Water & Wood and Easy Apple Cake.

You know that feeling where you just want to run away from it all to someplace pretty but that also has a well-stocked liquor store and decent restaurants? It can’t just be me who fantasizes about living somewhere almost-remote but almost not, somewhere you can reach into the sand and pull out a fistful of clams in the morning for that night’s dinner, and then head into town for tandoori sockeye salmon and a nice cup of chai for lunch. Such a place exists, five hours away from where I live, and I think about it all the time.

The drawback to these almost-remote places is that the kind of work that I do (the work that pays my bills, anyway) doesn’t exactly exist outside of urban centres or university towns, or when it does, there is one position that never becomes vacant. This is why we are not there now, wandering shorelines up the coast with Base Camp Coffee in a travel mug, and are staring out apartment windows at the traffic on Broadway instead.

But when you can’t be somewhere, it’s a comforting thing to be able to cook the food of a place instead. Whenever I get an itch to be somewhere, I turn to cookbooks.

I have picked up a few regional cookbooks lately – Christine Hanlon’s Out of Old Manitoba Kitchens has been a delight to flip through – but one in particular, Water & Wood: Recipes from a Coastal Community, a project of the Powell River Public Library, has been making my feet itchy once again.  

The thing I like about Water & Wood is that it has that spiral-bound community cookbook feel, but it’s also very beautiful in its design and photography, so that while it feels very “of the place,” offering local history and divided into sections by categories of Ocean, Lakes & Rivers, Farms & Gardens, and Forest & Mountains, it is also the kind of book you could leave out on your coffee table and thumb through with a cup of tea in the evening. And while the recipes are from the community and have a very strong west-coast feel, they’re also a bit more modern than you might expect.

Water & Wood offers a good mix of vegan and gluten-free recipes – there’s a recipe for raw, vegan, gluten-free Nanaimo bars, which honestly could not be more British Columbian unless you were to make them and walk them over to your neighbourhood bike repair shop while wearing Gore-Tex and rain boots. A nod to the multiculturalism of the area, the book also features international flavours using local ingredients, like the asparagus goma-ae and the beef tongue bitterballen (there are a couple of Dutch recipes, from the Van Es family farm archives). More regional recipes like Foraged Salmon Berry Shoots & Fiddleheads, Bladderwrack Egg Drop Soup, or the Pan Roasted White Sturgeon with Fir Tip Butter may not be the kind of thing you have the ingredients to make in your own kitchen, but that’s okay – what you can’t make at home may have you making travel plans.

And best of all, sales of the book support the Powell River Public Library (PRPL). The PRPL serves the residents of the City of Powell River and the Tla’amin Nation and Regional District.

I’ve asked for permission to share a recipe from the book, a very simple apple cake that served me well for several days – this thing does not seem to go stale, and so I was able to make it breakfast for nearly an entire workweek! Maybe the only thing better than running away to Powell River is eating cake for breakfast every day.

Easy Apple Cake

(Makes one 8″ cake.)

  • 2 cups peeled and finely diced apple (about two medium apples)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil*
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped**
  • 1/2 cup raisins**

*I used grapeseed oil – any neutral oil will do.

**Raisins are bad and we keep running out of walnuts as I keep eating handfuls of them, so I subbed one cup of currants.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and line the bottom of an 8″ baking pan (square or round will do) with parchment and set aside.

Place apples in a large mixing bowl and add the sugar. Stir, then set aside for half an hour, or until the sugar becomes liquid.

Add beaten egg, oil and vanilla, and stir to combine.

In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients.

Add raisins and walnuts (or currants), and stir to combine.

Pour batter into your prepared baking pan, and bake 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a plate to serve.

To purchase a copy of Water & Wood, visit the PRPL website. (This is not a sponsored post, though they did send me a copy of the book.)


Saffron milk.

Saffron milk

My friend Seti says that to “activate” saffron, you grind a little bit of it with a pinch of sugar, then steep it in hot water until the colour deepens. Then you can use the liquid whenever you make rice, or whatever you want to make taste like saffron. She brought me saffron back home with her from Iran, and this is the first saffron that has gone instantly yellow for me, like tiny droplets of yellow food colouring but fragrant. The Trader Joe’s stuff now seems like orange sawdust in a little jar, six dollars for nothing and I’ve got eighteen US dollars’ worth.

It seemed like it was worth a lot more before I knew how well saffron could bloom, and how little of it you’d have to use if you used the good stuff. Everything is fine until you learn there’s something better. Maybe I should have ground the Trader Joe’s stuff down with a bit of sugar. I didn’t know how well that could work.

We’ve finished our first full week of Kindergarten even though I am pretty sure this just happened, but what do I know? On the first day, that just-recently-a-baby and I stopped at Starbucks for hot chocolate on the way in, both of us chattering all the way about the things we’re looking forward to: reading books, writing books, fighting bad guys, flying on planes, and getting big enough for bigger adventures.

I took this week off of work, partly because I wanted to concentrate on a bit of writing in a quiet apartment for once, but mostly because we have yet to sort out the details around Kindergarten drop-off and pick-up, and because the teachers ease the kids into school, gradually increasing the number of hours they’re in the classroom until they get to a full day, even the daycare kids for whom “full days” have always meant days longer than our work-days. “Gradual entry should be optional!” I exclaim to everyone but also no one in particular. I am talking to myself.

So I’ve been walking two little boys to Kindergarten, mine and his friend who are a month apart in age and who is like a cousin or brother because they’ve been together, always for long days, since they were barely sentient. We cut through a park and on the way we stop at a pond and look at the ducks, and then they pick things up off the ground that I ask them not to, and then I shout at them for throwing things at the ducks.

I listen to the other moms with their sweet, calm voices around their children who are surely as infuriating as mine is, as I think most children can be, and I practice their tones but when I do it, it always comes off a little condescending. In the yellow light that tints these fall mornings, both kids sort of glow, their fair hair almost ginger, the bright colours of their little boy clothes somehow over-saturated. I try not to talk too much.

“Stop throwing crap at the ducks!” I have already come down with a cold.

To make saffron milk, take a pinch of saffron, just what you can grab with the tips of your thumb and forefinger, and grind it into your palm with the thumb of your other hand until the strands crumble into little pieces. Good saffron has a smell a little bit like sweet pepper, and reminds me a bit of anise, not because of its fragrance but because of the way both are sweet and bitter at the same time.

Saffron milk is an old-fashioned Dutch cold remedy, though the Dutch had trading posts in India for over 200 years so it’s likely that merchants there were influenced by Ayurveda and the medicinal use of saffron milk to improve sleep, reduce inflammation, and to strengthen the baby’s heart during pregnancy.

Dutch mothers are said to be patient people. I like the idea that someone has figured out parenting and is doing it right, somewhere. It makes me feel like anyone could do it.

Add your bits of saffron to a saucepan with a cup and a half or so of milk, and about a teaspoon of honey. Natural health proponents suggest drinking warm milk and honey as a sleep aid, as both are sources of tryptophan. What science says about this is kind of a downer, of course, but there is something soothing about a warm mug in your hands nevertheless.

Bring the milk to a boil over medium heat, whisking quickly for maximum frothiness. Remove the pot from the heat, and pour the whole thing into a mug or two teacups. It makes about twelve ounces, or the amount of a tall Starbucks latte. This is enough for one or two people.

When you sip your saffron milk, do so with your eyes closed. Think about little golden boys, and the way they shine now, the way they are like sunflowers stretching toward the yellow morning light. Do not think about those blue shadows stretching out behind them, where you stand, fretting, worrying about the time. They call out to the ducks, and the ducks swim away faster as their voices rise to be heard.

“Come on, boys. We have to go,” you say. And you hurry them along.



Aruba: One Happy Island.

We took a break this summer, from almost everything. I’ve been plugging away at a proposal for my next project, and it’s mostly done (except for all the second-guessing and self-doubt and despair); the rest was just reading and cooking and working on some new recipes. And though we couldn’t/still can’t really afford it, we escaped for a couple of weeks to Aruba to give the kidlet a vacation and do a bit of culinary research.

It might be the best thing we’ve ever done, because it might have been the most necessary thing we’ve ever done. The brain needs breaks, stretches of passivity where it just takes stuff in and doesn’t critique or react. I have spent so long critiquing and reacting, managing the busyness of just being an adult in 2016. I know that we are not supposed to talk about being busy, because busyness is a sign that we’ve failed to set our priorities or manage our time or some fixable thing, but I am in that stage of life where this is how it is. And so we wandered around Aruba, tanning our skin, filling our bellies, and resting our brains.

Now, I am no expert, having only been once to Aruba and only recently. But I have fielded enough questions about this wonderful place that I thought perhaps you might be interested in what we did and ate and saw. With a grain of salt, as always, here is my perspective.

Where we stayed

We stayed in Noord, in the Del Ray Apartments, which was just far enough from the stretch of tower hotels around Palm Beach and the port at Oranjestad – it was quiet, there were grocery stores and locally owned restaurants nearby, and it was dark at night with no noisy tourists outside. The best thing about Aruba is the wind: it is very windy, so that there is not very much noise. If your hair is like mine, it will look just awful all of the time, but if I’m being honest it never looks all that great anyway. The wind is nice. It cools when it’s very hot, and it’s consistently very hot there as it is pretty much a desert. There are cacti.

We wanted something with a kitchenette to cook breakfast or fry croquettes, and some privacy so that we’d have evenings to ourselves once the little one was in bed, and it was perfect for us. There was a pool, and it was clean, and the people who worked there were nice, even arranging a rental car for us when we decided it was time to drive off and explore. Renting a car was inexpensive. We were the only Canadians, and there were no Americans – lots of Spanish-speaking South American and Dutch-speaking European families. In short, it was nice to meet people from new places and try to plow through the language barrier to find out what they were planning to eat, see and do on the island.

There are all-inclusive hotels, if you prefer that sort of vacation, but the island is safe and small enough that you can explore most of it in not too long and you should. There’s so much more to it than just the hotel strips (and the food is much better away from there anyway).

What we ateAt Zeerovers

My favourite thing to do anyplace is go to the local supermarket and buy everything interesting or different, and so we did that. Aruba is part of the set of islands that comprise the Dutch Caribbean, and so there were wonderful Dutch cheeses and meats to select from the deli, and croquettes and bitterballen in an astonishing variety of flavours from the freezer section. They had European yogurts, American junk food, Indonesian spices, South American produce and the freshest, most wonderful local seafood. Aruba itself doesn’t have much of an agriculture industry (again, desert), but the seafood is impeccable. If you can stay somewhere with a barbecue, pick up some of their big fat shrimp and grill them whole; marinate a red onion in a bit of vinegar to serve alongside and you’ll never eat better.

ZeeroversThe fish counter at Super Food Plaza in Noord offered freshly fried local fish and cold Balashi beer – do not pass that up. Zeerovers in Savaneta was another favourite – buy your seafood by the pound, order every side dish, and feed your shrimp shells to the gulls and the fish in the water below the pier.

Some of the highlights were a mix of Dutch favourites and local specialties; one thing I can’t stop thinking of was the keeshi yena we ordered at The Old Cunucu House. Keeshi yena is a local creole dish of chicken stuffed cheese. The chicken is stewed with spices, capers, dried fruit, and cashews, then spooned into a dish lined with strips of Gouda, then covered and baked until the cheese is melty.

Od CunucuWe visited Bright Bakery a few times for pastechis (a local, empanada-like pastry), fish croquettes, and sweets. My favourite pastechi was the “chop soy” version filled with cabbage, onions, and shredded chicken. The cheese balls – actual deep fried balls of cheese – were magical, and the macaroons were heaps of toasted coconut in a puddle of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.

We were driving one day and smelled Fermins BBQ from the car – we followed our noses were not disappointed. The prices were good, the chicken was smoky and delicious, and the ribs were excellent. More cold beer. Endless cold beer.

Lindas Dutch PancakesFor the little one, Linda’s Dutch Pancakes & Pizzas was perfect – I don’t want to admit to how many chocolate-covered pannekoeken he ate; the sandwiches made a cheap, filling lunch.

Restaurant Indo offered Indo-Surinamese cuisine, with a particularly impressive rijsttafel, a Dutch feast via Indonesia where many small dishes are served with rice and condiments. Order the rijsttafel and add chicken liver sambal – it’s small, so get two if there’s more than a couple of you dining. Even if it seems like a lot of food, don’t miss out on bara, savoury Surinamese doughnuts made with split black lentils and Indian spices and served with chutney.

There are innumerable Chinese restaurants that also happen to be bars – it Rijsttafelwould have been a very different trip if we were child-free, so if you’re curious, don’t hesitate to stop in. We visited one and were delighted to find our food came with a bottle of mayonnaise (probably for the Dutch). Nick ordered roast chicken, and it came with what we thought was gravy but actually turned out to be a warm, thin peanut sauce that was surprising and hard to stop dipping my finger into. We might have preferred to stick around for rum drinks afterward, but travelling with a four-year-old is not conducive to enjoying cocktails late into the night.

If you’re driving, there are loads of little snack stands – they sell a range of things, from sandwiches and pastries to fruit smoothies and cold drinks, but they’re worth checking out if you’re thinking you’d like a bite to eat and want to avoid the usual fast food chains.

Fermins BBQ

What we loved

IMG_3889Arashi beach. Spotting herds of wild goats just, like, chilling wherever. Feeding one particularly obstinate donkey at the donkey sanctuary. Feeding the Shetland pony at Philip’s Animal Garden. Feeding the fish at Zeerovers. Icy rum and tonics on the balcony at our hotel after an early purple sunset. Iguanas! Eavesdropping on American conversations at Palm Beach, where we pretended we were guests of the Holiday Inn so we could use their deck chairs and towels and order buckets of Balashi to where we sat. The colourful houses, especially in Savaneta and San Nicolas. Frozen blue cocktails. The platter of Dutch deep-fried snacks at The Paddock in Oranjestad our first afternoon in Aruba.

Aruba offered us a reasonably priced getaway (summer is off-season for the island), and a trip that was family friendly, totally relaxing, and exactly what we needed. If you go, let me know – I’ll insist you pick me up a couple of boxes of hagelslag and some fancy aloe vera.

I’m already ready to go back.

Aruba - landscape