Farewell!

This will be my last Open Kitchen post as food editor of Reader’s Digest.  It’s post number 196. I’ve been blogging here for three years, and it has been a labour of love.

I’ve been looking through the archives and feeling extremely grateful to have met so many creative, passionate and warm people doing inspiring things in the world of food–especially in Canada, which became my adopted country last month.

For this last post, I’ve put together a Top Ten of stories that hold extra-special memories. (There were 27 on the shortlist, by the way, and narrowing it down was torture):

1. Foodstock: On a bitterly cold, wet and windy day in October 2011, 30,000 people turned up to eat food made by around 100 Canadian chefs in a muddy field. They were protesting a proposed megaquarry, which would pollute an entire community’s drinking water and destroy a vast swathe of farmland. Thirteen months on–and a lot more protesting later–the megaquarry project was canned. I cried for joy on hearing the news.

2. Perfect Eggs from the Flawed Farm: I made soft-boiled eggs and soldiers with the Shepherd family that same month. Christen and Trevor and their children run a farm therapy program that has kids from a local group home fostering injured and exhausted hens, rescued from factory farms. They were very special people.

3. Black cake: My close friend Debbie made her first ever black cake, after a four-month-long fruit-soaking process, which created a lot of empty liquor bottles. It all ended in a best-case-scenario: Deb’s mother examining the finished cake on the wire rack with a serious expression, then turning to her 34-year-old daughter and saying “You did good, Kid.”

4. DIY Dog Treats: My dogs, Cracker and Mash, pretty much lost their minds the day I made them tomato-ketchup-glazed chicken-liver cookies. My friend Aube Giroux caught their agony and ecstasy on film as we teased them with the finished goods.

5. Oh, Canada!: Last summer I crossed Canada on a four-day train ride, eating all kinds of regional dishes along the way. It was a dream come true, which ended in more happy tears.

6. Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen: Meeting my culinary heroine was another pinch-yourself experience. This is not in the actual write-up, but Nigella made me blush at the end of our interview by saying I had nice legs. It was a career highlight.

7. Very Merry Cookie Party: I don’t get to see my teenaged nephews enough, as they live in the UK. So we had a day-long, cookie-making party to speed up the bonding process one Christmas. At the very end, the youngest one, Alex, entertained me as I washed dishes, by setting fire to stuff in the garden. (Just a phase).

8. Rajma Chawal: I had been long-distance surprise-dumped an hour before I was scheduled to meet Vikram Vij’s wife, Meeru Dhalwala. Well technically, my voicemail had. I didn’t actually mention that I was feeling like my heart had been kicked across a football field and splattered against a wall, but Meeru somehow ended up being extremely comforting anyway. She was such a sweet, maternal person. We chatted for two hours solid, as we stirred pots of spiced kidney beans, and I left feeling like the world was still a good place.

9. A Taste of Ireland: The Burren: My visit to St Tola’s Organic Goat Farm went from fun to amazing, when the lady goat I was photographing suddenly stood up and gave birth. The cuddling opportunities at that place were unparalleled.

10. Lamb on a Spit: My friend Milena took me to a backyard lamb roast with her extended family of Greek origin. From the toddlers to the great grandmother, not one of those Doumourases could last five minutes without breaking into dance.  They were so welcoming, and made such good food, that by the end of the day, I was plotting my own adoption.

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As well as loving every moment of researching stories, I’ve loved chatting with the online visitors who left comments at Open Kitchen. It was utterly thrilling the first time I saw a comment pop up without the name of my sister or a close friend attached.

Last week Open Kitchen took gold for best blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. This was another huge thrill. I felt so happy knowing that my blog, in this incarnation, would come to an end on a high note.

I’m in the process of setting up an independent version of Open Kitchen now, with a fresh design, to continue telling the stories of chefs, farmers, artisans, home cooks and food activists from Canada and beyond. There will be a ton of contests and giveaways too, as well as new features like printable recipes and subscription options. It goes live on December 1 at: valsopenkitchen.com. Please bookmark the link, and let’s meet again there!

OK, time to go now–for real!

A big thank you from Toronto to the Reader’s Digest web team over in Montreal for your enthusiasm, support and social-media shout outs.

And heartfelt thanks to every visitor to Open Kitchen, who has taken the time to read the stories and try the recipes here. In the words of Julia Child: “People who love to eat are the best people.”

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How to Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee

Recently my teenager got a taste for coffee. To stop him spending all his my money on four-dollar lattes, I dug a frostbitten bag of ground coffee out from the back of our freezer. It was a Starbucks Christmas blend a friend had brought for a dinner party the year before, because she knew all I ever had in the house was tea. As my kid started working his way though it, I watched in horror as he half-filled his mug with cream and shoveled in four or five spoonfuls of sugar each time. I smelled the bitter, musty grinds in my sorry stash and realized that use-by date might actually matter.

Roasted and green beans

A devoted Earl Grey drinker, I had much to learn about making a proper cup of coffee. So on a recent trip to Rise—an independent takeaway coffee shop by Ryerson University in Toronto—I got a crash course from co-owner Alan Smith:

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Eat to Run

At the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica, you have to start by torchlight at 5:15 am, because it gets so hot when the sun comes up. But there’s lots to keep you motivated as you run: The route winds along the coast, by sparkling white sandy beaches and palm trees, and there are live bands playing loud reggae music every mile along the way.

Image from: reggaemarathon.com

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A Calendar for Foodies

OK, there are so many great things going on right now for Canadian food lovers that I thought I’d share a few of my favourites. Some are soon… like grab-your-coat-and-car-keys-now soon, and some coming up over the next month or so. All feature awesome Open Kitchen contributors. Enjoy!

When: October 30, doors open at 7:30 pm
What: Toronto’s Hottest Chef
Where: The Great Hall, Toronto
Why: You can look at hot chefs.
Not that shallow? Bear in mind that the winning hot chef gets to donate all the prize money to his or her favourite charity. Their picks include: The Stop Community Centre, Second Harvest and The Children’s Breakfast Club.
On the menu: Cute cooks and canapes. Also on sale at the event is Supi Cucu hot sauce handmade by Rossy Earle–a frequent contributor to Reader’s Digest, and a hottie in her own right.

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The Groundhog of Fruits

When I was visiting Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland, last week, I discovered dogberries–they grow on dogwood trees in almost every garden and along the sides of roads. They’re scarlet fruits, like large holly berries, and look for sure like they’d poison you. In fact you can eat them.

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If It’s Good Enough for Spacemen…

“They feed sea buckthorn berries and oils to Russian astronauts before they go to Space to protect them against cosmic radiation,” says Michael Gale, a co-owner of natural skincare company Beautiful Rock.

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Thankful for Cranberries

Even after forking the last shreds of Thanksgiving turkey into my mouth, I discovered another reason to be grateful for cranberries on a visit to Newfoundland last week.

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Beyond the Food Bank

Fifteen years ago, as an exchange student in Montreal, I volunteered at a downtown food bank. One thing really surprised me: as fast we were to load up boxes, some of our clients were just as quick to unpack items like chocolate puddings and dipping sticks with processed cheese into our exchange pile. They’d often ask if we had extra tofu or another head of broccoli instead.

It’s not because you’re struggling to buy food that you don’t care about the quality and nutritional value of what you eat. While Canada’s over 800 food banks help fill bellies, many fall short when it comes to providing the nutrition people living below the poverty line need to thrive in their home, work and school lives. Last year in one month alone, a million Canadians used a food bank—more than a third of them, children. It’s essential to find ways to make sure nobody leaves feeling diminished by the experience.
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What to Do with All Those Apples

I was out this week with Not Far From the Tree, a Toronto-based organization that sends volunteers to the homes of people who need help harvesting the fruit from their trees. One third of the bounty goes to the homeowner, a third to a local food bank and a third to those who pick the fruits.

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Danny Smiles’ Thanksgiving Green Beans

Danny Smiles, chef de cuisine at Le Bremner in Montreal, brings us today’s fall dish. The Top Chef Canada Season 3 finalist’s Thanksgiving green beans are infused with the flavours of smoked bacon, roasted garlic, chicken broth, hot chili flakes and fresh chives and parsley. They get a little extra crunch from toasted almond flakes, and they’re topped with a perfect sunny-side-up egg and a generous sprinkling of Romano cheese. Who needs turkey with a side like that?

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