Cultureguru's Weblog

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

Leave a comment

Pre – Christmas dinner

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

“Our” Christmas dinner à deux featured duck, which is becoming typical. Less typically, I wasn’t too lazy to make a jus for it from the drippings, featuring rhubarb and ginger. That give a nice zip to the rich, juicy meat.

The mashed red potatoes were seasoned with sour cream, butter, chicken broth, and wasabi paste. They were also a little zippy — and quite delicious.

I’m generally not a fan of stuffing, which usually seems too salty and greasy to me. But this version (cooked on the side, not in the bird) had base of quinoa, lentil, wild rice, and cranberry, to which I added some olive oil, and crisped whole-grain bread. It was very tasty, without all the salt and grease.

Not pictured but also cooked and eaten were maple-glazed butternut squash. And dessert was a custard pie (tarte au oeuf), whose lovely filling made up for the center crust being moderately underdone. The crust at the edge was lovely flaky.

Wishing everyone happy Christmas dining.


Shaking up the Christmas playlist

I should warn that my Christmas playlist isn’t much of a traditional one to start with: The only Bing Crosby is a duet with David Bowie. The most frequently appearing orchestra is the one accompanying Brian Setzer on rockabilly takes of Christmas tunes. I have more versions of “Christmas” by The Who than “Silent Night”, by anybody.

Still, I can only take the playlist in small doses. I get sick of it! And lest you think that means I’m a Christmas curmudgeon, I would point out that my favorite Christmas song remains Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”, with its “I really like Christmas!” sentiment. Because I do. But much of my favorite music could be characterized as loud or angsty rock. And that is pretty much the opposite of most Christmas music.

Still, the seasonal sound is nice on occasion through December (not every day!), and when else are you going to listen to most of this stuff? So it is nice to rejuvenate it with some additions. Some of which I thought might interest more than just me.

A lively take on tradition: “Joy to the World” by Earth, Wind, and Fire

I first heard this on CBC radio, and Google Play is currently giving it away for free. A completely original take and a welcome reminder that Christmas should be about joy. “Somebody clap your hands!”

Joy to the World by Earth, Wind, and Fire

The mashup: “Tommy’s Royal Christmas” by DJ Schmolli,

Nothing’s taking the place in my heart from Spiraling’s amazing mashup of “Do you hear what I hear” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”, but I will say that this combination of Pete Townshend’s demo of The Who song ”Christmas” with Lorde’s “Royals” is pretty interesting.

Tommy’s Royal Christmas

A hilarious celebration of Christmas food: “La Tourtière” by La Bottine Souriante

There’s nothing about Christmas in this song, so you just have to know that French Canadians mainly eat la tourtière (meat pie) at Christmas time. The song is lively and danceable, and the lyrics—if you understand them—are hilarious.

La Tourtière by La Bottine Souriante

A song about another late-year holiday:  “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” by The Barenaked Ladies

These guys give a wicked Christmas concert that I was privileged to see a couple years ago. This lively take on the Jewish holiday was the song that stood out for me, giving Adam Sandler’s “The Chaunukah Song” a run for its money as best non-Christmas Christmas song.

Hanukkah, Oh Hannukkha by The Barenaked Ladies

Inappropriately sexy: Mon Beau Sapin by Garou

“Mon Beau Sapin” is “O Christmas Tree” sung in French. This Garou version was an iTunes freebie. Is it just me, or does he sound unnaturally attached to this tree? Maybe he means it as a metaphor?

Mon Beau Sapin by Garou

A great singer at work: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by “Glee Cast”

This song was used on episode of Glee, but except for the narration, the voice is all KD Lang. And I never get sick of that voice…

KD Lang sings You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

The great Christmas song that never was: “She’s Right on Time” by Billy Joel

Most modern Christmas pop songs are basically love songs set in December, with the singer wishing / bemoaning / celebrating that their loved one is or isn’t around. “She’s Right on Time” falls into that category, but seems to have slipped through the cracks of ever being treated as a Christmas single. Too bad; it’s an excellent song from Joel’s best album, The Nylon Curtain, in which he celebrates that his girlfriend has chosen to forgive his “far too many sins to mention” and return to him right at Christmas time: “I guess I should have known it; she’d find the perfect moment!” (I especially love that he spends most of the song running around getting the house in shape for her…)

She’s Right on Time by Billy Joel (I think this goofy video may not have helped this song…)

And, Band Aid 30 has released a new version of Do They Know It’s Christmas. Sure, the original was better, but this one is helping to raise money for the current Ebola crisis. You should get it. (Or, just donate to Médecins sans frontière.)

Leave a comment

We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather

Compared with people spending Christmas in unheated, unlit homes or stuck in airports, I can’t really complain about our Christmas travel.

We had more time this year, and therefore decided to drive north, figuring we could then adjust our own itinerary as weather demanded rather than be dependent on the airline’s.

We left the weekend of the ice storm, after the smaller Friday night one ended, before the bigger Saturday one started. The roads weren’t fantastic at the start of that trip, and some bits were quite foggy. So it was slow, but we didn’t really have any problems. Eventually we drove out of the storm zone and were driving on bare pavement. We even got a bit of sun.

We decided to lay over in North Bay despite their predicted 25 cm of snow the next day. The usual 4.5 hour drive took us 6 hours, so it was nice to have a break. We also quite enjoyed our first dinner at Churchill’s, a restaurant listed in Where to Eat in Canada. It’s an older place with a warm atmosphere and an impressive wine list. We enjoyed a bottle of Malbec with appetizers of gnochi and asparagus, and calamari and tomato, both excellent. For mains I had the roast duck with potatoes and salad, while Jean had wagu (a type of beef) ribs. I found the duck a little overdone, but everything else was good. For dessert, I had three tastings of creme brulee (coconut, chocolate and sambuca, and maple), while Jean had a Greek-style dessert.

Dessert at Churchill's

Dessert at Churchill’s

The next day it was back on the road, indeed in snow. It was fairly blowy not long after taking off, but it gradually lessened as we moved north, and finally ended completely. Back to driving on pavement.

Timmins was cold this year. Highs of -20C, maybe -18C most of the time we were there. Dropping to -30 something overnight. Nevertheless, we did get out to do stuff. We went snow shoeing one day; by far the worst part was putting on the snowshoes in the windy parking lot. Once on the trails, it was actually fine. (Of course, we were well bundled up.) We went for a decent length walk the next day, and survived.

It finally warmed up some on Christmas day, to -11 or so—balmy! But with the hustle and bustle of visitors that day, I barely got outside.

Mostly anyway, we were spending time with family indoors, at somebody’s house or another’s. Always nice to celebrate together.

Me at Christmas

Not sure my family wants their photos posted here, so won’t, but here’s me…

Part of the indoor entertainment at my parents’ is watching the activity at the outdoor bird feeder. Northern birds have such nice colors! Jean spent one morning gathering pictures of them. I wish I could remember all of their names, as Dad reported them to me. (Even when it comes to birds, I’m bad with names.)

Woodpecker preparing to eat

This large woodpecker is too big to just perch on the edge of the feeder

Woodpecker at feeder

So he (or she) has to hang on from underneath, balance with the tail, and reach in for the peanuts

Blue jay at feeder

This smaller bird (blue jay?) has it easier

Bird flying to feeder

Action shot! Love this one

(Our drive back was largely unremarkable, weather-wise. One brief bit of blowing snow, and that’s all.)



Leave a comment

A very cranberry Christmas

Jean and I have developed a tradition of celebrating with our Christmas morning and dinner the weekend before the stuff with the extended family begins. This year, that pushed it quite early, to this weekend. Even though some of the mail order gifts hadn’t quite made it to our house, yet.

Our Christmas dinner was particularly good this year, for whatever reason. It was a whole set of new recipes (on familiar themes, mind you), and they all turned out really well. Most are available online, and the time I spent organizing recipes in Evernote this year (geek alert!) paid off, as I accessed most of them on my tablet. Bit awkward switching between them, sometimes, but then again, it’s also a bit awkward switching between physical cookbooks.

In the morning I made the cranberry sauce and the pie. The pie was from Fine Cooking Magazine, and it was the very Christmas-sy Ginger-Spice Cranberry-Apple Streusel Pie.

Cranberry-apple pie

My version of the Fine Cooking pie

I followed this recipe pretty much as written, except that I made my usual vodka-based pie crust instead of using their recipe, and I didn’t use quite all the streusel topping. I didn’t find my crust over-browning as the recipe warned it might.

And though I’m jumping to the end of the meal, the pie was really good. It is a nice blend of tart and sweet, and the candied ginger adds a very interesting zing.

The cranberry sauce recipe, courtesy of Cooking Light Magazine, was very basic, essentially just substituting apple cider or juice for the usual water. I went with apple juice, since that’s what I had.

As a not-unusual choice for us, I choose duck as our Christmas meal bird. I had to start that mid-afternoon, following an LCBO recipe created by Jamie Oliver: Slow-roasted duck with sage, ginger, and rhubard sauce. Here I did a few substitutions: I couldn’t find any rhubarb this time of year, so went with cranberry. I added dried sage (from my garden, mind you) instead of fresh. And I used less onion, and white instead of red.

I also couldn’t be bothered with quite as much messing around with the gravy at the end as suggested in this recipe. (Gravy, like jam, is one of those things I don’t have great skills with.) We did create a gravy with the stuffing, defatted drippings, red wine (didn’t have Masala), and chicken broth, but we didn’t do that fried ginger thing. It still made for a nice topping on the meat, and the slow-roasted duck tasted amazing.

For sides, I settled on mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. In the mashed potato recipe I followed this time, all cooking was done in the microwave, which was a first. You nuke the potatoes, then you nuke the milk and butter in a bowl, then you add the potatoes to that and mash them, then stir in buttermilk, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. This is buttermilk-Parmesan mashed potatoes from Cooking Light magazine. They tasted really good, and that method made fewer dishes.

Roasted Brussels sprouts with walnuts and dates were courtesy Sobey’s. I was low on walnuts after the pie, so I also used some pecans and pine nuts to make up the amount. I also left out the green onions, and used dried thyme instead of fresh and lemon juice instead of zest. No matter, as they were still quite delicious. Roasting gives Brussels sprouts quite nice flavor and texture.

Put together, the plate looked like this:

Christmas dinner plate

For wine, we opened up a 2008 Chateauneuf du pape, which proved highly drinkable. With dessert we had a bit of late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Prince Edward County, which suited pretty well.

Bottles of French wine

Three French wines, but we drank only one bottle (actually, only part of one bottle) this day


A Barenaked Christmas

My rather excellent run of live concerts this year was capped off with The Barenaked Ladies, performing “Hits and Holiday Songs” with the KW Symphony, at Centre in the Square last Sunday.

Barenaked for the Holidays

Jean was a bit puzzled at my interest in this one, as I don’t exactly idolize this band. But I had been thinking for a while that I wouldn’t mind seeing them in concert. I definitely like the albums and songs of theirs that I have (which is probably only the obvious ones), and I figured their humorous approach to performance would make their live show fun. So when a local concert was announced, I didn’t wait long to get tickets.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

More Toronto bits

Though the trip to Toronto was some time ago now (late November), I still wanted to add a few bits about it.

Dining at the legislature

Though I’ve had the full tour of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings before, I’m not sure I’d actually been to the Ontario Legislature before, but that’s where I met my sister for lunch. It’s a pretty quiet place these days, as a result of the controversial prorogation, but a very attractive old building—well worth seeing. We ate at the In Camera dining room, which has fairly luxurious atmosphere, and a varying menu with, appropriately, emphasis on local foods. All quite good at pretty reasonable prices.

Dining at Ki

Ki Restaurant has become my destination of choice for pre-concert dining, because of its highly convenient location (close to both Air Canada and Sony Centres), reliably delicious food, and excellent service. It does have a downside, though, in its large bar area being a destination of choice for the young and beautiful professionals to meet after work. It doesn’t bother us that we’re therefore seated at the back to not bring down the atmosphere, but it does make for pretty noisy dining. Something that bothers Jean in particular.

Still, at least the eating itself remained enjoyable. At Ki you order five or six small plates (for two people, that is). A bit of a challenge to pick all that out from the fairly sizable menu, but with practice we’re getting better at it. (And the wait staff are always helpful.) I no longer remember everything we had, but I do know that the seared fresh scallop with mushrooms and edamame was one of the highlights.

Me, wine, and scallops

We also had a number of sushi and tempura inspired items, including the tempura butterfish of Alaskan king crab, salmon, butterfish, avocado, cucumber + tobiko with a tempura crust.

Me with tempura and sushi

But the highlight, unpictured, was the creamy miso chowder drizzled with truffle oil. Just an astonishing combination of flavors.

Toronto sights

The predicted weather for this trip was terrible, but the actuality was much better: less cold, less rain than anticipated. Only late Saturday did it get pretty unpleasant, with a temperature and wind. (So then we went went home. 🙂 )

Before, though, we did have some time to amble and get some photos.

Christmas tree in Toronto

We got the above photo on the walk back from The Who concert.

And while our supposed 4-star “official Grey Cup” hotel wasn’t particularly spectacular, we were way up high and did have a beautiful view of the city outside. I love this shot.

Toronto at night

Leave a comment

Sucre à crème redux

Was just going to repost this when I discovered that WordPress doesn’t exactly encourage reposting. So instead I’ll copy and briefly update.

I once again tried my non-traditional approach to the traditional French Canadian Christmas dessert, sucre à crème.

That was using the following recipe, which is much less laborious than is typical:

From Canada:

1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream

  1. In a large microwave-safe bowl, stir together the white sugar, brown sugar and cream. Cook at full power for 10 minutes, stirring twice. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Use an electric mixer on low speed to beat the mixture for 4 minutes. Pour into a buttered 8 inch square glass baking dish. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. Cut into squares when set.

I again cooked it for 9 minutes instead of 10, but this year I did manage to beat it on low speed for the full 4 minutes recommended. (I have no idea why that didn’t work last year.)

The results definitely seem creamier this year this they were last, when I found it a bit more crumbly than seemed ideal.

Of course, taste is never an issue when you’re talking sugar, sugar, and cream. It’s good! I’ll once again be sharing some with coworkers, to save us from the fate of eating the entire batch…

1 Comment

Dress shopping

Though I am interested in the US election, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I really have nothing to add to the huge, huge cacophony of voices on it.

So this is a politics-free post. About dresses.

This year, I decided to shop for a new Christmas dress. I’ve avoided having to do this for a number of years now, thanks to dresses acquired for other occasions (weddings) or on a whim (vacation) or so long at the back of the closet they’ve come back into style (more or less).

But this year, a new option seemed in order. It had been so long since I’d deliberately gone out dress shopping that I wasn’t sure where to go, but it turns out the web is pretty handy source for that sort of information. Chateau style was just not me, Bay just had too many options, Cleo not enough, Fairweather’s website sucks… But Laura looked good. So that is where I went.

Only… It turned out to be a factory outlet, so not too many of the dress styles I’d noted were actually available. Still, there were a lot of dresses, all neatly organized by size.

I grabbed some, tried them on, and found a pattern emerging: The dresses fit (good), didn’t look terrible (good)… But none were that great, either. I wasn’t too excited about any, and certainly couldn’t settle down to one.

But I didn’t want to have to find another store to shop in either (did I mention that though I do quite like dresses, I’m not overly fond of shopping, per se)? So back to the racks I went, picking out a few more options. I nearly ignored the sparkly, poofy prom / bridesmaids dresses, except… One sort of called to me. So what the heck. It joined the pile.

Round 2 in the dressing room went a little better, confirming that only one dress from Round 1 was really worthwhile. It fit well, flattering the figure, and had a fun color scheme. But it just didn’t seem quite dressy enough for Christmas, you know? It looked like this:

Black, red, and pink dress

Round 2 also included this flapper-style dress in a striking royal blue, which the saleslady said was quite popular this season. It was probably the most comfortable dress I tried on. It of course has that straight style, but it didn’t look bad on me. On the hanger, it looks like this:

Blue flapper dress

And then, there was the confection dress. Mauve, short, poofy, a bit sparkly… And completely adorable. Fit perfectly. Very flattering, really, as it hugged my thinner parts and poofed out over my thicker ones. Ended just above the knee, covering thigh, showing calf, all good.

I kind of loved it. But I also kind of thought I was 20 years too old to wear it.

Did I mention I was shopping alone? So except for the very busy salesladies, I had no one who could give me a second opinion here.

And at factory outlets? All sales are final. And, there aren’t multiple copies of each dress. Mostly, it was one, maybe two left. If you leave it, you might lose it.

On the other hand… At a factory outlet? Prices are way lower!

So you know how this story ends. I went shopping for one dress, and I now have three. Hey, I ballroom dance, I go to fancy restaurants… I’ll have opportunity to wear them. (You hear my justification.) Plus, all three together were less than the price of many of the new ones I was considering.

That night, I modeled them all for Jean, to see which he thought I should wear to his company Christmas party. This was his pick:

Mauve dress

So I’m thinking… a black throw of some kind, black hose—maybe with the seam up the back, if I can find that—and a cool bracelet. Even though I find bracelets annoying.

And quite importantly: Fresh dye job on the hair. Because this is not a dress that will go well with gray roots.

Leave a comment

Sucre à crème

Another traditional French Canadian recipe I decided to try making this year is sucre à crème. Unlike tourtière, this stuff doesn’t tend to be made in huge batches. It’s delicious, though, so it doesn’t stick around long. So I thought it might be nice to have a batch of my own.

As recipe source, I went for the nontraditional Google, and found many recipes. Most, however, involved candy thermometers and manual stirring. Lots of manual stirring. Much complaining about a need for strong arms to successfully complete the recipe.

This was starting to seem less fun.

Near the top of the results, though, was one from Canada, that said simply:

1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream

  1. In a large microwave-safe bowl, stir together the white sugar, brown sugar and cream. Cook at full power for 10 minutes, stirring twice. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Use an electric mixer on low speed to beat the mixture for 4 minutes. Pour into a buttered 8 inch square glass baking dish. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. Cut into squares when set.

I thought, that’s the one for me!

Based on comments, I adjusted the microwave time down slightly, to 9 minutes (which also made it easy to stir on the 3 minute marks). As for the mixing part, I couldn’t make it quite to the 4 minutes—not because my arm was sore—but because it just seemed to be getting too thick.

That’s where experience with this stuff would help, as I wasn’t totally sure what texture I was aiming for. The result was slightly more crumbly than I think was ideal.

Still, with those ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong, and it did taste delicious. I brought it in for work pot luck, and the worst part was being asked by anglophones what it was, as I can’t find an adequate English word for it. (It’s along the same lines as fudge, but it’s not fudge.) But despite the slight crumble and the weird French name, it proved very popular—in fact, there was none left.

Just like at Réveillon.