Our First Potato Harvest

This year we decided to give homegrown potatoes a try. We purchased a couple of assorted seed potatoes from West Coast Seeds, along with a few potato bags to grow them in. I have to say that everything worked out really well!

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Growing the potatoes was very easy. The seed potatoes we purchased were a tri-colour mix of yellow, red and purple, so we planted one of each colour in each potato bag. The neat thing about planting the tri-colour mix is that we could tell which plant was which by the colour of the stalks. The purple potato plant had a deep purple stalk, while the red one had slight red streaks to it. The yellow potato plant had a basic green stalk, but it was easy to spot when compared to the other two.

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The plants grew very well in the growing bags, and eventually we had tiny purple flowers on top of all three types. We even grew a few potato fruits, which look like tiny green tomatoes! However, beware, because potato fruits are actually poisonous so make sure to pick them and throw them away (especially if you have little kids around who might be tempted to pick them, or mistake them for a tomato).

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Since we only grew a small amount we planned to eat them fresh, instead of storing them long-term. After the flowers died off and the plant stalks started to wither, the potatoes were ready to harvest. Voila!

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It was immensely satisfying cutting through these crisp, fresh potatoes with a sharp knife. It felt like cutting butter, or a soft piece of fruit. Once cooked, they were deliciously creamy too!

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I will definitely grow more potatoes in the future again. Next year I think I would plant less in each bag, but gardening is always about experimenting and it’s tough when you’re dealing with limited space on a balcony. If I owned a piece of land, I’d devote a nice big square to them. :)

Eating Lobsters on the Beach in Runaway Bay, Jamaica

On a recent trip to Runaway Bay, Jamaica, my husband and I had a real hankering for some freshly cooked lobsters. For us, lobster is the ultimate luxury food we like to indulge in on special occasions, and our two-week trip to this tropical island certainly fit the bill! However, the hotel we were staying at (the all-inclusive Royal Decameron Club Caribbean), did not have any lobster on the menu. Sad face. And yet, we were determined…

One of many beaches at our hotel.

One of many beaches at our hotel.

One afternoon, as we were swimming in one of the beautiful resort lagoon’s, my husband struck up a conversation with a local Jamaican fisherman named Bruce who was also hanging out in the balmy water, floating casually on a surf board and intermittently trying to sell impressive sea shells to other tourists. Aside from being a fisherman, Bruce was also a very experienced scuba diver. My husband and him got talking about the variety of sea life in the area, and the most interesting things he had seen on his dives. It was then that Bruce casually mentioned he would often see large lobsters while diving, and he would catch them and cook them for tourists for a fee.

We weren’t really sure if we could trust him or not – after all, it’s hard to judge someone’s credibility when they started off trying to sell you sea shells from a plastic milk crate strapped to an old surf board – but the thought of having our own private lobster feast was just too great to resist. So we paid him $60 US and agreed to meet him later that night at the Jetty Bar in our hotel. He would cook up a bunch of lobsters, sneak them onto the hotel grounds for us, and set up a private, candle light dinner for just the two of us. It sounded almost too good to be true, but why not take a chance?

“Don’t worry about a ting, man,” he said. “Bruce has got ya covered.”

The "Jetty Bar" at our hotel.

The “Jetty Bar” at our hotel.

We walked over to the Jetty Bar at precisely 7:30 pm, as we had agreed, but Bruce was nowhere in sight. No worries, we figured. He’s on Jamaican time. So we ordered some frosty Red Stripe’s from the bar and sat in some lounge chairs along the deck and waited. Sure enough, just a few minutes later we saw him quietly paddling a small tin boat into the resort’s harbour. The boat had no lights on it so he could sneak easily onto the property without the resort staff noticing.

Once he was a few feet from the shoreline Bruce jumped out of the boat and dragged it up onto the beach quietly. He nodded discreetly to the bar tender nearby, as if they knew each other well. Then he pulled out the good stuff: the lobsters we had been waiting all day for. And boy, did he deliver! He had caught and cooked for us, not one, not two, but six decent sized lobsters! And he had even steamed some potatoes for us too. He cooked them at his house nearby, then wrapped them into little tin foil bundles so they wouldn’t get cold while he paddled over. His plan had worked out perfectly. Well, close to perfect, anyway. Turns out he had forgotten the cutlery!

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Steamed lobsters, cooked potatoes and Red Stripe beer. Mmm…

My husband and I are not shy eaters so we didn’t mind digging into those buttery tin foil bundles with our bare hands. We must have been quite a site though… butter and lobster juices dripping from our faces and down our arms. I have to admit, I have never eaten such large mouthfuls of lobster as I did that night. It’s a lot harder to savor your food slowly without a fork and knife to slow you down! But, who cares. We were on vacation and were dead set on enjoying ourselves to the max. Mission accomplished.

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More lobsters by candle light (with a rum bottle as our candle holder).

Of course, we didn’t eat all six lobsters to ourselves. We did give one lobster to the bartender at the Jetty Bar, and another lobster to the security guard who was patrolling the beach, but it was worth it to keep Bruce out of trouble and spread the good karma around.

My husband and Bruce.

My husband and Bruce.

Our decision to trust Bruce had paid off deliciously. If we ever go back to Runaway Bay I will definitely keep my eye out for good old Bruce again!

 

How to Grow Your Own Sprouts

My brother recently got me hooked on growing my own sprouts. Now that I’ve discovered how easy it is, I grow them all the time. If you enjoy eating sprouts, but you hate buying them only to have them wilt and wither in your fridge, then you should give this a try. I promise you, it’s very easy.

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Why grow your own sprouts?

Homegrown sprouts are better for you than the store bought variety because they’re grown without using any soil. Sprouts grown in soil run the risk of containing harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, but when you’re not using soil, you don’t have to worry about getting sick.

Homegrown sprouts are also very cheap to grow. You can buy a bag of sprouting seeds for under $10 dollars and even if you grow them continuously, the bag will last you awhile.

And, of course, homegrown sprouts are guaranteed to be fresh and delicious because you can pop them into your sandwich or salad the very second they’re big enough to eat.

Growing supplies

Thankfully, you don’t need a lot of supplies or a lot of space to grow your own sprouts. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • One large glass mason jar with a two-piece lid,
  • One square piece of mesh that’s roughly 6″ x 6″,
  • A dish drying rack that drips into the sink,
  • A mix of sprouting seeds, and
  • Water. That’s it.

To Grow Your Own Sprouts:

1. Add a few tablespoons of your sprouting mix into your clean, empty jar. (I use a one litre glass jar and 2-3 tablespoons of seeds.)

2. Place the square piece of mesh over the mouth of the jar and tighten the metal ring from your jar lid over the top. You now have a screen to keep your seeds inside the jar.

3. Fill the jar up with room-temperature water and swirl the seeds around inside.

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4. Dump the water out and repeat the rinsing process again until you are satisfied the seeds are clean. (Two or three times is probably enough.)

5. Fill the jar up again with water, but do not dump the water out. Leave the jar to rest like this for at least 12 hours, or overnight, to give the seeds a good soaking.

6. After 12 hours has passed, swirl the jar of seeds around again and dump the water into the sink.

7. Re-fill and then rinse the seeds a few more times with room-temperature tap water until you’re satisfied that they’re clean.

8. Now, invert the jar so the mesh screen is on the bottom, and rest it on an angle on your dish rack. The excess water will drip out the bottom and your seeds will begin to germinate in their own little greenhouse.

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9. For the next three days, rinse the jar of seeds in the same manner at least twice a day, leaving them inverted after each rinsing. You can rinse them more if you want, it really doesn’t matter. Just pay attention to them periodically and make sure they remain hydrated. In between rinses, condensation will build up on the inside of the jar. This is a good thing.

10. The seeds will usually begin to sprout after the first full day. You will notice the seed casings splitting open with little, white roots sticking out.

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11. You will be surprised at how fast your sprouts become fully formed. Mine are usually ready on the third or fourth day. Once they’re between one to two inches long with their first two baby leaves at the end, they’re ready.

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12. To turn your sprouts nice and green, place the jar on a sunny windowsill for a few hours. Try to rotate the jar at least once.

Once the sprouts are fully formed and green you can store them in the fridge for about a week, sometimes longer. But… don’t forget about them in your fridge! Try and remember to rinse them every now and again to keep them fresh and crisp.

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This may seem like a lot of steps but really the basic principle is to rinse them a couple of times a day until they’re ready.

Sprouts are delicious in sandwiches, salads, stir fry’s and even soups. Sometimes in a pinch, I eat them in forkfuls directly from the jar. However you decide to eat them, just remember to give them a good rinse first.

You can buy sprouting seed mixes at gardening stores or in some grocery stores, but I order mine online from West Coast Seeds. I grow a mixed variety called the Go Go Blend that contains organic alfalfa, red clover, radish, mustard and fenugreek seeds, but there are many other options out there too.

Good luck, and happy sprouting!

Ocean Deep, Mountain High: My First Experience at the Dirty Apron Cooking School

A friend of mine very generously gave me the gift of a Dirty Apron Cooking School course for my birthday. Neither of us had ever taken a course with them before, but we’d both heard very good things.

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Dirty Apron offers many different types of courses, including some focused on specific techniques like knife skills, grilling, or cooking seafood, and others focused on different ethnic cuisines like Italian, Spanish, Japanese or Indian. I scrolled through pages and pages of options on their website before finally settling on a truly west coast course called Sea to Sky: Ocean Deep, Mountain High. We would be making Bourbon Maple Roasted Quail with Herb Potato Rosti, Smoked Sablefish with Buttered Dungeness Crab, and finally Roasted Loin of Venison with Borlotti Beans and Truffle Ragout. To me, it sounded fantastic!

Having never been to Dirty Apron before, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Would we be cooking separately, or in pairs? How much of the 4 hour time slot would we spend prepping? And would I be able to actually make these dishes or would this be over my head? My mind was bubbling with excited anticipation.

From the moment we arrived, the presentation was impressive. We were greeted at the door and given our own black aprons, embossed with their stylish logo, and a file folder that contained all the recipes we’d be cooking that night. The hostess then ushered us over to their elegant dining room to nibble on cheese and olives and sip crisp white wine, while we waited for the rest of our classmates to arrive. We were definitely off to a good start. Once all of us were gathered around the long wooden dining table, we were finally ready to begin.

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We moved over to the main classroom area and sat in modern red chairs, facing the instructor’s demo station at the front of the room. Individual cooking stations lined the other three walls, all uniformly organized and inviting. Our instructor for the evening was chef Takashi Mizukami and he got down to business right away. We would each have our own cooking station and create our own version of each dish, and all the prep work had already been done for us.  Once we were done cooking each dish we were to go back to the dining room and enjoy it, all the while sipping on some more of their complimentary wine.

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Chef Mizukami effortlessly demonstrated the Smoked Sablefish with Buttered Dungeness Crab dish first. I had never poached fish before but after watching him do it I realized it was quite simple. I won’t go into all the details of each recipe (after all, that’s part of the fun of taking the course) but I will say that the quality of the ingredients they provided was excellent and it was lovely to not have to do any prep work at all. Being given a tray with all the ingredients in the correct proportions certainly made it easy.

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The next dish we made was the Bourbon Maple Roasted Quail with Herb Potato Rosti. We learned the proper technique to make a perfect rosti (the secret is to use lots of oil) and also how to season and sear the quail to perfection and finish it off in the oven. Before this course, searing was not a technique I did at home very often, but it really locked a lot of flavour into the meat and it wasn’t very hard to accomplish. All I need is a small cast iron skillet and I’ll be set.

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We saved the most complex dish for last, the Roasted Loin of Venison with Borlotti Beans and Truffle Ragout. This dish was a bit more complicated because we were bascically cooking three dishes at once: the venison, the ragout, and a tasty morel mushroom sauce to tie it all together. Despite the long list of steps to follow, we successfully pulled it off.

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Overall, my first experience cooking at Dirty Apron was fantastic and I will definitely go back and take more courses with them in the future. The hardest part will be picking which course to do next!

Making Maple Syrup

During our recent visit to Vancouver Island a friend showed us the simple art of making maple syrup. We don’t eat real maple syrup too often, but having it freshly pulled from the tree was too tempting to resist.

Armed only with a large metal pot, we put our boots on and headed out the door. The owners had tapped a handful of bigleaf maple trees a few months ago and lines of PVC tubing were steady in place, dribbling fresh sap into large glass jugs. Our only task was to collect it and bring it back to boil.

Our friend had already collected the sap a few days prior to our visit. At that time, thanks to some heavy fluctuations in barometric pressure, the sap was running out of the trees more freely. After he’d boiled down the drippings from 5 or 6 trees he was able to make almost a litre of syrup out of it. We’d eaten some of it that morning for breakfast and it was exactly how you’d imagine fresh maple syrup would taste, sugary and delicious. On the day of our syrup making lesson it was sunny, so the sap wasn’t running much at all. Nevertheless, we made the rounds to the half dozen tapped maple trees and poured the sap into our pot.

In total we collected about 1.5 cups of clear, watery sap. I hadn’t known this before, but apparently the ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1, meaning it takes 40 litres of maple sap to produce a 1 litre bottle of syrup. This explains why the stuff is so expensive.

We transferred the sap to a smaller pot and left it on the wood stove to boil down for awhile. After about 4 hours of slow simmering the sap had transformed into a thicker, amber coloured syrup – about a tablespoon’s worth!

Even though we didn’t make much it was still neat to learn how easy it is to make maple syrup. One day, when I get my own plot of land, I’ll be sure to plant some bigleaf maples on it.

A Taste of Farm Life

My husband and I recently took a trip to Vancouver Island to visit a friend who was house sitting on a farm. Our friend had worked on the farm many months before so he was already familiar with the required day-to-day activities and the owners needed someone to look after their chickens, dogs and gardens while they headed down south for some mid-winter sun. We jumped at the chance to visit him for a long weekend.

The farm was situated just outside the town of Duncan, down a logging road on a heavily wooded mountainside. The property, about 15 acres, was a mixed farm with a large farmhouse, a second smaller guest house, a varied collection of animal pens and coops, massive vegetable gardens, two greenhouses, and two healthy sized ponds full of fresh water.

As a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I spent many summers enrolled in day care on farms. Walking around the property, with their two large guard dogs by our side, really brought me back to my childhood. So much seemed familiar—the sound of the chickens clucking gently in their pen, the smell of freshly chopped cedar by the woodshed, all the small side projects scattered about in various stages of completion. It may not sound like much to some, but I could definitely settle in to a life like that. Even before taking this trip we’d spent many late, wine-filled nights talking about a simpler farm life with our caretaker friend. Experiencing it in the flesh stirred up those thoughts even more.

Even in the cold winter months the farm was still running in some areas. The owners had two large greenhouses and one was planted entirely with garlic, the other with sections of kale, beets and kohlrabi. It was so hot and humid in the greenhouses that we lingered inside for awhile, basking in the warmth as we sipped our afternoon beer.

Outside in their vegetable patch the soil was mostly dormant except for a few rows of leeks, Brussel sprouts, and overwintering herbs. Their brood of a dozen chickens was enough to give them a constant supply of fresh eggs but the turkeys and pigs were no longer around. Inside the farmhouse in their food pantry were seemingly endless rows of dried, prepared and bottled herbs and vegetables, obviously grown and preserved by the owners themselves. I can only imagine how satisfying it would be to produce that much food by our own means.

I have always loved the idea of life lived on a farm, working the land for a living. As a child I would pretend we were in pioneer times, building log cabins and churning pretend butter, planting and harvesting crops as the seasons passed. Now, even though we live in a very urban condo complex, I still try to keep one foot in that world by growing my own container vegetables, a balcony farm of sorts. It’s satisfying in many ways but I still yearn for my own plot of land. I know that dream will come true, one day.

My mother-in-law always tells me that I’m a repressed farmer at heart. I’m beginning to think she’s right!

Winter for Snowbirds

During the dark, dreary days of winter, I dream of all things tropical: sand, sun, waves, animals, and jungle. I can no longer deny that I’m a snowbird at heart. It would be easy enough to take a morning detour from my office and end up at the airport, if only I had a ticket. Sigh… one day soon. At least I have plenty of memories to draw from in the meantime.

Christmas day in Madang, Papua New Guinea

A snowbird is someone who travels to a warm country while it’s cold back home where they live. Just as birds fly south for the winter, Canadians like my husband and I jet off to warmer destinations in the winter months. It may be true that most snowbirds are already retired from their careers, but who cares? Warm winters suit me just fine, thank you. Even better if we can skip the commercialism of Christmas.

My husband and I have both been bitten by the travel bug and we’ve been fortunate to have traveled a lot together already. We did a 4.5 month trip around South East Asia—through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Laos—just 6 months into our relationship, and we loved it so much we couldn’t wait to go back. Our return trip to Laos two years later was our first true Christmas away as snowbirds.

A Christmas poinsettia growing naturally in the jungle.

We had a wonderful time in Laos during our first trip, and our fondness for the friendly little country remains today. The colourful town of Luang Prabang is a cultural oasis settled deep in the jungle-covered mountains and surrounded by the life-giving Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Here we visited the Royal Palace,  swam in the amazing Kuang Si waterfalls, learned to cook some local dishes, and admired row after row of brightly coloured textiles in the markets. The history and culture here are so thick that the town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A Laotian Christmas Tree

For our first Christmas away as snowbirds we returned to Luang Prabang. We remembered the lay of the land immediately, as though we’d never left. We spent the next ten days in paradise relaxing, sunning ourselves, and washing spring rolls down with frosty Beer Lao’s in the early afternoons. It was exactly what we had come for, and to make the trip even more memorable, my husband proposed! Can you blame me for wanting to go back again right now?

New Guinean Christmas tree (and Santa's hanging by a noose!)

For our honeymoon we went on another soul-warming adventure to Australia and Papua New Guinea for six weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. We flew from island to glorious island with extended stays in Madang, Kokopo and Lissenung Island. Now that we’re in the darkest, wettest days of winter, I dream of Lissenung the most.

Snorkelling near Lissenung Island, Papua New Guinea

Lissenung is a small resort island located in the Kavieng province of Papua New Guinea and the resort only accommodates around 14 guests at a time. Run by husband and wife couple Dietmar and Ange Amon, the resort is a world-class destination for scuba diving, though truth be told we didn’t go there for the diving. We went for the ultimate escapist experience. For a time we were just two people on a tiny speck of palm fringed sand, a mere dot in the great big sea of blue. We were also a seriously long way away from our home in Vancouver, Canada, where holiday commercialism was in full swing. Sure we thought about our family and friends while we were half way around the world celebrating the holidays in the sun. But I would do it again in a heartbeat. It seems that once you’ve experienced a Christmas as a snowbird it’s really hard to go back!

We didn’t get to flap our wings to any exotic locales this Christmas, but no matter. This year we brought the palm tree to us!

Our Christmas palm tree

I wonder where our next flight of fancy will take us? Perhaps… India?