Sunday, April 12, 2015

A vegetarian cook celebrates vegetables and fruit

My wife and I just returned from Montreal after a brief visit with some Quebec-based friends . They are both vegetarians and their meals were an eye-opener.

I thought being a vegetarian was, to a great extent, simply taking standard meals and removing the meat while pumping up the vegetable and fruit component. I learned I was wrong.

My friends celebrate vegetable and fruits. Meat may be missing but it is not missed. A curried dish that I would have served with chunks of chicken hidden in the sauce was simply delicious on its own. No chicken; no loss.

I'm on a low cholesterol diet. I'm half way to understanding the approach practised so successfully by my Montreal friends. Now, back in London I'm going to try to change my attitude and maybe, just maybe, I'll see less meat but more variety in my menus.

I'm going to start tomorrow with a cauliflower dish cooked in a tagine. This meal should say North Africa and not vegetarian. It should delight the eye and satisfy the pallet without raising red flags drawing attention to the lack of meat.

If this works, I'll post the recipe and a picture soon.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I have CHF but life is good

I have CHF, congestive heart failure. I had planned on doing a lot of traveling upon retiring. Thanks to CHF, I won't be leaving the country. Oh well, life still can be fine even if one stays right here in London.

CHF isn't my only health problem but it is battling for first place. I have developed a dry cough, my fingers are a little fat some mornings and my feet are a little puffy some nights. It is all a bit concerning but I'm try not to let these things bother me. I don't really have time to waste on depression.

I have three wonderful grandkids who bring joy into my life and a wife who loves me. She makes sure we find stuff to do together that won't challenge me too much while delivering a good wallop of fun. Cooking is one of those activities.

My wife made the stuffed peppers and I was responsible for the green beans and the artichoke-covered grilled baguette slices. It doesn't look it but this is a low fat, low calorie, Weight Watchers friendly, dinner. It would make my heart doctors smile as it contains no meat. The only cholesterol is in the light use of cheese, a dairy product.

As I am not healthy, I must continue to monitor the cholesterol in my diet. The recent good news about dietary cholesterol didn't change a thing in my diet. I must keep my consumption of red meat to a minimum and eggs, at least egg yolks, are simply out.

Broccoli served with pasta in a hot pepper pesto: A heart healthy dinner.
I like to approach cooking like creating art. I found the above pasta a little too dark. I was following a suggestion that encouraged cooking the pasta in chicken broth in a fry pan. The pasta absorbed the chicken broth, taking on a light flavour and a darker tint.

Tonight I tried something similar but I cooked the pasta in a pasta pot filled with boiling water. When the pasta was done, I tossed it with a mix of  hot pepper pesto, 20gm of hot pepperoni (yes, I cheated a little on my diet) half a yellow and half an orange sweet pepper diced and a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese. I also diced a large tomato, minus the seeds, and added that to the mix.

My wife declared the two pasta dinners a draw but I preferred the second by far. I thought it had focus -- the hot, spicy flavour supplied by the pesto and the pepperoni. Visually, I liked the brighter colour of the second dish compared to to the first.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

London borrows a page from Charleroi, Belgium

Image from The London Plan: Dundas St. future look.
The London Free Press reported the main street of the Southwestern Ontario city may become a flexible street. Flex-streets lack curbs to define pedestrian space and keep traffic separated from walkways.

According to the paper, making part of Dundas St. a flex-street should create a healthy, vibrant core thoroughfare.

Has this been done elsewhere? As a matter of fact, yes: Charleroi in Belgium. Has it worked? Not so far, but all the changes have not yet been completed.

Charleroi has been called the Dark Heart of Europe and the Ugliest City on the Continent. An industrial town, like Detroit in Michigan, it lost its industrial base and today is but a shadow of its former self. It has struggled for decades to find new footings. Whether the flex-street will be part of the solution is, as I said, yet to be determined.

Google Street Views: Charleroi street in core transformed into a flex-street.

It is hoped the changes to Place Emile Buisset will make the street one the great pedestrian entrances to a city anywhere. On completion, Rive Gauche (the name of the area) will be a mixture of commercial and residential in a neighbourhood composed of both new-buildings and restored historic ones. It has been promised that heritage will be respected as the river, once ignored, is integrated into the old but reinvigorated city core.

I'm not saying the flex-street as detailed in the London Plan will not work. Flex-streets, river front renewal projects, re-purposed heritage properties and more have worked to varying extents in numerous places. If a city is attempting to restore a faded urban core, these are the approaches frequently taken by today's urban planners.

I'm just saying the London Plan is not a groundbreaking blueprint as many are reporting. The London Plan is business as usual when it come to urban planning in the twenty-first century. And the resistance the plan is meeting from both politicians and developers is also par for the course. No surprises here, either.

Friday, March 6, 2015

On winning awards or the World Press Photo fiasco

Little Isla demonstrates how Santa tells a little mouse to keep quiet on Christmas eve.
Find a dark topic, illustrate it with dramatic photos and you may have an award winning piece of work. Tackle a more upbeat story and the chance of having a winner drop off dramatically.

Placing a puzzle piece correctly, Isla reacts.
This morning I learned World Press Photo disallowed photographer Giovanni Troilo’s first-prize for the Contemporary Issues story titled ‘La Ville Noir - The Dark Heart of Europe.’ The photo story examined life in the Belgian city of Charleroi. Some pictures were set-up, others were stage-directed and the one that resulted in the disqualification was not even shot in Charleroi.

In the photographer's defence, he was pretty up front about all his transgressions. World Press Photo ignored many of the criticisms of their choice of Troilo but I believe found itself in an increasingly impossible situation. When it came out that one photo was not shot in the town itself, World Press saw an out and took the exit.

I have been documenting my granddaughters early years and I am learning little children are remarkably capable. I believe that my images plus some excellent in-depth reporting with interviews with university researchers looking into the talents of babies, toddlers and little kids should be an award winner. It should be but I doubt that it would be: Too upbeat, too positive, with images too bright and all lacking the prerequisite dark mood and dramatic lighting.

Walking the line challenges the little toddler's sense of balance.
I believe we seriously underestimate children. I don't believe for a minute that my three granddaughters are geniuses and yet all three seem to be at the head of their class. That is if there was a class. The story here is how well little children do when given love and affection on a constant basis from caring grandparents. Isla is not yet twenty months and yet she understands a massive number of words and concepts.

Tonight I asked Isla to place some Play-Doh on a can. She did. Then I asked her to move the Play-Doh to beside the can. As my wife watched, the little girl followed each order to the letter. Isla understands not only frequently used nouns and verbs. She understands prepositions.

Isla was clipping together colourful foam numbers when she was maybe a year and a half. Her other grandfather watched her taking the tops off bottles and then screwing them back on at 12 months. He decided then and there that his little granddaughter might well be an engineer in the making.

The grandchildren are flourishing under the care of their grandparents and the old folk seem to be responding well to the demands of late life parenting. It seems to be a win-win situation that to an imaginative writer could yield a number of great personal interest stories.

Years ago I chaired a news photographer seminar held annually at the local university. To paraphrase one prize winning shooter, the winning entries in monthly clip contests are the disaster of the month images. Shoot tears, shoot grief, shoot people on a bad drug trip and shoot a winning photo essay.

The photographer admitted he too shot this stuff to win awards but he still shook his head: There's more to life. I believe he would agree that choosing Charleroi to depict the dark heart of Europe was an easy call. In recent years the city has gained notoriety for being the home of paedophile serial killer, Marc Dutroux. Another notorious resident was Muriel Degauque who gained eternal infamy as a female suicide bomber. In 2005, she blew herself up in Baghdad. An opinion poll in nearby Holland voted Charleroi the "ugliest city in the world."

I have discovered that there are boosters of the once successful city. Charleroi reminds me of Detroit, Michigan. Kicking a city when it is clearly struggling and taking no note of its successes should not be award-winning photojournalism. Balance, so important here, is all too often clearly lacking in these murky pictures accompanied with dark prose.

Note: This is not to say there are no happy, upbeat images being published. Of course, there are. But all too often the images and stories are dark, manipulated dark, and are more reflective of an award winning mindset than any attempt to depict life in all its complexity.

Foolproof Spaghetti Carbonara

Pasta carbonara with carmelized Brussel Sprouts, chopped green onions and grated Parmesan.
According to America's Test Kitchen:

Most carbonara pastas are so rich that it’s hard to eat a whole bowlful. [The cooks at America's Home Kitchen] lightened the usual recipe by dismissing additions like cream and butter, cutting any oil, and including only a tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat. Having done so, [they] had to find other ways to make [their] sauce smooth and prevent the eggs from setting into curds and the cheese from melting into lumps.

As this recipe is from the ATK magazine, Cook's Illustrated, I will say only a little more. I will give you a link and trust that it will work for some time. No guarantees.

Being that both my wife and I are watching our weight, a pasta carbonara dish containing no cream, no butter, no oil, sounded like something we should be trying. And tonight we did. I took the picture at dinner.

I already know that there are two more changes I must make to the usual recipe. One, I'll use Egg Creations rather than eggs out of the shell and, two, I'll use pancetta instead of bacon. I don't want maple flavouring or hickory smoke in my carbonara. This is an Italian dish and should taste like it.

The first time I had pasta carbonara was in Chicago at a small, neighbourhood diner. The pasta was al dente, the bits of pork were pancetta and it was served with a poached egg gracing the top. It look great and tasted even better. But my heart friendly diet does not allow egg yolks: None. And so the decorative, and oh-so-tasty, egg is out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mesclun greens and fruit make a great salad

Between my wife going to Weight Watchers and my granddaughters spending an inordinate amount of time at our home, our fridge had filled with oodles of fruit and other healthy stuff. My heart and stroke doctor would approve no matter what the cause. I'm sure he'd tell me to just get imaginative and eat the stuff -- and I did.

Tonight I made dinner in a bowl. With almost a whole bag of mesclun salad mix as the base I added fruit and other stuff to create a satisfying, heart-healthy meal.

  • Dole mesclun mix - lots
  • 1/4 of a small, red onion diced into large pieces
  • 1/3 of a fennel bulb diced into large pieces
  • a splash of Newman's Own oil and vinegar dressing
  • 2 1/2 navel oranges, sectored and diced
  • a large handful of chopped strawberries
  • a couple of tablespoons of both dried cranberries and dried cherries
  • 2 ounces of chicken breast, chopped and quickly browned in a fry pan
  • 1 ounce of fry-pan-browned pecan bits

The salad was easy to make and quite delicious. And no wonder it was good. It was inspired by a wonderful salad I had recently at Waldo's in Byron. Although, I have to admit that Waldo's was better. I gave myself an eight. The onion bits were too big and too strong. The next time I may eliminate the onion and add apple chunks. I'd choose either Fujis or Galas as they are both known for their sweetness.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Farro and Porcini Risotto on a Budget

Being retired means watching the budget. Then again, for most of us watching the budget is a wise thing to do even when not retired.

As I have mentioned before, years ago The London Free Press did a series on the difficulties encountered when trying to live on a tight budget. In 2013 the Middlesex -London Health Unit conducted a survey calculating it took $6.47 a day for each of us to eat enough to keep body and soul together. This was calculated using a family of four.

With inflation, I'm sure it costs more today. Let's up this amount to $7.50 a day, keeping in mind that food has increased in price faster than the overall inflation rate.

Today, my wife and I spent the entire $7.50 plus maybe another buck and a half. On the plus side, we got a lot for our money. I started the day with oatmeal porridge bought on sale for less than twenty cents a serving. I used 1% milk rather than water to make the porridge and added one banana well mushed for sweetness.

For lunch both my wife and I had Heinz tomato soup from the Dollar Store. It cost less than 70-cents a can. Finding the Heinz soup was a good deal as I like the Heinz product better than the more expensive Campbell's sold in the grocery store. Sometimes we add crackers bought in bulk from Costco.

If we want a snack in the afternoon, we have fresh fruit. We watch the weekly flyers and try to buy our fruit on sale. We have seven different grocery stores just minutes by car from our suburban home. With such a wide selection, there is almost always fruit and other stuff we need available on sale. We buy lots when stuff is available and this keeps our pantry well stocked. We are still working through the pasta bought for 49-cents a package some time ago. The threat of getting snowed-in doesn't frighten us.

Dinner tonight was a treat. My wife and I worked together to crank out farro and porcini risotto served with asparagus topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. The Italian farro and porcini normally sells in the $22 range. We paid half that. We found a large bottle, enough for six meals, at Winners. I highly advise checking out the specialty foods at Winners. That place is a godsend when it comes to punching up a day's menu while staying within a tight budget. And for Parmesan, check out Costco. A big block of the hard Italian cheese is expensive at about $25 but wrap it tightly in foil and it keeps a long time.

We made this rice-less risotto using Campbell's chicken stock purchased at No Frills for under a buck. We kicked the risotto up a notch by adding a few small pieces of quickly browned boneless, skinless chicken breast. We have a large tray of this meat with each breast individually wrapped to make defrosting easy.

With my heart condition, I'm only allowed a couple of ounces of chicken or fish and then only every other day. Red meats are out except for one day each month. To simplify our food preparation, my wife also follows my food restrictions.

Dinners made from leftovers nudge food budgets back in line.
We don't drink any beer to speak of. The cost of beer is way too high when one considers how much of the cost is tax. I already pay enough tax.

When we have company I buy some Steam Whistle and hope our guests leave me lots. What we do like is a glass of wine with our dinners. Canadian box wines are actually good as one's personal house wine. We especially like the Jackson-Triggs Shiraz. It often goes on sale and each time $3 is chopped off the price we buy a box or two.

For dessert we each had fruit yogurt which was also bought on sale.

The farro and porcini was a special treat. My wife's a good cook and her risotto with chicken and asparagus was like something I'd get at a fine dining restaurant. We may have overspent for the day but all will pull into line by month's end.

As I have said before, there is no reason to eat pet food in retirement despite what The Free Press warned in an editorial some months ago.