat.

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Jackson modelling the hat along with a VR headset, another contributed item

Also somewhat amusing was that Thérèse had accidentally grabbed an individualized gift (slippers for her grandmother) instead of one for the exchange. So we had to imaginarily include what was intended.

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Isaac with his “invisible” hammock

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Some of the kids, mid-play

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Caleb’s cozy gift ends up with Michelle

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And there were a few “Godchildren” gifts to hand out at the end

That afternoon, the temperature hadn’t quite plunged to the depths it was about to in the coming days, so we finally got outside. The snowshoe trails weren’t open at the Ski Club (not enough snow!) so we just walked on Carium Road.

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Outside!

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Winter wonderland, I guess?

The rest of the afternoon was mostly about food prep. Late afternoon Jean headed to the Lefebvre family dinner. Happily, Gilles had recovered enough to join the McNair supper, along with Terrie.

After dinner and cleanup, we played a game of Telestrations, which was one of the items Jean and I had contributed to the McNair gift exchange. It’s like the telephone game, except that you had to draw what the word was and then the next person had to guess what you had drawn. Very simple, but absolutely hilarious, some of the results. (Though should be noted that Neal’s family has enough talented artists that a number of items got through 8 people successfully.)

Boxing Day we were scheduled to fly out at 10:20 am; Jean had to work on the 27th. All seemed good as we boarded the plane and took off on schedule. It didn’t seem we were elevating as much as usual, and drink service seemed a bit slow, but I didn’t think too much of that until the captain came on and said: “I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”

There was a mechanical problem with the plane. The good news was, we weren’t all about to die. The bad news was, we had to fly back to Timmins. The wheels of the airplane weren’t elevating into the plane as they needed to. The drag that caused on the plane meant there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Toronto.

Then it was a waiting game. They did first try to see if the plane’s problems could quickly be repaired, but that turned out to be a no, and then it was flight cancellation and rebooking time. We recalled that we had purchased On My Way travel assistance for this flight, which was supposed to give us priority in being rebooked. When we called that number, and they suggested that we should be able to get on the 4:00 pm flight that day, but weren’t able to do that immediately as the flight was “frozen” while all passengers were processed. When we finally got our rebooking email, though, had us on a 5:20 am (AM!) flight the next day. We called again, and they said there was nothing they could do.

So we’re following up with Air Canada about that.

Meanwhile, we took a taxi back to Dad’s (who then had to dash out to the grocery to get more food for his now larger number of dinner guests). One upside is that it did give me a chance to visit with my Aunt Irene, who is 88, and my cousin Monique and daughter Simone. They dropped by at Dad’s on their way to bringing Simone to the airport. It was also nice having more time with Dad, Michelle, Jackson, and John. And the lasagna dinner was very delicious.

Getting up at 3:00 am for our next flight was less delicious, particularly as it was -35C at that point, but we did it. Dad very kindly drove us to the airport at 4:00 am. And yes, that flight took off in time, and managed to get all the way to Toronto. Where it had snowed considerably and was pretty darn chilly!

Wishing everyone a happy new year.


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Three days of socializing

We had someone over for dinner last Thursday, a not-that-common event that we did memorialize in photos. However, he did bring flowers—some lovely orchids—and Jean used those to experiment with close-up photography.

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As the main course, I made Garlicky Lamb Chops. This recipe (follow the link) is so simple and fast, but turns out so well: You just dip the chops in a mix of fresh rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper, then pan-fry them in olive oil.

One of the sides was Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts & Dates, though I used raisins instead. Fortunately, our guest liked Brussels sprouts; not everyone does. This turned out well also; these do well roasted, and adding raisins, walnuts, red wine vinegar, and honey produces a tasty results.

I also roasted some potatoes—I just winged that “recipe”.

Dessert was Cherry Fool, and I can’t find the recipe online, even though it came from LCBO magazine. Basically cherries in whipped cream with icing sugar and almond extract, though. And I used mixed berries that included cherries instead of just cherries.

Friday we were supposed to go see TransCanada Highwaymen with some friends, and I was really looking forward to it. This is a group made up of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Stephen Page of Barenaked Ladies, Craig Northey of The Odds, and Moe Berg of Pursuit of Happiness. They were to do songs by all of those bands, while regaling us with tales of life as semi-famous Canadian rock star. Doesn’t that sound great?

I’m sure it would have been. Unfortunately, Northey broke his ankle playing hockey about a week before the show, which then got cancelled. (Though as I keep telling people, I don’t know why he couldn’t still sit down to play guitar and sing.)

We decided to go out anyway and revisit TWH Social, present home of a former favourite chef. We’d found the place a bit loud on previous visits, but it didn’t as bad this time, at least for the first part of the evening. And I was very happy with my food.

Not enough drink to hide the fact that he's eyeing my squid!

Squid with tomatoes and roast potatoes, a speciality of this chef

Sweet Lamb Chop with a plate in the foreground

Grilled lamb chops with sweet potato and mushroom saute

So yes, that’s lamb two days in a row for me.

Jean started with a Caprese salad, then had the gnocchi with sage butter and chicken broth. This was a different gnocchi recipe than what the chef had made at the previous restaurant, and Jean didn’t think it was an improvement.

Saturday we got our live music fix. Other friends had invited us to go see Whitehorse, a band neither Jean and I were familiar with before getting tickets. But I had been listening to them since, and they are pretty good.

Before the show, Centre in the Square offered a $30 three-course dinner in the Member’s Lounge, catered by Borealis Restaurant. We decided to do that, and it was great. First was a kale Caesar, then a paella, then—I forget what dessert was. All good, though, and we also enjoyed the drink list (among us, we sampled orange wine, Pinot Noir, champagne cocktail, Scotch), though it was more premium-priced than the food.

The show was done in “On Stage” format, meaning that the whole audience, and the band, and a bar, were up on the very large Centre in Square stage, instead of the usual “band on stage, audience in theatre seats”. It was pretty cool.

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Ready to rock!

It was a good show. Opening act Begonia had a lovely voice and an entertaining manner, a combination that reminded me of Jann Arden (or Adele).

Begonia

Begonia

And Whitehorse did some of their best-known songs (I assume they were? At least, at this point I recognized a number of them), reminisced about the early support given them by Waterloo, and talked of causes important to them, like supporting sex trade workers.

Whitehorse

Whitehorse are a husband and wife team, this night supported by a band

They also threw in a couple of covers. One was of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, in tribute to Malcolm Young. Another was of Neil Young’s “Ohio”.

(Should have zoomed in a lot earlier than I did on the video. Not used to this taking videos at concerts thing.)

Then on Sunday, we were total hermits.


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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.