Category Archives: Things to do on Vancouver Island

Chinese New Year – Nanaimo Style

One of the fun things about our move to Canada has been learning about all the different holidays celebrated here.  Like the differences between American Independence Day and Canada Day; the fact that Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport; and holidays that are even new to the province like BC Family Day.  Many of the holidays that are new to me on Vancouver Island have a decidedly British flair to them, so while I find them fun to celebrate I’m no longer surprised to find them here.  I was surprised, however, when I learned that the Chinese New Year is celebrated on the island.

IMG_9986

I have celebrated Chinese New Year in a minor way whenever I’ve taught one of my anthropology of food courses during a spring semester, but I haven’t lived in a place where it was celebrated in the community until now.  Nanaimo is a city of malls, and people give directions to places in town based on which mall it is closest too.  This gets a bit interesting since a number of the malls have old names and new ones that can be used interchangeably.  In this case, the Nanaimo North Town Centre has an annual Chinese New Year celebration that is free to the public.  Combine the words “celebration” with “free” and it is a good bet that I’ll do my best to attend; especially if there is the possibility of snacks.

Welcoming the year of the Horse at the Nanaimo North Town Centre.

Welcoming the year of the Horse at the Nanaimo North Town Centre.

The Chinese New Year celebration at Nanaimo North Town Centre (and yes, I do keep having to go back and respell “center” as “centre” since even when I focus my fingers feel like that is backwards spelling) lasted from 11am-2pm and consisted primarily of the traditional Lion Dance.  I had read about this, seen versions on TV and in movies, in fact Little Man (and his parents) just learned about the Lion Dance in one of his favorite cartoons Justin Time, but I had never had the chance to view one live until this year.

One of the lion dance costumes.

One of the lion dance costumes.

The Lion Dance is iconic and highly symbolic in Chinese culture, and I know very little about its intricacies.  In short, each costume is worn by two people (front and back) and there are certain moves that are always included.  Around the dancing area there are generally hung pieces of lettuce (or other greens) that the lions eat and other items like oranges or red money envelopes that the lions chew on but do not consume.  All of this is done to a strong drum beat.  The students from a local Kung Fu studio, Hup Ging Do, practice throughout the year to perform here and at other venues.

IMG_9983

Entrance of the lion dancers.

Entrance of the lion dancers.

Unfortunately between the rapid lion dancing and the loud, reverberating drum, Little Man was not interested in staying around for long.  We came, we celebrated, and we retreated to one of the stores in the mall where Little Man “bought” a birthday present for a friend (and a corresponding one for himself) of a cool Chinese style dragon complete with Warrior.  I’m hoping that next year we can last a little longer at the dance, and maybe even try some of the Chinese-inspired snacks set out by the Fairway market.

IMG_9997

Now, what I am really excited about is a hybrid event related to the Chinese New Year that I would like to attend next year.  The event is called the Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Celebration.  Yes, in this amazing melting pot place there is an annual event where they combine to celebrate both the new year in Chinese custom, but also the birthday of beloved Scottish poet, Robert Burns.  My only sadness is that I didn’t learn about this event until it had already passed, but they had me at “haggis wontons.”  From all accounts this is a fun event complete with traditional Chinese celebrations and highland dancers.  I can only imagine how great this would be and I can’t wait until next year!

IMG_9995

Pebble Beaches and Pizza

In a previous post (A Day Off in Wine Country) I wrote about how this last summer Dave surprised me with a wonderful day off (aka a Surprise Day), touring local wineries on Vancouver Island like we used to do in New York.  Then, just before the end of this last semester, I decided it was the perfect time for me to surprise him too.  So Little Man and I went to pick him up at our normal time, but we weren’t going home for a slow cooker super that evening.  Little Man “hid” behind his special teddy bear (both in the rear car seat of course) and yelled “SURPRISE!” as soon as Dave got to the car.  We then whisked him off to the shore for a walk along the pebble beach at Neck Point.

View from the trail leading to Neck Point.

View from the trail leading to Neck Point.

This Surprise Day was actually inspired by the water table at Little Man’s Strong Start program (more on that program in a future post).  For those readers who don’t have toddlers, a water table is a sensory tool where kids can explore different textures and types of things in water.  You can fill a plastic storage tub with anything you would like, then put in a couple inches of water… or sand… or whatever you would like.  The one that Little Man was playing with had a couple of inches (or a few centimeters, depending on which side of the border/metric unit you prefer) of water in which floated a scattering of plastic sea animals, as well as a number of smooth, rounded pebbles and assorted sea shells.  Little Man loved playing with the pebbles in the water and I asked the teacher where she found them.  The answer was Neck Point.

Walking along the beach in the shadow of the forest.

Walking along the beach in the shadow of the forest.

Neck Point is a popular pebble beach and walking path in Nanaimo and I had heard of it but not had a chance to check it out yet.  The directions posted on the Nanaimo Information website  are as follows: “Turn off Hammond Bay Road onto Morningside Drive, north of Pipers Lagoon. Or, you can park at the end of McGuffie Rd and follow a path.”  We followed those directions and our GPS and got there unscathed, with about an hour of light left before the sun started to go down.  A perfect amount of time for a toddler-sized walk along the beach before food/snack is required.

View from the parking lot.

View from the parking lot.

From the parking lot, you first see a beautiful pebble beach, but to get to the “neck” of Neck Point you need to walk a bit further.  We took the trail to the left of the pebble beach and headed in what we hoped was the correct direction.  The path curved around to the left, climbing slowly, and passing a couple of scenic benches and picnic tables.  Then as we turned the corner and walked into the shadow of the mountain, we saw a beautiful log-strewn pebble beach.  With the blue, blue sky and the cries of the cormorants, it was stunning.  Little Man scampered down the stairs, over the logs and had a great time threw rocks into the sea.  Dave clambered over rocks, over the logs, and out on some sea rocks looking like he was walking on water.  In the shadow of the forest with the sun lowering behind the trees it started to get a bit cold, too cold for a picnic dinner.  But once we get into springtime, we are definitely going to be giving that a try.

Stretching our legs

Stretching our legs

run

After a bit of family clambering around and pebble hunting, I realized that we hadn’t quite made it to the “neck.”  So we continued down the curving path, up a long stairway and raised wooden walkway leading over the rocks, and down again towards the “neck.”  During low tides the “neck” consists of a narrow strip of pebbly land that juts out to a “head” of rocks surrounded by sea.  We were lucky in our timing and were going out just before the tide started to come back in.  The view was gorgeous, and we all had fun climbing around… though I was wishing we had brought Little Man’s lion tether as he kept creeping closer to the edge and wasn’t feeling like holding his parents’ hands while climbing like a little mountain goat.  A few tussles later and we decided it was time to head back for dinner.

Dave walking on water.

Dave walking on water.

Timber strewn pebble beach

Timber strewn pebble beach

The walkway to the "neck" of Neck Point.

The walkway to the “neck” of Neck Point.

Neck Point at low tide reveals a narrow pebble path to the sea rocks.

Neck Point at low tide reveals a narrow pebble path to the sea rocks.

Climbing on the sea rocks.

Climbing on the sea rocks.

climb2On this particular night I was going to treat Dave to our favorite Indian place, Amrikos, for dinner.  Our plans changed when we discovered that the restaurant had suffered a horrible fire and had moved locations at least temporarily.  So our dinner was good, but a bit subdued that evening.  To make up for it, the next weekend I made a pizza inspired by one of our favorite restaurants called Farm in Bloomington, Indiana.  The food is amazing and it’s still a place that we miss even years after moving from the area.

The Harvest Moon Pizza is inspired by one of their seasonal flatbreads.  The Farm version used locally sourced kielbasa and smoked gouda, along with homemade sauerkraut and grainy mustard.  It may sound a bit odd on your pizza, but it is absolutely delicious.  My version uses more premade items, and switches up the flavors a bit, but it still comes from that homey, cold-weather type of comfort food… on a pizza crust.  Feel free to make your own pizza dough, I’ll be sharing my recipe for that in an upcoming post, or pick some up premade from your favorite store or pizzeria.  I’d suggest not buying the pre-baked variety, but go for something that is still the dough that you can shape and season to your own liking.

038Harvest Moon Pizza

Ingredients

Premade whole wheat pizza dough (white flour dough can be used too)

2 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. flour

1 cup milk, preferably whole milk but any grade will do

1 bay leaf

1 garlic clove, crushed

¼ tsp. grated nutmeg

1 tsp. dried mustard powder

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (not the canned stuff)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Olive oil

1 tsp. herbs de provance (or other dried green herb like thyme, basil or oregano)

½ package kielbasa, sliced into ¼ inch rings (save the rest for another meal)

Small can of sauerkraut, drained

1 ½ cups good quality white cheddar, freshly shredded

Directions

Preheat your oven to 450 Fahrenheit.  If you have one, this is the time to put your pizza stone in your oven.  Mine stays on the lower rack all the time, so it’s always there when I want some solid, ceramic-based heat.

The Sauce

First, make your roux, or mixture of butter (or other fat) and flour.  In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat.  Once the butter is melted whisk in the flour, and keep on whisking for one minute.  Watch your roux like a hawk, and do your best to not let the flour color, turning down the heat if necessary.  After a good minute, slowly pour in the milk, whisking all the while until everything is smoothly combined into a thick béchamel.  Add the bay leaf, garlic clove, nutmeg, and mustard powder to your sauce, and cook gently for about 5 minutes or until very thick, stirring often.  This is not a light béchamel for pasta, but is a thicker version for the white sauce for your pizza.  Your sauce will be more robust rather than dainty.  Once the sauce has thickened whisk in the parmesan cheese until velvety smooth.  Taste your sauce for seasoning, adding a little salt and pepper if necessary.  You should have a slight bite from the mustard, but it should not be overpowering.  Once the flavors are to your liking, take the sauce off the heat and set it aside.

The beginning of a roux, or thickener made from butter (or other fat) and flour.

The beginning of a roux, or thickener made from butter (or other fat) and flour.

Adding the flour

Adding the flour

Now whisk like you mean it

Now whisk like you mean it

Adding flavor to your bechamel, in this case from garlic, a bay leaf and mustard powder.

Adding flavor to your bechamel, in this case from garlic, a bay leaf and mustard powder.

The bechamel is thickened.

The bechamel is thickened.

Parmesan cheese rounds out this flavorful white sauce for your pizza.

Parmesan cheese rounds out this flavorful white sauce for your pizza.

The Pizza

If you have a pizza stone, it should already be heated in your oven.  If you do not have a pizza stone, place a large baking sheet upside down on your middle oven rack.  This will serve as your stone.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, and then add your kielbasa slices to the pan.  Continue to cook and toss your kielbasa until it is golden brown in spots.  Then turn the kielbasa out of the pan onto a paper towel- lined plate and set it aside.

Adding the kielbasa to the hot pan.

Adding the kielbasa to the hot pan.

Golden brown kielbasa for the pizza.

Golden brown kielbasa for the pizza.

Using lightly floured hands and board, roll or stretch your pizza dough out into a circle.  I like whole wheat here, but if you can only find white flour dough that is good too.  The dough should be rather thin.  Pierce the dough all over with a fork (or dough docker… I love mine.  It does this task in about one second), leaving a scant inch border around the edges for the crust to rise.  These little holes will keep large bubbles from forming in the middle of your pizza dough.

Docking the dough, or piercing it all over with little holes, keeps bubbles from popping up and pushing your toppings to the side.

Docking the dough, or piercing it all over with little holes, keeps bubbles from popping up and pushing your toppings to the side.

Transfer the dough to a pizza peel, or if you don’t have one you can use a metal pizza pan or the back of another large baking sheet.  Drizzle the dough with a little bit of olive oil, and then sprinkle over the Herbs de Provence or other dried green herb mixture.  This ensures that you have great flavor in every layer of this pizza.  Slide the dough onto the pizza stone or upside down baking sheet in your oven, and bake for about 10 minutes or until starting to brown in spots.  The crust may not yet be fully cooked, but I find this step creates a crisper and less doughy crust, and it will finish cooking in the next step.

Seasoning the pizza dough with olive oil, herbs de provance and a little salt.

Seasoning the pizza dough with olive oil, herbs de provance and a little salt.

The prepared crust.

The prepared crust.

Remove the pizza crust from the oven and transfer it back to your work surface.  Now you get to put all the pieces together.  Slather the crust with your mustard cheese sauce, leaving a border around the edges for your crust.  Scatter the browned kielbasa evenly over the sauce.  Then scatter a thin layer of sauerkraut over the sauce.  You likely won’t use the whole can, but can serve the extra in a small bowl for passing at the table.  Lastly, cover the pizza generously with your shredded, white cheddar cheese.  This is where I have to fight off big boy and little boy hands from snatching the cheese right off the pizza before I can get it into the oven.  Slide it back in the oven before an all-out battle breaks out in your kitchen.

When saucing your pizza crust, be sure to leave a nice border for the crust.

When saucing your pizza crust, be sure to leave a nice border for the crust.

Kielbasa scattered over the pizza.

Kielbasa scattered over the pizza.

First give a light scattering of sauerkraut to your pizza, then cover it with a generous helping of freshly shredded white cheddar.

First give a light scattering of sauerkraut to your pizza, then cover it with a generous helping of freshly shredded white cheddar.

Bake this for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown on top.  Sometimes I switch the oven to broil, and then stand guard like a hawk until the cheese is nicely browned.  From personal experience, don’t step away from a broiling oven for a second or you might just get a bit more “carmelization” than you hoped for.  Remove the pizza from the oven, and let it sit for a moment so it isn’t “hot lava” hot.  Then slice, serve and enjoy!  We like to serve this with a harvest or Oktoberfest ale, and a green leafy salad with sliced apple and walnuts and a balsamic vinaigrette.  Delicious!

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

The pizza as it is just slid into the oven on my pizza stone.

Golden, bubbly and delicious, dinner is ready!

Golden, bubbly and delicious, dinner is ready!

036

Click here for a printable version of the Harvest Moon Pizza recipe.

view

Ladysmith Lights

Now that we’re into December and the Christmas season, our American and Canadian holiday schedules are finally coming together… but they got there in a very odd way.  Christmas is Christmas, whether celebrated in the States or in Canada.  Our dates and traditions are mostly the same, and it’s nice to feel a part of something that the people around you are gearing up for too.  To start our Christmas season here on the island, our little family went to a local holiday light festival.  This festival just happened to fall on the same date as American Thanksgiving, so our two holiday schedules collided in an odd mash up of Thanksgiving thoughts and Christmas imagery.

051

Since I’m still getting to know the area, I admittedly knew little about the town of Ladysmith where the Light Up festival was held other than the fact that it is mainly perched on the side of a mountain with painfully steep inclines that rival those of San Francisco.  When we got to the festival, the early winter night was in full swing and the streets were packed with people eager to see the lights and the parade, and we slolumed down the hill with Little Man’s jogging stroller to be greeted by a fire juggler.  The flames were the only special lights to be seen, since the special tree lighting ceremony had not yet been held and the copious holiday lights lining and crisscrossing the street had not yet been lit.

023

Our arrival coincided with dinner time, and both Little Man and I started to fade fast.  So the three of us scouted up one hill and down the other, looking for a good place for dinner.  There were some street food vendors that looked interesting, but with Little Man and all of our stuff (jogging stroller that we would not have survived without on those hills, potty seat and all assorted clothing changes in case potty was not achieved, etc.) we needed a place to sit indoors where it was warm.

What we found was a little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant called The Wigwam (I have no idea why it has that name), which based on the stories we overheard during dinner sounds like it has been around for decades.  I was a bit leery of eating in a Chinese restaurant with that name, but it seemed the best of our options and a booth opened up just as we got there.  Because of the special parade night and the extra influx of diners they were only offering buffet (or smorgasbord as they say here north of the border… “smorg” for short), and it was pretty good.  There were lots of good vegetables, sauces that tasted “real” not from weird packets, and copious amounts of Chinese tea to warm us from fingers to toes before going outside again.  So while dinner was good, it was arguable the strangest Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had… ever…

049050

While we were inside toasty warm having dinner, we missed the lighting of the tree and the start of the parade.  Then suddenly, from our booth in the Wigwam restaurant, we started to see the most massive semis going down the street, festooned with hundreds of lights and blaring their horns.  Thus was answered the question of how on earth they were going to get dozens of parade floats up and down those near vertical hills… with large trucks.  It was stunning, both visually and audibly.  We quickly finished our meal and headed outside to see things better.  Soon Little Man, who was on his dad’s shoulders for a better view of the floats, had Pooh Bear and his hands clamped over his ears.  When his looks of wide eyed wonder turned to fear at the thought of one more truck horn, we decided it was time to go.

005

Before we could go far, we passed a store front where the wafting smell of cinnamon and sugar stopped us in our tracks.  Dave and Little Man stayed outside to watch a few more floats, and I got in line at the awesome Old Town Bakery.  The display cases were full of pies, cookies and the most amazing array of cinnamon and caramel rolls I’ve seen in a long time.  Since it was American Thanksgiving, I kept myself focused on the task and limited myself to one apple pie and three small ginger cookies.  Then back out into the cold to rescue my boys.

003

We tromped up yet another hill to catch a shuttle trolley ride back to our car.  Had to stop only once for an impromptu use of the potty seat in someone’s driveway, and then finally made it up to the shuttle stop.  After a short wait we all loaded on, and shortly after the shuttle started moving the fireworks started.  We finished the fireworks display in our car in the parking lot, and then all three exhausted holidayers headed home.  Next year we will plan things differently.  Probably a light dinner in advance so we can have a street food treat at the festival.  Definitely warmer clothes complete with hats and gloves so we can stomp around outside while waiting to see the official lighting of the tree.  And most importantly, Little Man will get to join me in the Old Town Bakery to make his own selection from their amazing cases.  It will feel just like Christmas.

032

057

Playing in the Mud – Part 2

I stepped into the Bowen Park pottery studio with the intention of throwing a few bowls, doing some slab work, and overall just getting my hands dirty again.  I imagined that the other people there would be like me, relative novices or people playing with pottery.  Maybe some nice grandmotherly ladies rolling out clay like cookie dough to cut out shapes for Christmas ornaments.  As I turned the corner into the studio, the first woman I saw was doing exactly that.  Her little frilly apron completed the picture.  Then I looked beyond her, and felt a wave of inadequacy wash over me.

The room was filled with predominately senior-age women, which was to be expected since seniors get free or very inexpensive access to a fantastic array of classes and activities at Bowen Park, ranking from lawn bowling to language classes to dance to pottery.  These women, however, were not dabbling.  They are artists.  One was crafting an amazing clay mask wall piece that was around two feet in diameter.  Another was doing slab work on a series of massive platters.  To my left were a couple of women dipping their bisque wares (pottery that has gone through one firing, but still needs a glaze before a second firing) into glaze, but their pieces were gorgeous.  Applique star fish on a series of mugs, bowls and casseroles.  Another had tall narrow pieces that are incredibly difficult to throw.  To my right was the wheel room with three women at pottery wheels throwing pieces that were taller, wider, and all around more stupendous than I had ever been able to do even when I was practicing multiple times a week.

A quick selection of some of my pottery created here in Nanaimo.

A quick selection of some of my pottery created here in Nanaimo.

Anyone who has thrown pottery can tell you that the more clay you have on your wheel, the bigger a piece you can make, but also the more you have to muscle the clay into submission.  I had gotten proficient with smaller pieces of clay, ranging from 1 ½ to 3 lbs. at a time.  Once I had tried a 5 lb. piece of clay and it just about threw me across the room.  A nice, petite, grandmotherly woman dropped what looked like a good 8 to 10 lbs. of clay on her wheel and almost immediately had it centered and was pulling up an amazing deep, wide bowl.  The idea of sitting with these women and practicing my “skills” that hadn’t been dusted off in years was daunting.

This bowl originally was a fail.  I pinched the top right off of it while trying to draw it higher.  A carved leaf vein in the bottom and some good glaze, and it is reborn as a lily pad bowl.

This bowl originally was a fail. I pinched the top right off of it while trying to draw it higher. A carved leaf vein in the bottom and some good glaze, and it is reborn as a lily pad bowl.

I mentally put on my “big girl pants,” sent up a quick prayer that I wouldn’t totally embarrass myself, grabbed my bag of clay and other tools, and sat down.  Then I proceeded to get up and sit down again a good three or more times as I remembered a different tool I needed, or couldn’t get the bin around the machine on correctly, or forgot a board for my clay, or forgot to wedge my clay before throwing it… the list goes on.  The lovely women on either side of me offered kind advice so that my brain slowly wrapped around the process again.  Now every time I go, I am excited to see these women working too.  They are a wealth of advice and inspiration with what they do.  I learn so much from getting muddy with them.

A butter dish or spoon rest.

A butter dish or spoon rest.

As I’ve now been throwing in Nanaimo long enough to have finished pieces (thrown, set, dried to greenware, fired to bisque, dipped in glaze, and then fired again), it’s been fun to look at the differences in my pottery between Indiana and now here in Nanaimo.  In Indiana (pre-Little Man) much of what I did was based on having friends over for dinners or parties; small dishes with ringed bases that are great for oil and balsamic bread dipping, appetizer plates with a circle cut out to hold a wine glass, fancy serving dishes that look like giant tropical leaves.  Pieces are largely still packed away in boxes from our move in order to protect them from Little Man.  They are the type of pretty, fragile pieces that he could quickly turn into thousands of pottery sherds for a future archaeologist.

It may be hard to tell in this shot, but this is a clam shell plate with a raised portion at the back for dip.

It may be hard to tell in this shot, but this is a clam shell plate with a raised portion at the back for dip.

The pieces that I have been making here in Nanaimo show that I’m trying to get my feet wet (or my hands dirty) again, sort of slowly flexing my pottery muscles as my brain remembers what my hands haven’t quite forgotten yet.  In all honesty my thrown work has been a bit shaky, but I’m just now catching my stride.  My slab work has been better.  The pictures included in this post show my most recent work here in Nanaimo, while the previous Playing with Mud post shows pictures of my Indiana work.  Instead of being inspired by dinner parties, I’m trying to think of what types of things we can use now with Little Man.  For example, he LOVES the planets, the Moon and the stars, so I’ve started a little “series” of planet and moon plates.  They aren’t anything special in terms of technique, but I hope they are fun for him to eat off of at meal times, and that they inspire his imagination in other ways.  I’ve also been making more piggy bowls that I first created in Indiana.

One of Little Man's planet plates... maybe Neptune?

One of Little Man’s planet plates… maybe Neptune?

Another one of Little Man's planet plates...  maybe Uranus?

Another one of Little Man’s planet plates… maybe Uranus?

When I first made a piggy bowl, I had been inspired by an old pottery piggy bank that a fellow student at the studio brought in.  The face looked so cute, and more importantly easy to replicate.  I also quickly learned that any bowl that goes a bit wonky on the wheel can be immediately saved through the transformative powers of a piggy face.  When I throw pottery, unless the piece absolutely implodes on the wheel (which does happen, but less frequently the longer I practice) I don’t want to waste it.  Sometimes you can slap on a handle and a slightly wonky bowl can become a nice mug.  Other times, a piggy face is just what is needed to salvage an otherwise unattractive piece.  The first couple bowls I threw needed some salvaging, so piggys they became.  I’m planning on throwing some bowls next week at the studio, so I should probably look into expanding my animal face repertoire.  Our cupboards are getting a bit full of piggys, but luckily these small bowls make great presents for little ones and a number of my friends have new additions that will be receiving piggy bowl presents soon.  Little Man loves his piggy bowl, and gets to use it often at meal times (with some supervision) for soups, bread rolls, hummus/dips, cereal/oatmeal, and the like.  I’ve been wanting to make some from scratch chocolate pudding, and I have to admit that his piggy bowl is the inspiration for that.  I think it would be the perfect thing for that special treat.

The piggy bowl tradition continues in Canada.  It's amazing what a piggy face and some good glaze does to fix an otherwise so-so bowl.

The piggy bowl tradition continues in Canada. It’s amazing what a piggy face and some good glaze does to fix an otherwise so-so bowl.

Playing in the Mud

It was hot.  So hot that if I left my trowel in the sun for even a few moments you could have fried an egg on the metal blade.  Blazing hot, but to think of it in those terms made you feel even hotter.  I was collecting yet another bag of broken pottery (officially called coarse ware or cook pot ware, affectionately called crap ware) in my first archaeological field season in Turkey.  I wasn’t exactly sure that I knew what I was doing, and I had no idea what to do with the stuff I was digging up, other than to record it properly.  I hadn’t yet learned how to take the material remains and interpret those back into the lives of ancient people.  Somewhere during the collection of that bag of boring, unpainted, undifferentiated pot sherds, I actually stopped to look at one.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

It was the same earth-beige color as the rest.  Roughly the same shape as the palm of my hand, and on the outside surface was a perfectly clear finger print preserved in the clay.  The finger print of the woman or man who had actually made the pot whose surviving piece I now held.  This print was not decorative, but was simply a movement recorded in clay; and I was hooked.  For the first time, all the books on ancient history, all the poorly made films about ancient civilizations (Alexander with Colin Farrell… hours of my life I can never get back), all the museum displays, all of it finally was linked back to real people.  There were real people who made real pots that quite often weren’t pretty, but I bet could be used to put together a delicious meal.

One of thousands...

One of thousands…

Those pot sherds became the focus of my life for a good five plus years.  My dissertation was based on thousands of pot sherds, enough sherds to make your eyes cross and fingers ache just at the thought of analyzing them all.  When I was writing up my findings back in Indiana, Dave surprised me with a present of a pottery class.  It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never made the time.  Now that I was crunching numbers and trying to interpret ancient life from thousands upon thousands of pot sherds, I was finally going to see what went into making a pot.  And I loved it!  There is something magical about pulling the pottery up from the wheel and seeing it transform before you eyes and between your hands… even if it falls.

004

Pottery I made in Indiana.

When we moved from Indiana to Iowa, I lost access to that studio and then Little Man came on the scene and I hadn’t been able to get back to pottery until now.  I’d heard that through the city of Nanaimo there was access to a pottery studio where they also taught classes.  So I tracked down a copy of the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture Activity Guide and found the information on the Bowen Park pottery studio (in the senior center at 500 Bowen Road).  The best part was that they offered multiple days of open drop in time, where as long as you already know what you are doing you can come by for a small fee and use their facilities.  I was hoping that the muscle memory of throwing pottery would come back, even though I hadn’t held clay for nearly three years.  And it did… more or less.

001

With my reintroduction to the world of throwing pottery, I wanted to cook dinner in a casserole dish or pot that I’d made myself.  I wanted to use my own pottery again, to feel the accomplishment of creating something useful not just pretty.  I also wanted comfort food, which meant casserole, and the mother of all casseroles in our household is Chicken Taco Casserole.

003

Chicken Taco Casserole is not a light meal, and frankly I don’t recommend trying to lighten it.  I’ve tried it with baked tortilla chips, and they just dissolved in an unappetizing mush.  I’ve tried it with reduced fat canned soup (yes, you heard me right, this recipe calls for canned soup.  Embrace the retro ingredient) and that was a mistake; total lack of flavor and an off putting texture.  This is one of those go big or go home casseroles that we don’t make often, but we savor every delicious bite, scraping our plates (and the casserole dish) clean.  And while you certainly don’t have to bake this in a ceramic casserole made by yourself or a local artisan, I have to tell you that it’s really great if you can.  I don’t know why, but it just seems like things taste better when served in your own pottery, pottery made for you, or pottery made by a local artisan.  It’s similar to how things you grow in your own garden taste better than those things you buy in a store.  It’s powerful when you know the hands that made something, not just an extruder or mold press half way across the world.  So if you get a chance, support your local potter.  You’d be amazed at the craft and artistry that goes into what seems like a simple bowl or mug.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

Chicken Taco Casserole

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

This casserole is the definition of family comfort food for me.  It’s a family recipe that we’ve tweaked over the years and my parents make it differently than I do, and my brother has his own spin on it too.  The ingredients below give a nicely spicy version, but in terms of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to make it with any spice since Little Man came along.  We’re hoping to get him there some day, but for now I omit the chili flakes all together (unless I’m feeling risky and just give a sprinkle to the sauteing chicken), and instead of a half can of jalapenos, I use a full can of mild green chilies.  The taste is still great, but I can’t wait for Little Man’s palate to develop to spicy foods…  Mama misses her chilies.

And a quick warning…  The first time my dad and I tried this casserole with the added chips and cheese on top… the topping never made it to the table.  We pulled the delicious casserole out of the oven, called the rest of the family to dinner, and stood there in the kitchen eating the chips and cheese off of the top.  By the time the rest of the family got there we’d smoothed out the top of the casserole and no one was the wiser… until now.

Ingredients

3 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

Salt and Pepper

½ tsp. chili flakes

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

2 cans cream of chicken soup

½ small can of diced green chilies

½ small can of diced jalapenos

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 large bag of good quality tortilla chips

Directions

1.  Preheat the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and prepare your favorite casserole dish by giving it a generous spray of cooking oil.

2.  Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add a little oil.  Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and half the chili flakes.  Put the breasts into the hot pan spice side down.  Then sprinkle the exposed side with salt, pepper and the remaining chili flakes.  Cook until golden, then flip and sear again.  Saute until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe.  Taster's preference.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe. Taster’s preference.

The beauty of browned food...

The beauty of browned food…

3.  In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl combine the soups, the chilies and a good sized cup of grated cheddar.  Mix this all together and set it aside.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

4.  Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and shred it into large strips.  Once shredded add the chicken to the rest of the casserole mixture and stir to combine.

The combined mixture... the start of a beautiful thing.

The combined mixture… the start of a beautiful thing.

5.  Now comes the fun part, layering.  Grab a good sized handful of your chips and crush them into the bottom of your casserole.  This should more or less just flatten them out a bit to make a good base.  Then layer in approximately 1/3 of your casserole mixture, and smooth it out.  Top this with another good handful of chips, and repeat the layers until you cap off the casserole with the last of the mixture.  Be sure to reserve a good handful of chips and about 1/2 cup of grated cheddar for the topping later.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

The last layer of chips.

The last layer of chips.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

Ready for the oven.

Ready for the oven.

6.  Put the casserole on a baking sheet (in case of boil overs) and slide the whole thing into your hot oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and hot.  Pull the casserole out of the oven, top it with your reserved chips and cheese, and return it to the oven to just melt the cheese.  Watch it like a hawk here in case the chips start to burn.  Once the cheese is melted and the chips brown up on the tips, remove the casserole, let it sit for about 10 minutes (if you can hold off the savage hordes long enough) and then enjoy.

Deliciously browned.

Deliciously browned.

Click here for a printable version of the Chicken Taco Casserole recipe.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

Cannon Firing

This post also announces the creation of a Things to do on Vancouver Island page on The Sheep Are Out Blog.  As I come across fun things to do on the island, I will write about them and link them to that page on the blog.  If you are looking for interesting things to do in the Vancouver Island cities you see listed there, please check out the links and blog posts to get ideas.  Also, if you have any ideas for things that aren’t listed there, please send me an email.  We are definitely still learning our way around the island, and welcome any fun ideas.

Cannon Firing

Every day in the summer at noon they fire off the cannon by the Bastion in downtown Nanaimo.  We stumbled upon this tradition one sunny afternoon as we were wheeling Little Man in the jogging stroller towards the sea wall.  It was the music of the bag piper that caught our attention first, the massive cannons second.

cannon

We learned from these presentations that the cannons were never used in battle or for protection, but that they were used in official ceremonies and now were a part of local tradition for summer afternoons.  The firing was always proceeded by bag pipe music, and a few times a local highland dance troupe would dance as well.

Over the summer we went so often that if we were anywhere within ear shot of the cannon and Little Man heard the pipes, he’d ask about the cannon.  Little Man had a love/hate fascination with the cannon firing.  He wanted to be there, wanted to see and hear it fired, but would sit for most of the time with his hands clamped over his ears throughout the presentation.  He would eye the cannon suspiciously through the whole thing, then we would cover his ears before the shot, and once it was over he’d ask for it to fire again.

cannon2

The pipes reminded me of Binghamton where a friend played pipes and we would go to his troupe’s biannual Robert Burns dinner complete with requisite haggis.  There was also something special about sitting on the balustrade, watching the ocean and listening to the music.  Little Man would sit spell bound, so for a moment I could concentrate on the sound, not on whether or not my toddler was about to dash into traffic or tip over the sea wall.

When the cannon firing starts up again next year, Little Man will be a year older.  He’s now at an age where he is developing long term memory, and he might… just might… remember these visits to the Bastion and the cannons.  I can’t wait to see what his memories are.

cannon 3

A Corn Maze and the Making of Fall Traditions

When Dave and I first started dating I was surprised to learn that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also; though their holiday is a month earlier (on the second Monday in October).  I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but in fact it is not.  The importance of the Thanksgiving meal, however, does vary greatly between the two nations.  In Canada, or at least on Vancouver Island, there no displays in stores, no Thanksgiving-themed commercials, no chatter about getting together with family, or trying to figure out long distance travel to get home for this one evening.  Instead, all the focus seems to be on Halloween, complete with fireworks.  Our cats will not be amused…

With this difference in Autumn celebrations, I feel out of sync with the season.  Halloween seems on time, but the fact that Thanksgiving is already over leaves me feeling like I’ve missed out on something important.  We had a great Canadian Thanksgiving, and we will be celebrating American Thanksgiving come the end of November, but in the meantime we’re trying to carve out some new Fall traditions and get into sync with our new community.  In Nanaimo that means a trip to McNab’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The day we went was a little late in the season, since it was after Thanksgiving (Canadian) and most of the really big pumpkins were gone.  However, they had tons of small to medium pumpkins, a local school fundraiser with all the homemade baked goods my heart could ask for, and the corn maze was still in full swing.  I was already feeling nostalgic for Iowa since a much-missed friend was throwing a fall celebration party with all of our friends, and we had just passed the dates for two of our favorite things to do in Iowa; the Farm Crawl and the Brews and Muse Festival at Peacetree Brewery.  Oh, friends, we were sure missing you on those weekends (especially those friends who shall remain nameless but kept sending emails and Facebook comments about the delicious new brews from Peacetree that we were missing out on… trisky hobbits that you are).

So with homesick hearts we went looking for new traditions at the pumpkin patch.  I assure you I never thought in my life that I’d say I was homesick for Iowa, but I’m getting sincerely tired of leaving places behind that have become home.  In our quest for new traditions to make this place home, McNabb’s did not disappoint.

Even after living in the American Midwest for five years, I had never been to a corn maze.  At Farm Crawl there was a corn maze, but I was always more interested in Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch, the borscht served at Coyote Run Farm, and the amazing preserves, people and brew (Peacetree again…) at Blue Gate Farm.  So McNab’s was my first time to be in and amongst the corn.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Surrounded by corn... like being back in Iowa.

Surrounded by corn… like being back in Iowa.

The day was perfectly foggy for an Autumn trip to the pumpkin patch, and we headed off to the maze first.  We had a great time trying to get lost, and searching (often fruitlessly) for the little markers hidden in the paths.  Apparently the markers haven’t been moved in years so the locals all know where they are, but since we’re new the hunt was still fun.  Once the chill of the maze started to get to us, and the enclosed space of the corn from Little Man’s viewpoint started to wear on him, we took the Hay Ride tractor to the pumpkin patch.  Here we selected a couple of pumpkins, had them measured and then heaved them back to the tractor, wishing we had brought the stroller to carry our pumpkin booty.

Hmmm... Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

Hmmm… Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

As we got off the tractor at the front of the farm, we ran into some friends from town, and hung around the fire pits chatting.  That is the sort of thing you miss when you move often; the regular meeting of friends in public places.  Little Man ran around with their kids, visiting the piglets and goats, and climbing massive downed stumps.

pumpkins

When Little Man finally started showing signs of wearing down and needing lunch, we headed off for lunch.  We could have stayed there for hot dogs, but the morning was cold and we all wanted some warm, inside rest.  So we headed for Coco Café in Cedar.  The café’s name is an acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-Operative, whose mission is to provide developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities within their community.  This year the maze was dedicated to Coco’s, and I had heard of it before as well.  It has the reputation of being a nice little café with cozy atmosphere and good, local food, for good prices.  Perfect.

Walking into Coco Café I caught a glimpse of our little family in the glass door; all looking cold, dazed, hungry, and distinctively muddy.  Inside I ordered a hot cocoa, and Dave got coffee.  Little Man was very pleased with my drink choice, and did his best to polish off my whipped cream before I could get to it myself.  Dave had a Thai Curried Chicken Panini with a green side salad.  Little Man had the grilled cheese on an awesome whole wheat bread; and I had a massive bowl of Beef and Barley soup complete with a good-sized hunk of warm Pumpernickel, rich with molasses.  Dave’s Panini was great, and we were both impressed with the salad.  After our time in the Midwest we had come to loath side salads since inevitably they were tasteless piles of wilted, ice berg lettuce buried under a mound of not-cheese.  At Coco Cafe even the side salads were great.  Not a hint of iceberg lettuce to be seen, but only dark, lovely salad greens with a homemade vinaigrette.  Little Man liked his sandwich, but preferred my cocoa; and my soup was divine.  It was full of great vegetables, barley and beef, the broth was rich and stew-like with a good amount of black pepper.  This soup was a perfect example of why homemade soup is so much better than the stuff from a can.  All in all we had a great, home style lunch that did not break the bank, and which warmed us up from our stomachs to our fingers and toes.

On the way back home, Dave struggled to keep Little Man awake so that he could take a nice long nap at home.  Little Man, for his part, did his best to hide behind his Pooh Bear and fall asleep.  In the end we all had great naps, and ever since I’ve been fixated on hot beverages.  I want drinks that I can hold in a real mug, not paper or factory made, but something made by real hands, something that fits nicely between my palms, and warms me from the fingers on out.  And that brings me to my family’s Wassle; a hot mulled cider that fills the home and the heart with the aroma of the holidays.

This recipe for wassle comes from my dad’s side of the family, and just a whiff of this simmering away in the slow cooker makes me think of “family.”  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of just the three of us, but of gatherings of loved ones, whether or not you are biologically related, where you can just relax and be at home.  In fact, it’s worth making this wassle just for the aroma.

When Dave and I first made this wassle for our friends-who-became-family in upstate New York, their first comment was “mmmm… this is good…” followed quickly by asking if we’d ever tried this with rum.  We hadn’t.  We did.  It was delicious.  But I have to say, this wassle is amazing on its own and doesn’t need any accoutrement.  What sets it apart from other mulled ciders I’ve tried is the mixture of apple cider with pineapple, orange and apricot nectars.  Cardamom and cinnamon round out the spiciness of the hot, hot drink, and are key to its aroma.  There is no added sugar, the juices are sweet enough as it is.  So if you’re having friends/family over and want that scent of the holidays that will stop them in their tracks the minute they set foot in your home, this is the wassle for you.  The only problem will be getting them to leave later, since it’s so nice to just sit with loved ones while cradling a mug of this wassle in your hands.

Wassle (A Hot Mulled Cider)

Ingredients

4 cups apple cider

4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 ½ cup apricot nectar

1 cup orange juice

6 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole green cardamom

Directions:

  1. Pour all juices into your slow cooker and turn it on to high.
  2. Place the cardamom pods on your cutting board and crush them with the back of a spoon or flat of a knife.  Alternatively, crush the pods in a mortar and pestle (I just can’t find mine since the move…)
  3. Add the cinnamon and crushed cardamom to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and heat until pipping hot, then turn the slow cooker down to low and simmer the wassle for 25 minutes.  Enjoy!
  5. Optional: float a new cinnamon stick in each mug.

Click here for a printable version of the Wassle recipe.

pumpkin 2

Floating Like a Mer-Baby

Up to now Dave and I have done a pretty job of ensuring that Little Man is afraid of water.  He is more like his mother who likes warm, tropical waters, than his father who must be part polar bear. When Little Man was 6 months old we dipped his little baby feet into the subarctic waters of Barrier Lake where Dave’s family has a cabin.  Little Man responded as any 6 month old should, pulled his feet up to his ears and wailed his protest.  About a year later we repeated this process at Laguna Beach, California.  Now admittedly the ocean water was a little bit warmer… a little bit… but it was still January temperatures for California and Little Man’s response was the same as his lake water experience.

Most recently, while living on Vancouver Island, we found a lovely area of the Nanaimo River where it is very calm and still.  Winnie the Pooh would describe this part of the river as an area where the river itself was calm and sure about where it was headed, and therefore not in any particular rush to reach its destination.  If there was a little bridge this would be the perfect place for a game of Pooh Sticks.  The river is also, fed by numerous mountain streams coming from heights where even in the warmth of July snow still blanketed the peaks.  While calm, these were not tropical waters.  On this particularly hot day I was able to wade in just past my knees before refusing to go much deeper, while my polar bear husband was splashing and swimming with reckless abandon.  Our cautious two year old dipped his toes in the water, intuited what his sneaky parents had in mind, and did his best to turn tail immediately and head for the hills… literally.  We, on the other hand, thought that we would help him over his fear of the water and brought him in deeper, with Little Man clinging to his daddy like the best koala bear imaginable.  A little bit later with chattering teeth and blue lips we all got out of the water and went home for some well-deserved grilled cheese sandwiches and a warm bath.

Amongst these arctic water experiences we had a couple of pool excursions that were fine, but Little Man was by no means excited about the idea of playing in water.  At this point I was starting to get a little nervous that my own reticence towards water was rubbing off on my son.  I am the first to admit that I am not the strongest of swimmers, but Dave’s family just might be part mer-people.  They all love the water, doesn’t matter how warm or frigid it might be.  My parents also love taking the grandkids to special pools through a time-share that they are a part of, though most of this has been done with my brother’s fantastic children and not with Little Man since we’ve lived so far away.  My biggest concern was that I don’t want Little Man to miss out on special family aquatic adventures just because his mom is more of a land lover and his well-intentioned parents keep dipping him in arctic waters.

Around the same time that I was mulling over this “dilemma” I heard about the Nanaimo Aquatic Center.  I filed the name away, associating it with the sad, little indoor pools that I remember as a child; the fumes of chlorine wafting heavy above the water.  My memories are further soured by a couple of teenage swimming instructors that were too young to understand how to work with a child who was afraid (or at least strongly concerned) about the water.  In my mind, therefore, the Aquatic Center was something that we might try in the dead of winter when no other outside activities were at all possible.  That would have been a horrible mistake.

The Nanaimo Aquatic Center is one of the coolest public access indoor pools that I’ve seen.  It contains multiple pools, some for laps, some for aquatic aerobic and other exercise classes, some for great heated soaking, and a large one for kids.  The “kiddie pool” is the first thing you see when you leave the changing areas, and you come face to face with what appears to be the better half of a schooner suspended over ankle-deep warm waters.  The ship has stairs leading up to its cockpit and a small slide splashing down into shallow waters.  When Little Man first tried this slide he ended up ankles in the air with a stunned fish-like expression.  The shallow waters lead to a small, secluded pool where the water is half a meter deep and protected from the splashing of the other areas, perfect for tired parents or nervous kids.  Both of these areas lead to the larger Wave Pool.

I have not yet seen the actual waves in the Wave Pool, since the machine is turned on later in the afternoon after we’ve had our morning swim.  The pool itself, however, is pretty cool.  On one end you can walk in from a shallow slope until on the far end it reaches a depth of 1.5 meters.  The pool is ringed by a series of low walls designed to look like the craggy rocks lining the shore, with a diorama in the deep end of a few pine trees complete with seagulls.  The ceiling over the pool is festooned with colorful banners depicting artists’ views of the ocean.  My favorite is the one of a person and a dog swimming in the ocean, but the view is from underneath the water looking up like from a fish’s point of view.  The other end of the pool has a small lazy river, or Magic Waters in Little Man’s parlance, and a heated bubbling cauldron of a jacuzzi at its center.  In short, Little Man loves this pool and all of its waters.  So do his parents.

Our first visit there showed me just how well we had trained Little Man to fear the water.  He cried at the shower where everyone starts out rinsing off before hitting the pool itself.  Then when we cleared the changing rooms and he saw the  expanse of water that we were carrying him to his experience told him that this could only end one way; with him being dunked into ice cold water.  His feet zipped up to his ears, his cries echoed off the far walls, and his koala-bear hold on his Daddy near choked Dave out.  It took us a good 30 to 45 minutes of warm, shallow water with him sitting in our laps or clinging like a koala before he was ready to stand on his own.  That first day we considered it a success when he let us hold him and just move around the pool.  The second visit I took him by myself since Dave was working.  That visit went better than the first and Little Man was more comfortable in the water.  He let me pull him through the deeper parts of the pool, ran around splashing in the shallows, and the only tears shed were those of a tired toddler who didn’t want to leave the fun when it was time to go home for lunch and a nap.  Since then, each time we’ve gone back he’s gotten a bit braver and a bit more adventurous, until now he asks to go to the pool.  Dave and I have to use code words like “Warehouse 13” (aka place of wonder) when we talk about the pool at home.  If we forget to use code Little Man will head straight to the closet where we store his swim vest and declare he’s ready to go “float like a mer-baby.”

That term comes from when giving Little Man a bath I wanted to rinse out his curly locks, but he didn’t want to get his head wet.  So when I laid him back to rinse out his hair, I would say that he was “floating like a turtle” referring to one of his favorite bath toys.  Then one bath time he corrected me saying that he wasn’t a turtle, he was a mermaid.  I didn’t want to debate the gender differences here, so instead we used the term mer-baby and it stuck.  From that moment on, floating on his back, letting his curly locks flow in the water, has been called floating like a mer-baby.  Now that’s one of his favorite things to do at the pool, float on his back, with his curls rippling in the water, gazing up at the beautiful banners hanging from the ceiling, and singing softly to himself.  This has become one of my favorite memories of our first few months in Nanaimo.

Since first discovering the Aquatic Center I’ve found numerous other pools like this across the region.  Beban Pool has a similar, if older, version to what we have at the Aquatic Center.  Down in Victoria there are six different pool centers like this, the one described by my friends as the best is the Crystal Pool.  Unfortunately it was closed for maintenance the last time we were in Victoria, but I can’t wait to check it out the next time we get to visit.

When we got home from that first successful day at the Aquatic Center I wanted a simple, but celebratory lunch.  My goal was to continue the great feelings from the pool with something special at home too; linking memories of water to fun comforting times with family.  What popped immediately to mind was a Bacon and Tomato sandwich.  The best Bacon and Tomato sandwiches are made by Dave’s dad, Joe.  In fact, one of Little Man’s favorite books is Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayres, this book was first had read to him by Miss Katie, the excellent Children’s Librarian at the Pella Public Library in Iowa, and describes how different plants grow in a garden.  At the end of the story the little boy sits down with his dad, a friend and some animals to feast on the bounty of the garden.  Little Man likes to point out all the different foods being eaten.  The dad in the picture is biting into a sandwich, and when we ask Little Man what it is that the dad is eating he replies “Bacon and Tomato Sandwich.”  Then when we ask him who likes that kind of sandwich, he says “Papa Hopwood.”  So from the mouths of babes, this sandwich is elevated by Joe.  The best one I’ve ever had was up at the cabin this summer.  It’s a simple creation of lightly toasted wheat bread (the whole wheat can be accredited to Ruth’s influences) with a generous slather of mayonnaise, lots of great summer ripe tomatoes and of course the bacon.  The pictures here are of that delicious sandwich that Little Man devoured, and would have licked the plate clean if I’d let him.

Joe's Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

Joe’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

For my version of the sandwich I’ve made a few tweaks, all of which Dave objects to since the original is already perfection.  I can’t disagree with that, but I wanted to make this more of my own so I had to mess with it… just a little.  I like to add peppery greens to the sandwich to cut through the richness of the bacon, and arugula or watercress as my two favorites.  I also like to mix a little Dijon mustard into the mayonnaise before slathering it into the bread.  I find that the mustard brightens the heaviness of the sandwich without taking away from any of its bacony awesomeness.  So while this is not, Joe’s Bacon and Tomato sandwich, it is awfully good.

Not Your Daddy’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

(Serves 4)

1 lb. good quality, thick cut, smoked bacon

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 large ripe tomatoes

8 slices good whole wheat bread

2 cups fresh arugula, or peppery lettuce

Preheat the oven to 400º Fahrenheit.  Line a large sheet pan with paper towels, and then top the paper towels with a cooling rack.  Lay the bacon slices down without overlapping them onto the rack and roast them for 15-20 minutes.  Be sure to check the bacon periodically to be sure that it isn’t browning too quickly.  Once the bacon is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool.  I love cooking bacon this way, since it not only allows me to multitask other parts of the meal, but it also gets rid of the splattering mess all over my stove and therefor cuts down on clean up.  Double bonus.

While the bacon is roasting, combine the mayonnaise with the mustard in a small bowl and set aside.  Then slice the tomatoes thickly, lay them on a plate and sprinkle them lightly with salt.

About 7-10 minutes before the bacon is done, toast the bread lightly.  This should be just enough to give the bread a little bit of a crunch, but leaves the interior nice and fluffy.  Once the bacon is out of the oven, slather one side of each piece of bread with the mayonnaise/mustard mixture.  Layer the tomatoes across four of the pieces of bread.  Top the tomatoes with the bacon, dividing it up between the sandwiches.  Then top the bacon with the arugla or other greens.  Lastly, crown the sandwich with the remaining slice of bread, cut each sandwich in half (if desired) and enjoy.

Click here for a printable card of the Not Your Daddy’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwich.

Little Man, having completely devoured his own sandwich, was now working his whiles to get mine too.

Little Man, having completely devoured his own sandwich, was now working his whiles to get mine too.

The Importance of Snacks

We are finally getting to the point where we feel a bit more settled in Nanaimo, and this has nothing to do with the number of boxes that have been (or have not been) unpacked.  The basement still looms large with boxes and piles of who-knows-what, but we are getting there.  Little Man calls our house his “Canada Home,” but is also finding new places to be his favorites.  One of these favorites is Oliver Woods Park.

Oliver Woods Park surrounded by forest.

Oliver Woods Park surrounded by forest.

 The park itself is carved (literally) out of the surrounding woodlands.  For someone who has lived in the flat, flat plains (which have their own beauty, don’t get me wrong) for the last few years this park looks magical with its cape of fir and cedar.  It also reminds me a bit of one of the parks from back in Pella, the West Market Park, with its wooden castle and bridges.  Maybe that is one of the reasons that Little Man calls Oliver Woods “his” park.

park1

 The playground is dominated by its large castle-like climbing toy, but that isn’t actually the area that Little Man likes most.  Just beyond the castle is a slightly smaller area that is designed more for the 2-3 year olds.  The slides are shorter, there are no rock walls to climb, but there is a cool pirate ladder of beams suspended on chains that hang just above a solid wooden gangway.  Little Man and most of the other little ones step over the beams onto the gangway below.  He loves it.

 At the back of the playground is a small exercise circuit designed for anyone over 13 years of age.  Little ones run around and play there too, but most of them tend to lose interest quickly as nothing is designed for them and the coolness of the circuit is lost on those who can’t read the instructions.

The "Enchanted Forest" that surrounds the park.

The “Enchanted Forest” that surrounds the park.

 The entire playground and exercise circuit area are surrounded by forest, hence the “Woods.”  For Little Man, this is the Enchanted Forest.  Just behind and to the right of the castle is a little gate that leads out into the Enchanted Forest and a series of nature trails.  We haven’t explored many of these yet, except for the trail on the right.  This is a short downward trail, perfect for little legs and for parent legs that are exhausted after chasing little legs around the playground, that ends at a little dock and the duck pond.

The duck pond at Oliver Woods Park.

The duck pond at Oliver Woods Park.

 Little Man loves the ducks… and their food.  If you are interested, you can get a bag of duck food from the reception desk inside the Community Center.  The last time we were at the park we were making new friends and stayed a little bit later than I had intended to.  That meant that Little Man was late for lunch and apparently quite munchy even after his snacks.  One of his new friends let him take a handful of duck food to feed the already stuffed ducks.  The birds must get quite the feast from all the little kids, and none of them were moving too quickly that day.  Little Man, however, was feeling rather peckish.  So peckish, in fact, that he took his little handful of duck food and like lightning stuffed them into his hungry mouth.  I was not as fast, but managed to fish most of the pellets out of his mouth before he’d swallowed them.  I didn’t want to immediately quash his ability to play with the ducks, so I let him feed the ducks a little bit more.  This was fine for a handful or two, until he grabbed a fistful and stuffed them in his mouth again.  I guess duck food can’t taste as bad as I would have imagined.  More fishing of slimy duck pellets out of Little Man’s mouth ensued.  The very nice woman at the reception desk ensured me that the duck food was an all natural product from a local store with a great reputation, and luckily there were no adverse reactions to Little Man’s ducky snack.  But Mommy has definitely learned that a hungry toddler should not be given access to “snacks” that he’s not allowed to eat.  The ducks still look at him askance when he comes close.  I think they’re wondering if he’s going to make off with their lunch.

Here ducky, ducky...

Here ducky, ducky…

 Now I plan in advance to have a few more snacks at hand when we might be out closer to lunch time, and closer to the duck pond.  I think that this week I’ll make him the same scones that we had a couple of weeks ago when his Tia came out to visit.  The best part of living on the island is that every couple of weeks we get to visit with family, a luxury that Little Man has never experienced before.  When his Tia came over we had a little tea party, with tuna sandwiches, hummus and cucumber sandwiches, and cheddar chive scones.  These scones are great since the dough can be made, portioned and then frozen before baking them.  The dough should last a couple of weeks in the freezer.  Then when you are ready to eat them you simply break them apart, put them on a parchment lined backing sheet, and shortly thereafter you have delicious scones.

done2

 Cheddar Chive Scones

Ingredients

½ cup cheddar cheese, sharp

¼ cup chives, chopped finely

½ cup oats

½ cup whole wheat flour

¾ cup white flour

2 ½ tsp. baking powder

1 Tblsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt

6 Tblsp. unsalted butter, cut into ½ in. cubes and COLD

1 large egg

4-5 Tblsp. milk (any kind)

 Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

 In a food processor fitted with the shredding blade, shred the cheese.  Put the shredded cheese in a large bowl, add the chives and set aside.  Do not wash out the processor.  Replace the shredding disk and lid with the standard blade and lid.

Cheddar cheese and chives for the scones.

Cheddar cheese and chives for the scones.

 In your emptied (but still a bit cheesy) food processor, put the oats and blitz until forming a coarse meal (oat flour).  Add the other flours, baking powder, sugar and salt.  Process to just combine.  Add the butter and process in pulses until it resembles a coarse meal with some pea sized bits of butter.  Dump the flour mixture into the bowl with the cheese and chives, then toss to coat.

Preparing the oats for blitzing.

Preparing the oats for blitzing.

Cheesy oat flour.

Cheesy oat flour.

The dry mixture with cheese and chives.

The dry mixture with cheese and chives.

In a small bowl beat the egg and 4 tablespoons of milk with a fork.  Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together.  In the bowl it will look like it won’t hold its shape.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Fold the dough in half and “knead” it no more than four times.  It should hold together and form a solid mass when you pat it into a 1-inch thick 6-inch round.  Cut the circle into eight equally sized wedges.

The dough combined and messy.

The dough combined and messy.

The dough dumped out onto the floured surface.

The dough dumped out onto the floured surface.

The dough shaped into a round.

The dough shaped into a round.

kneaded 2

Keep the dough relatively thin. Too thick and it doesn’t bake well in the center, too thin and the scones get hard.

 At this point you can wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and freeze it, or you can bake it immediately.  Cooling down the dough (in the refrigerator or freezer) can make for a lighter, more flaky (and more awesome) scone, as this creates more flaky layers in the pastry.  However, they are also flaky, cheesy, and downright irresistible even if baked right away.

The dough round portioned into eight scones.

The dough round portioned into eight scones.

The scones ready for the oven.

The scones ready for the oven.

 Space the scones evenly on the prepared backing sheet.  Add a splash of milk to the empty milk and egg bowl.  Brush this mixture over the top of the scones.  Bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes.  Cool on a wire wrack and serve.

The scones are golden brown and ready for snack time.

The scones are golden brown and ready for snack time.

 Note: If baking the scones after freezing them, unwrap them from the plastic wrap and proceed with everything as normal.  One note is that you may need to bake them for little longer.  Just give them a little touch when they “look” done.  If it feels mushy in the center, then give them another couple of minutes.  If they feel firm to the touch, then they are done.

Click on this link to open a ready to print recipe card for the CheddarChiveScones.

Ready for tea...

Ready for tea…

A Day Off in Wine Country

Recently after a particularly tough week of adjusting to Canadian life, Dave surprised me with a special vacation day.  We used to do this for each other from time to time in upstate New York as graduate students.  We would plan dates and then whisk the other person off for a day of surprises planned just for them.  These were not expensive events, but were carried out on the shoe string graduate student budgets that we had.  The very first “Surprise Day” was when we were dating and I took Dave on a mini-golf date.  This included a short walk down the street to a local restaurant with a ½ price happy hour.  While I remember that we had a good time overall, the most memorable part of this date was the weather.  Gale-force winds that literally tore the astroturf off of the course while we were playing; golf ball-sized hail that bounced off the road and off our heads; and rain blown so hard from one direction that we were drenched on one side and bone dry on the other.  This made the “short walk” down to the restaurant a bit more challenging (and glamorous) than originally planned.  Then of course after our snacks we had to run back up the road through the rain.  Later we would learn that our mad dash was more impressive than we had originally thought, since moments after we ran by an electrical pole it was struck by lightning.  I just thought the electricity in the air was from being with Dave.  😉

My boys...

My boys…

 We used to do “Surprise Days” as often as we could, but they have become a bit more infrequent as we have moved across states and international borders, and especially with Little Man’s arrival.  So it was extra surprising when Dave said we were having a day off and I wasn’t allowed to know the plans.  Heaven to not have to plan anything, not even diapers to bring along!  Dave’s “Surprise Day” was a tour of some of the local wineries on Vancouver Island.  This was also reminiscent of our time in upstate New York, when we would drive up to the Finger Lakes, visit a couple of wineries, have a nice lunch, and enjoy the scenery while we tried as hard as possible to ignore the pressures of graduate school that were waiting for us back home.  This Surprise Day was our first attempt to recreate that experience here on Vancouver Island; and of course it was made a bit more “adventuresome” with Little Man.

In front of Averill Creek Vineyards.

In front of Averill Creek Vineyards.

 Little Man was not as impressed with the beautiful scenery or wonderful wines as Dave and I were.  And there was the moment of panic when he had a fleeting moment of freedom from the stroller and made a wild dash for expensive bottles of wine on display.  He has fantastic taste in which bottles to grab, but thankfully no damage ensued.  It was a fantastic day.  We couldn’t ask for better weather.  Bright blue sky, warm but not hot, and an amazing view of cedars and ocean at each winery we visited.  Dave did good.

AverillCreek

Averill Creek Vineyard and their picnic friendly patio.

 

I talk about some of the wines and food that we ate on this trip below.  Please note that I am not a food critic, but I am sharing and remembering our experience of that day.  The preferences are mine and Dave’s alone, and are likely quite different than your’s would be.  Please try the wineries that we visited and see what you think.  You won’t be disappointed.

 This is the order of where we visited:

 Averill Creek Vineyard

6552 North Rd., Duncan, B.C. V9L 6K9

(250) 709-9986

http://www.averillcreek.ca/

This was my first taste of Vancouver Island wines and it was also my favorite winery of the day.  The winery itself is gorgeous and has an amazing patio where you can sip wine by the glass or the bottle.  Visitors are welcome to bring a picnic for the patio, or you can also buy locally sourced cheese and chartecurie from the tasting room.  We are definitely bringing a picnic next time!

Favorite Wines:

Foch, Eh! – This is a low-tannin red made from their Marechal Foch grapes.  Marechal Foch are apparently a specialty of this region, and this bottle was a great representation of them.  We bought a bottle specifically to share with Dave’s parents, and are looking forward to a chance to break it open.

Pinot Grigio – It was a bright, warm day and I truly enjoyed the whites that I tried.  This one had a nice, clean citrusy finish.  I’m looking forward to going back and having a glass of this on their patio with our picnic.

Cherry Point Estate Wines

840 Cherry Point Road, Cobble Hill, BC, V0R 1L3, Canada

Phone: (250) 743-1272

http://cherrypointestatewines.com/

This was our second winery and my expectations were high since we had just come from Averill Creek.  Their wines were good, and we had a nice time talking with one of the owners who was justifiably proud of the recent awards they have won.  Our favorite part of the visit, however, was their bistro.  Dave and I shared their Tapas Plate and Little Man had an amazing Grilled Cheese Sandwich.  The kiddo food is not listed on the menu, but we asked if they had children’s options and they came up with a couple of options on the fly.  The tapas plate included: a fresh beet salad, pickled garlic, mushrooms, mussels, shrimp, pulled lamb shank, olive tapenade, cheese, and an apple compote.  This paired excellently with the wine by the glass that Dave and I had.  He had the Forte, which was rich and tannic.  While I had the Bête Noire, full of fantastic dark fruit flavors with a light finish.

Favorite Wines:

Bête Noire: This was my favorite wine from Cherry Point.  It is in a Rioja-style and is almost inky in color, but the finish is light.

Forte: This was Dave’s favorite wine from Cherry Point.  It also was a strong, rich red that paired very well with the tapas plate.  In terms of comparing this to the Bête Noire, the Forte has a richer overall feeling on the palate and has a strong finish as well.

Wine and bread at the Cherry Point Bistro.

Wine and bread at the Cherry Point Bistro.

Our tapas plate at Cherry Point Bistro.  We devoured it!

Our tapas plate at Cherry Point Bistro. We devoured it!

Tapas from the side... Yes, we love food photography even with our phones.

Tapas from the side… Yes, we love food photography even with our phones.

Little Man's Grilled Cheese Sandwich.  He's lucky our meal was so good.  The sandwich is such that even an adult would be happy to have that as a meal.

Little Man’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich. He’s lucky our meal was so good. The sandwich is such that even an adult would be happy to have that as a meal.

Venturi Schultze

4235 Vineyard Road, Cobble Hill, BC V0R 1L5

Phone: (250) 743-5630

http://www.venturischulze.com

This winery was a bit hard to find, but the search is definitely worth it.  They are a “beyond organic” winery and have produced small batch excellent wines for over 20 years.  For our visit the daughter of the original vintners was working in the tasting room.  We learned a lot about organic wines and their creation that day.  It was in this winery that Little Man got loose and things almost turned disastrous.  In terms of great wines, this was our second favorite winery of the day.  They also produce amazing balsamic vinegars.

Favorite Wines:

Brut Naturel: It was a warm day for our visit and my favorite was their sparkling Brut Naturel.  It was not overly dry, and was extremely refreshing after a hot day of touring.

Millefiori: It was hard for Dave to corral himself into admitting just one favorite from this winery.  In the end I think that the warmth of the day and the refreshing character of the Millefiori won him over.  This is not a sweet white at all, but it also is not overly oaky like some intense (and beloved by me) Chardonays.

 Twenty Two Oaks Winery

#1-6383 Lakes Road, Duncan, BC V9L 5V6

Phone:(250) 701-0385

http://www.22oakswinery.ca/

While Dave was fascinated by the names of the ex-hockey player owners, I was less impressed with the wines and the story of their ugly bulldog wine labels.  This is a relatively new winery, and things could turn around for them quickly.  However they are not on my list of wineries I want to visit again, or labels that I will search out in the wine stores.

Favorite Wines: not so much…

 Deol Family Estate Winery

6645 Somenos Rd. Duncan, BC, Canada

Phone: 250-746-3967

http://www.deolestatewinery.com/

Deol Estate Winery was our last winery to visit that day and it was one of our favorites, at least in terms of the number of bottles purchased.  Do not let the exterior of the winery deter you.  The parking lot and surrounding buildings looks more like an area where restaurant delivery trucks should be off loading product.  The tasting room itself is nice, but the woman pouring our tastings was nice and knowledgeable.  This is a winery that I would love to go back to; I just wish that its surroundings were more inviting.

Favorite Wines:

Blanc de Noir: This was my favorite wine from Deol.  The woman running the tasting room said that the wine embodied the flavor of honey; and it did but not in a sweet way at all.  It was a light, crisp wine that left the lingering taste of honey without its cloying sweetness.  She had me at “honey.”

Somenos Red: This was Dave’s favorite wine from Deol.  It is a rich, deep earthy red.  Not overpowering, but something very nice to sit back and sip in the evenings on the arbor bench… which is just what we did.

Marechal Foch: This was an excellent example of the Marechal Foch grapes that are characteristic of this region on Vancouver Island.  It embodied all of the best characteristics that we were beginning to recognize from our visits to the different wineries.

Little Man's favorite part of the day... running wild with Mommy.

Little Man’s favorite part of the day… running wild with Mommy.