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How to Make Trump Soup

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I have nothing to put in my soup, you see,
Not a bone or a bean or a black-eyed pea,
So I’ll just climb in the pot to see
If I can make a soup out of me.
I’ll put in some pepper and salt and I’ll sit
In the bubbling water–I won’t scream a bit.
I’ll sing while I simmer, I’ll smile while I’m stewing,
I’ll taste myself often to see how I’m doing.
I’ll stir me around with this big wooden spoon
And serve myself up at a quarter to noon.
So bring out your soup bowls,
You gobblers and snackers.
Farewell–and I hope you enjoy me with crackers!

… with apologies to Shel Silverstein

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Donald Trump stood in line at the Penticton Soup Kitchen (Soupateria) one morning – I think it was Thursday – this week.

It’s true. I saw him with my own eyes.

Of course, I could be mildly confused but that’s a different story for another day.

It was a sunny (-less) day without a cloud in the sky, but no obvious sun either… a fog of forest-fire grey smoke still hung throughout the Okanagan Valley like damp laundry on the line in a “No Campfires Allowed” provincial campground …

But not only is there 50 Shades of Grey haze hanging out, but there’s also a ubiquitous orange-scoured miasma that’s been persistently hanging on and blanketing the entire planet since, well, I’d have to say mid-January.

Scan the news, pick up a paper, open your ears, the stinky cloud is everywhere.

The bouquet of excrement is strong.

Anyway, I saw him standing there in the lazy, disorganized line that was gradually forming by the glass-fronted doors of the soup kitchen. There were little pockets of quiet chatter amidst the shaggy group. One or two were talking to themselves.

The Donald caught my eye with a hostile gaze as I passed by, taking a few empty cardboard potato boxes to the recycling dumpster that sits like a quiet blue elephant nearby the front entrance.

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Before I could turn away or pretend we hadn’t had a “moment”, he latched onto me and began bellowing through his rectal-pursed lips.

“Look… I’m coming into the kitchen and getting you guys organized.

It will be so simple. We’re gonna make a huge pot of my new recipe… Trump Soup.

It’s gonna be fantastic. Best ever. Everyone loves it and they haven’t even tried it yet.”

I tried to pull away and sneak in the back door but he was on me before I could close and bar the door.

There we both were, Trump vs Billy Bush-style, in the narrow back hallway, jammed between trays of day-old bread and boxes of freshly picked Sunrise apples.

Nervously, I melted away from his toxic breath. I felt afraid that he might grab me by the pussy (hmmmm, something doesn’t add up here!).

Fine!

In resignation, I lead him through the door into the main dining area set up with about 2 dozen long, blue-grey tables. Bread crumbs littered the beige vinyl floor where the sandwich makers had just finished their task.

We veered to the right and into the production kitchen. Delicious smells sifted quickly into my nose.

I reluctantly prepared to introduce him around the industrious, knife-wielding group of volunteers attired in purple and navy blue aprons.

Donald didn’t lose a step, brushing me aside with a shove of his arm, while totally ignoring all of the volunteer staff busily chopping carrots and onions.

He headed straight to the huge 35 L. soup cauldron simmering over a gas flame. A delicate vegetable broth scent rose up to meet his gaze, his interrogation of the soup.

Listening closely I heard him mumble under his breath… “Natural Gas stove, hmmmmpf… no jobs there… we’ll change it to coal.

A quick dismissive sniff and he decisively turned on his heels.

Then, raising both of his little hands and making zeros with his thumb and forefinger, he addressed the group.

People, this soup is terrible, it’s a disaster.” Sneer.

Five or six confused helpers raised their eyebrows, checking each other out for reactions.

“We are gonna repeal and replace this soup…

… this stuff is worse than the Holocaust… and one other thing!”. 

Ceiling fans spun furiously overhead to dispel the rising heat wave sweeping the stainless steel laden kitchen. Localized global warming?

He lifted an eyebrow and angrily spat: “It’s those fruit-picking “Kweebeckoys” Frenchy kids outside with their long braids and hippie clothes. They’ve gotta go back to where they came from. And the Mexicano guys too.”

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“Before we open the door for lunch, we’re gonna build a wall to keep them outta here. And dammit, they’ll pay for it to be built with the money they stole from OUR local farmers.”

“Let’s put the good folks in the lineup out there to work – the ones who were born right here and not in Kenya like that other wacko President – we’ll get them back to work so fast, it will be a beautiful beautiful thing.”

“Back to good-paying jobs in the orchards picking and packing. They’ll love us. I guarantee it.”

A glow of White Nationalist pride lit his chubby face – JOB accomplished – while pink-tinged embarrassed looks shrouded my and my co-volunteers’ faces.

“Ok everyone… I’m heading back to Air Force One… I’m leaving you to make this new Trump soup… lots of stinky garlic and onions, you decide, I don’t do details… doesn’t matter … what matters is that we repeal and replace that other soup.

“I don’t care how good it is or how much people have enjoyed it for years here. Doesn’t matter.”

“And you, over there…”

He pointed and glared at John, an elderly stooped gentleman born in Poland 80 years earlier.

Good John, who has diligently helped out in the kitchen twice each week since his retirement 17 years ago.

“I like you, but I don’t think you’re contributing enough. You’re fired.”

“Thank you for your service.”

“Let’s make this soup kitchen great again!… Look I have baseball caps with that emblazoned on them for you to wear.

Course, you’ll have to pay for them.”

……………….

Hands

Friends, we’re all in this soup pot together on this beautiful blue planet.

We can cry. We can stew. We can fester. And we can laugh.

But we can’t ignore forever.

History has already written that story.

………..

Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. (1958)

Martin Luther King

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemoller

 

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The Children’s Smiles of Karauli… India Part 2

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Musician in the streets of Jaipur

 
Struggling with feelings of doubt or low self-esteem?

I have just the place for you. 

After settling into a picturesque, bougainvillea-festooned Maharaja’s estate in this small town of Karauli, not far from Agra, India, our group of 10… Brits, Americans, Aussies and we Canucks… wandered out the front gates of the palace, clambered aboard flatbed carts attached by long wooden poles to large camel-toned… you guessed it… camels. 

Two carts, two camels, 5 pale-white tourists per flatbed and we were off. 

The mid-afternoon sun settled over us warmly as the camels began slowly trodding forward into the narrow streets of the town. 

Sitting immediately behind the behind of the camel, its rump muscles shifting smoothly up and down like pistons, I’m a bit surprised there isn’t a stronger animal scent to this 7 foot tall creature. The stinky part must be in the spit! 

The beasts of burden ambled forwards, regal with their red-flower adorned noses held high as if they were kings of a civilization. 

Like all the Indian towns and cities we’ve seen so far, the sides of the rugged roads are heavily jammed with small shops and stalls, groups of people gathered, children running and playing, dark-skinned, wrinkled elderly adults crouched on haunches in small circles beside stalls piled high with long carrots, red onions, fresh turmeric and cabbage, apples, bananas, oranges and limes, household items like light bulbs and metal bowls and PVC pipes. 

And cows. Sacred cows. Always cows. 

 

Motorcycle or Massage Tool?

 
Young men on Honda Hero or Mahindra motorcycles or bicycles with one, two, three, maybe 4 passengers, roar up the one-lane wide streets. As always, the activity and sound is overwhelming to our ‘western’ eyes and ears but the real distraction amid this maelstrom quickly becomes… us. 

Our camel-cart parade route is lined on both sides, plus front and rear with intrigued and smiling admirers. 

Excited kids beam smiles our way and call out “hello”, “hi”, “namaste“…  

Young mothers clad in bright red, orange, and green saris holding babies close to their faces smile shyly…. adult men grin and wave in an almost embarrassed way, but can’t hold back their friendliness at these white-skinned wonders passing through their streets, through the tight corners and dusty lane ways leading up the hillside to the massive castle above their village. 

Along the route, fence tops and roofs are lined with drying cow patties, pancake circles of cow dung that, once dry are used as fuel for cooking. Some patties are layered up in artistic cylindrical piles, almost resembling braids. 

Vegetable sellers look up from their rusty weigh scales and smile as they carry out their business. Throngs of children chase behind our rustic carts as we feel each bump of the road on our tender backsides. The camel-tenders occasionally hop down from their perch and run to the front of their animals, carefully guiding them around extra tight corners or narrow stretches of laneway. 

At the finish of our enthusiastic 15-minute trek through the town we arrive at the substantial wooden castle gate. Sliding our bumped-up asses off the carts, we’re surrounded more so by eager, excited kids, jumping up and down, calling to us, shaking our hands. 

Yes, if you’re feeling down or unloved, Karauli is the one stop refresher for your blues. 

………………..

Our journeys this week have carried us from Delhi to Agra and the Taj Mahal, then onwards to Karauli, then Jaipur, and now Bijaipur.  

It’s culture shock of a huge magnitude with the unending crowds of people, the traffic noise, the combination of Hindu religion and Muslim and Christian…. the overwhelming mass belief in the religious and nationalist traditions that govern every moment of every day of the residents. 

One of the most difficult things -for me- in visiting a country such as India is to shed the judgmental gene that constantly wants me to wonder why… how… people can live so poorly and yet believe so strongly in the bountiful grace of their Gods. 

To see countless towns and cities where groups of young men and old, sit squatting in circles, badly underutilized to my eyes, passing time. Agricultural methods seem rigidly tied to practices of 50 or 100 years ago so that more men, more women, can remain employed. 

To see a world where women are mostly relegated to subservience to their fathers and husbands. 

The western glasses I look through make me shake my head in amazement. I try to remain open-minded but it feels a strain. 

…………….  
 

Movie theatre in Jaipur

 

To attend a Bollywood movie in Jaipur, a city of about 6 million souls, our group, divided into men and women, entered the theatre through separate doorways, then immediately re-congregated on the inside. 

We slid into comfortable seats of the modern, gargantuan theatre complex, and munched popcorn through the 3 hour drama of the movie, DANGAL, a true story about a young woman’s quest to become an Olympic wrestler, told only in Hindi language but easily understood by non-speakers. 

When the young heroine of the flick wins a Commonwealth Games’ medal and the Indian national anthem plays, the entire theatre crowd of 600 or 700 stands for its playing in the middle of the movie. National pride. 

………………..

Stopping in a central city Hindu temple at prayer time in the early evening was both mesmerizing and almost frightening to the uninitiated. 

A mass of children and adult men and women stood on concrete floors, facing the altar in front, then raised their arms overhead and pushed to the front of the temple. Loud bells swung in the arms of priests, clanging at almost ear-shattering volume, over and over, then doors on the raised dais were flung open to expose religious icons and artifacts. An audible ‘oooooohhhh’ arose in the crowd. 

The congregation of souls began flowing into underground tunnels that circled behind and under the altar where magnetic forces are told to originate and emanate to energize their lives. The crowds circled under, around and back to the front of the altar where the bells still loudly clanged. 

Soon, priests begin dipping their hands into holy water and spraying it into the crowd where it is caught and rubbed over the worshipper’s head. 

The bells suddenly go silent and the people quietly leave the temple. 

Tomorrow, they will return both in the morning and the evening to re-enact this same religious ceremony. 

……………..

Finally today, Food. 

Indian spices. Indian curries. A Wonder of the World. 

A portion of this journey is dedicated to learning a bit about the cooking of various regions of central and southern India. 

A tidbit… 

In Jaipur we spent an evening in the middle-class home of a lovely young Indian woman Pooja, along with her gracious husband and son. Pooja is a petite woman in a sweater and jeans, red lipstick highlighting her pretty face. The interior of the house was clean and modern looking, not unlike a typical small western home. 

Welcomed into the front room, we were served small samples of potato (aloo) pakora and chai as Pooja explained to us about her knowledge of Indian cooking and the business of cooking for large Indian weddings. 

Next followed a short tour of her modest upstair’s kitchen, and then we were guided to the basement where a large cooking demonstration area sat. 

 

Pooja spins her cooking magic…

   
Pooja took us through her spice collection contained in a circular plastic container… 6 or 7 spices, coriander, chili, salt, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, cinnamon. Other spices such as fenugreek and cilantro and mango powder were nearby for more occasional use. 

This evening’s demo would include 4 dishes: Dal Pachrangi – lentil and ginger/garlic dal, Gatta Curry – boiled chickpea dough in a spicy yogurt-based sauce, Rice Pullow – basmati rice with cinnamon, cloves, and onion, and finally Zeera Aloo – cumin potatoes… all would be vegetarian. 

Almost like in a TV cooking show, Pooja showed us her methods of preparation. While gently stirring garlic-ginger paste into hot oil, lofting warm scent into the air, she threw in little tips for substitutions, and had us assisting in stirring sauces and rolling out chappattis to accompany the meal. 

Finally, all the dishes were hot, fragrant, and ready for us to sit and enjoy. 
After sampling each of the dishes, our lips stinging lightly from the heat of the foods, Pooja’s gentle husband served us each a small bowl of sweet semolina pudding, the perfect finish to an evening Indian meal. 

Interestingly, as the days of our Indian excursion add up… as much as I enjoy Indian cuisine… I find myself reminded that too much of ANY good thing grows tiresome. 

After 9 days of complex spiced curries and dals and aloos, I find myself dreaming of a respite of salad, or pasta, or plain meat and potatoes. Do I sound like a stereotypical North American tourist, or what? 

Next stops… Udaipur, Mumbai, and Goa where we expect the heat in the air will begin to resemble the heat in the foods.

Bake Me A Cake

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For god’s sake let me turn off the Great British Bake Off.

It’s the darkest doldrum days of Canadian winter and I’ve been baking cakes this week.

It’s those damned U.K. crooked-teethed bakers in an emerald field‘s fault.

Welcome to my test kitchen.

Chocolate cakes. I’ve been baking chocolate cakes and internally ruminating about making cinnamon buns and hot cross buns. Warm, comforting scents waft in swirls, mixing lightly with tinges of pine smoke from the woodstove. Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell would stand proud.

Maybe my sugar craving is psychological lust in disguise… porn in a more socially acceptable guise. Maybe I’m a man whose mind lies in the erotic X-rated gutter looking for sexual connections to everything, I don’t know.

I know I love chocolate. I love chocolate cake. But I don’t need to eat chocolate cake.

What I need is to run more and bike more and swim more. That’s not a New Year’s Resolution. But it should be.

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There was a movie a while back called WAITRESS, where Keri Russell made pies in a diner, lots of pies. She’d make a different pie every day – a pie that matched her mood and what was happening in her world… pies like :

BAD BABY PIE – Quiche with egg and brie cheese with a smoked ham centre… (made when she becomes pregnant by her abusive husband.)

MARSHMELLOW MERMAID PIE – From when she was in her mermaid stage. “Biblically good!

I HATE MY HUSBAND PIE – “You make it with bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel …”

One day, setting a piece of Strawberry Chocolate Oasis pie in front of Old Joe, her favourite customer (Andy Griffith), he oohs and ahhs in ecstasy at the first forkful, and she says, “It’s just a pie“.

Just a pie! It’s downright expert. A thing’a beauty … how each flavor opens itself, one by one, like a chapter in a book. First, the flavor of an exotic spice hits ya … Just a hint of it … and then you get flooded with chocolate, dark and bittersweet like an old love affair …

Just a pie. Just a chocolate cake. Not just just anything.

Yup Old Joe, it’s like a chapter in a book.

My cakes are filled with messages and meanings that go miles beyond the floury-sugary material ingredients blended together; cakes with memory fillings, creamy whipped childhood playgrounds and frosted wedding ceremonies and family-layered funeral gatherings.

Food – especially sweet food – is special in our lives. It’s like the weather. Good. Bad. Indifferent. We talk about it constantly.

Yup, Old Joe, it’s like a trip to an exotic spicy locale that invigorates and inspires you.

My cake tastes better when it travels too. It’s both literal and metaphorical.

Doesn’t any food you eat when you travel taste better than the same thing eaten at home?

A plain old havarti cheese sandwich on a crispy sourdough baguette gulped down at your kitchen table magically tastes so much better when sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome, or on a massive rock parapet overlooking Machu Picchu.

Food mingles with personalities and visual perspectives on the horizon like fine sparkling wine pairs with fresh fruit.

My cake will transport you down an elm tree-lined journey into your past and a meal you shared with your best childhood friend in your backyard.

Treasured Mom moments.

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The power of cake.

Now that a new year has dawned, I think I’m drawn to making cakes because I’m celebrating the birth of a new seasonal effect, the lengthening of daylight. I’m looking outwards to the exciting creation of experiences, activities and new life stories.

But I’m also connecting with past wonders and the sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy memories of family dinners, weddings, funerals and celebrations.

Or maybe… just maybe… I truly am addicted to sugar.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

cigar

 

The Scent of Love Floating on Air…

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I want a little sugar in my bowl
I want a little sweetness down in my soul
I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad
I feel so funny, I feel so sad”
Nina Simone

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A warm wafting garlic scent intermingled with fresh tomatoes, oregano and cumin hang-glides like a heavenly wispy cloud, drifting insistently through the walls and under doors into bedrooms beckoning lovers like a magnetic force, irresistible, trance-like.

There is a sensuous beauty in cooking a scrumptious meal. Cooking… at its best… is like making delicious love while standing.

Chicken Shawarma, Aji de Gallina, Lemon Risotto, Rogan Josh, Guinness Irish Stew, Lamb Tajine, Roasted Red Pepper Lentil Soup, Moros y Cristianos, BBQ Ribs, French Onion Soup… such sweet carnal names that call out so insistent and charming.

Cooking is Patrick Swayze with his arms cozily wrapped around Demi Moore (or vice versa in my personal dream), caressing wet, slippery clay in their hands together… absorbed in the flow of warm moisture, the sinewy ooze between interlocked fingers, the light texture of warm soothing breath on the back of the neck…

Preparing a meal is foreplay where the pleasure is in the process – the cinnamon smells, the coriander tastes, the soft melding of complementary spices and oils…

There’s the lovers’ experimentation of trying this and that, seeking out a variety fun-pack where slower or faster pacing of the preparation become critical components of the whole experience… the joy of new discoveries.

And finally the moment arrives, everything is laid out in anticipatory beauty, that moment where shared pleasure heightens as we sit together as a group or face-to-face, smiling, sipping deeply-tinted Cabernet Sauvignon, nipping at summery Pinot Gris, the swirling stream of conversation weaving with the flavourful blend of colour and texture on the plate, on the fork.

Messy, noisy sucking of succulent tender meat off the rib bone and the rich feel of it melting, coating the inside of our mouths, the tangy sweetness rising through our nose hitting all the pleasure centres in the brain.

All we need to complete this delicious metaphor is a taste of something chocolatey or some other sumptuously sweet “climax” to bring the whole erotically lustful event to a satisfying finish.

A truly happy ending. With hopefully no buns left in the oven afterwards.

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Cooking is like investing or really almost everything we might do in life… each year that passes makes us more experienced, more in tune with the magic that makes it work and what doesn’t.

Fine cooking improves in our personal aging almost like a well-cellared wine.

All of the experimentation, the trials, the errors, the frustrations. And finally the successes.

You want trial and error? How about the fried rice I made at the age of 11 for a family gathering. As a young culinary neophyte, I lacked the knowledge to cook the rice in liquid first before frying – yup… CRUNCHY!!  Big Oops!

But the frequent failures blend with the successes over time… the 80:20 ratio of failure:success which was unsettling and frustrating has now flipped to a debatably 80:20 ratio of success:failure.

When my kids visit now and vocally remind me about how I’m”cooking the garbage”, I’m pretty sure they’re saying it tongue-in-cheek. Or perhaps I’m just delusional…

The 10,000 hour rule of mastery plays its part, in cooking as in our other passions.

I’ve known a few really wonderful cooks in my life beginning way back with my Mom and her incredible deep-brown caramelized roast potatoes followed by delicious flaky-crusted Northern Spy apple pies at our family Sunday night dinners.

My sister-in-law Lois was a superb cook with an amazing arsenal of ethnic food dishes learned while living in countries like Malaysia, India, Egypt and Nigeria.

My good friend Denise who, despite growing up in a British family (Brits can’t cook, can they?!), has developed a wonderful and richly-deserved reputation as a cook extraordinaire.

In the past year or two I’ve worked alongside a few other creative, skillful chefs in the Greek Restaurant where I bartend occasionally; also, even surprisingly in the soup kitchen where I do some volunteer work. I’ve discovered that great cooking doesn’t only waft in the air of kitchens in high-end spots. Passion for cooking can flow from any kitchen, any locale.

The best I can do is to watch and learn from all of those who take pride and delight in their cooking. And then mostly, I learn from cooking.

Again and again. Try this. Try that.

This flavour combination is marvellous. Oh, that one really sucks! How could I have never used fenugreek before?

I’m pretty lucky to live in a time where I have access to an amazing assortment of food ingredients. Ideas for recipes and flavour delights surround and hug me like wonderful foamy bubbles in a large bathtub.

I can prepare meals today that my parents and grandparents would never have dreamed of in their lives. Meat and potatoes are my heritage but not a major part of my current reality.

Cooking is an act of love we share with our friends, our families, our lovers.

That love may be fraternal or familial, but sometimes… when we want that sweetness down in our soul, the scents and flavours spin and whirl and twist in the spicy evening air in erotically, sensuously charged pleasures.

food sex

 

 

Cooking With Surfer’s Momma … Starry San Juan del Sur Nights …

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Teodora takes us to the markets to find the fresh ingredients needed for Indio Viejo …

Are You Hungry?… Me Too … Let’s Eat!

If you stop by my house for a meal, be prepared to dine on the cuisine of my latest travel venture:

  • Aji de Gallina from Cusco, Peru …
  • Moros y Cristianos from Havana, Cuba …
  • Chicken Tajine from Marrakesh, Morocco …
  • Tapas from Barcelona, Spain …
  •  or in today’s case … Indio Viejo from Teodora’s kitchen in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. 

Just a few days ago, we spent a few hours in the steamy (31 degree C) markets and kitchen of Teodora, a friendly lady who’s spent her entire life running restaurants and hostels in San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s northern Pacific Coast.

A quaint little tourist town, San Juan has fantastic wide, white sandy beaches and lots of tiny T-shirt shops and seafood restaurants overlooking the beach and the sparkling ocean. A grand white statue of Jesus looks down over the town and ocean from atop a nearby hill.

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SOYA… a hostel owned by Teodora and the name of her vegetarian restaurant … today’s meal breaks the house rules and uses beef …

After introducing ourselves to Teodora, and asking her to please speak slowly in Spanish (“despacio, por favor”) so that we can understand, we toddle behind her into the town’s streets – market stall to market stall, neighbour to neighbour – sourcing the needed items for preparing a classic Nicaragua beef stew dish called Indio Viejo (yup, The OLD INDIAN)

First we locate a tiny wood-shack tortilla shop where we pick up a small plastic bag of Masa (corn flour dough for making tortillas, but today it will be used as a thickener in our stew) from an elderly woman in the smoke-filled shack.

We meander further along the noisy, bumpy street and step into a busy set of market stalls.  Moving from one stall to the next, Teodora selects fresh cilantro, tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, garlic, and sour oranges, passing a very few Nicaraguan Cordobas (local currency) to each of the lady shopkeepers.

Vegetables in tow, we head back into the streets and trundle along a few blocks, stopping once in a while to have a friendly visit with local ladies pushing their sweet children in little “car”-shaped strollers – lifelong friends of Teodora’s. Of course, their Spanish chatter is too rapid for us to gather more than a few ideas of where the conversation is leading.

Our final stop is at a glass-fronted Carneceria (meat shop) where we pick out a couple of small pieces of res (beef) that are bagged by the young boy behind the counter.

All the ingredients we need now are in our bags, so we head back – in the typical tropical plodding walking pace – to SOYA, the hostel-restaurant owned by Teodora.

It’s time to start cooking.

Entering the hostel’s front opening, we pass through a dark, narrow hallway into the back area that blossoms into a small square that opens to the skies. On the perimeter of the square are rooms cheaply available for rent to tourists, and from what we can see, mainly backpackers of varying ages.

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In the centre is a square room with a door that opens into a congested kitchen – the room jam-packed with pots, pans, bags, coolers, vegetables and fruits – there is scarce room for any sort of food preparation.

Teodora, accustomed to the conditions, shows no signs of concern, and pulls out a ceramic soup bowl to place on the little bit of space by the sink. She also places a large teflon-lined pot on the stove, strikes a match to light a propane burner underneath, and begins explaining the preparation details of this dish.

Along with the essential cooking directions, Teodora includes little snippets of information about her sons (her one son Saul – she affectionately calls him Saulito – was actually my surfing instructor on Playa Hermosa the day before) and grandchildren, often flashing a bright gold-toothed smile, showing her pride in her family.

She talks quietly as she washes and cuts the beef, the vegetables, the sour oranges (I’ve placed the recipe ingredients and details at the bottom, so I won’t get terribly detailed here). I love it when we add a toothpaste-sized lump of rust-toned achiote paste to the masa dough and the entire stew takes on a rich orange-brown colour.

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There’s barely a square inch of space available amid the pans and dishes and clutter … Teodora cuts vegetables right in a bowl by the edge of the sink…

After about an hour of cutting, boiling, stirring, and sautéing a salsa garnish, the finished dish is ready to sample.

Each of Teodora, Maureen and myself, scavenge up a bowl amid the counter clutter and scoop a ladleful of the rich, thick stew into our bowls. We squeezed our way out of the tiny kitchen – two other travellers, one Romanian, the other Mexican, had begun preparing their own meals alongside us as we chopped and stirred.

We plunked ourselves down on a long concrete bench that runs along the length of one of the inner walls of the compound and try our first taste of Indio Viejo.

Mmmmm … the tangy sour orange combined with the strong garlic, corn flour, and cilantro flavours to make a full-flavoured, heat-free dish with tender chunks of beef that I’m looking forward to recreating in my – just slightly less cluttered – Canadian kitchen.

So, please drop by and we’ll enjoy some together.

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Nighttime in San Juan del Sur

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The brightly lit 24 metre-high white statue of Christ of the Mercy peers out at us from the north hill overlooking little San Juan del Sur.

Stately coconut and royal palms rise over this resort town that attracts tourists – mostly beautiful young things – by the throngs.

To a lesser degree, it’s a bit like spring break week in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. At night, pairs and groups of people migrate down the middle of the narrow, uneven streets into bars and restaurants pumping out loud music in styles of jazz, or salsa, or rock.

The town is a living organism with a heartbeat that picks up as the night moves on.

This evening, there’s a touch of magic in the warm night air – delight in eating fresh seafood with our group while sipping fluffy rum drinks and cervezas in the wide beachfront restaurant … a romance in the night sky as Jesus looks down over us, stars twinkling overhead. Our travel mates laugh and play in a light alcoholic haze around a circular table perched right on the beach sand.

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Dinner on the beach at San Juan del Sur …

 

It’s a great group we’re travelling with, although – full disclosure, I have to say this as some of them might just read this! But, honestly, we blended pretty harmoniously.

Travel company gAdventures thrust us together as we arrived in Granada, Nicaragua from regions around the globe.

Before we knew it, we were meandering throughout hot and humid northern Nicaragua as a troop containing an even 10 of us – 5 Canadians, 1 American, 1 Belgian, 1 Aussie, 1 Brit, and 1 Costa Rican (Esteban, our guide).

It was a wide-ranging selection of nationalities, genders, accents, ages, religions, and interests. And yet we somehow came together and melded well despite our differences.

Many activities we experienced and saw as a group … at other times we headed off in diverse directions as our interests and palates differed.

And I’m going to share a secret with you after this latest journey… come closer and I’ll whisper …

I don’t usually enjoy travelling in groups.”

I like taking odd detours and finding side streets with local interest that draws me in – group travel is usually just too regimented to provide the freedom and flexibility that I crave. And, for sure … there always seems to be a personality or two that drives me bonkers. Although, to be totally fair, it might be MY personality that gnaws at the others!

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A nighttime visit to see glowing lava inside the Masaya Volcano, near Granada …

 

One of the small joys of travel, for me, is that I often find myself meeting people that I may not approach or stumble upon in my own little circle, my town, my country.

I like to believe that many travellers are explorers seeking to open their minds and hearts to what the world has to offer, as well as discovering hidden parts of themselves that they don’t really understand just yet. There are minute-to-minute stresses and challenges that enlighten us about ourselves.

Travel is both an outward and an inward journey of discovery. 

…………………………

As the jets thrusters roar up for us to make the final taxiing turn onto the nighttime runway, I look out the small airplane window, soaking in the final views of a foreign landscape, and I ask myself,

How many vistas are lovelier than a lit runway at dusk, cold blue and warm yellow lights leading off into the far distance, hinting at a destination exotic and far off … or … just reminding me that I’m coming home.”

runway lights

 

INDIO VIEJO RECIPE:

Ingredients:

  • 1 and a half pounds of beef (or chicken, pork, or … tofu even)
  • 1 pound of corn flour or “masa” (pre-made corn flour dough)
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of fresh cilantro
  • 1 bitter orange (you can use lemon as a substitute)
  • 2 or 3 tbsp. olive oil or butter
  • Achiote or annatto (needed for coloring, although you can use sweet paprika as a substitute)
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • Approximately half a gallon (2 liters) of water

 

Cook cubed beef in the olive oil with garlic, diced onion, tomato and julienned bell pepper.

Add the water and boil with the lid on the pot until the meat is soft (about 1/2 hour).

Add some water to the corn dough in a bowl and mix until the dough is blended into a smooth paste. Add a tablespoon or so of achiote or annatto to make the corn dough slurry look slightly red. Add this to the beef/vegetable pot and mix it all together on medium heat.

Add the juice from the bitter orange, and let it cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the mixture is thickened and boiling with large bubbles.

Serve with rice, and/or fried plantain.

2015 The Year To Be Great – Part 2, The Sequel

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Some days I feel a bit low and there doesn’t seem to be any explanation.

Gun Man

That is, until I look more closely inside myself and realize that the get-up-and-go-gun isn’t loaded.

What good is a gun without fire power?

Actually, as a peaceful kind of guy, I could debate this with myself, but let’s not go there today, OK?  When my gun is unable to blast away I know I’m lacking gunpowder – a fervent feeling, a drive of passion.

I love passion in all its forms.

Passion is what makes me – like my investing guru Warren Buffett – tap dance on the sidewalk with glorious abandon …

Give Me PURPOSE! Give Me GOALS!

NOW I have a Loaded Gun!

I am rarely happier than when I’m working and playing with purpose.

Give me a road to travel on and headlights to show me where I’m headed, and I’ll have a smile on my face. But it’s up to me to make the power to run those headlights.

That’s what makes this such a great virtuous circle … I feed power to the headlights with goals that give me purpose and passion –  and the purpose and passion light the way forwards towards achieving my goals.

PRESTO … I’m on a supercharged highway with great spin-off effects … an autobahn with no speed limits …

Examples of how this might play out:

  • a 10k running race event in May gives me the initiative to work out and train hard for 4 months leading up to it … A strong, healthy body is a side effect of reaching my goal.
  • I sign on to perform 2 songs at a local summer festival … so I practice and write music until it all sits comfortably inside my muscle memory so that when I get on stage, when the nerves rise up, the music is there inside me even if my head is too jangled to realize it.
  • I listen to people speak and really listen and praise them for the little things they do right (we all have some things we do right) … it makes them feel good about themselves and this makes me feel good about myself … another virtuous circle in action. Our relationships with others are always better, stronger if we take the time to make the other guy/gal feel good about themselves, rather than knocking them down with a competitive response… “oh sure, I did that a long time ago, what took you so long?”

My blog post last week spoke of what happened in 2014 … now it’s time to look forward and plan … after all, you do know that “those who fail to plan, plan to fail“… sorry, I swear I’ll lose kitschy cliches in 2015!

So, does 2015 have a THEME? Hmmmm, what would my theme be?

2015 The Year of Simplify

Rock in stream

SIMPLIFY. SIMPLIFY. SIMPLIFY. Sometimes, I try to take on too many goals and I lose focus and concentration. This year I think I’ll choose fewer goals and work harder to make each of them happen.

……………………….

2015 GOALS

BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and LFEG’s (Little Fuzzy Everyday Goals)

1. PHYSICAL/HEALTH

a) Climb Mount EverestHaaa, not quite what you’re thinking, although I like that idea too.

No, this Mount Everest is a cumulative hill climb that equates to the distance needed to surmount the king of Mountains. Mount Everest is what? … let’s Google this… 8,848 metres (or 29,029 feet) high.

My local Summerland “mountain” called Giant’s Head is 296 metres in height from the lower parking lot to the summit overlooking the picturesque Okanagan Valley.

I’ll have to summit Giant’s Head 30 times in 2015 to make the equivalent climb to the tip of Mount Everest. That means a weekly average of 2 climbs bottom to top and I can plant a flag at the top of Mount Everest. My friends Jennifer and Pam are taking this challenge on too which will give us all some motivation.

I think this is going to be a stretch challenge … I like stretch challenges!!

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Peak of Giant’s Head… er… my Mount Everest…

 

b) Run 2 Half Marathonsjust like last year, 2 half-marathons will be my “big” running events for the year. I’ll probably throw in a few 10k and 5 k events too, but they will be the little siblings to the main objective of running 21 k in the half-marathon event. Usually I set time goals eg. sub 2- hours for these, but as I age and become more … let’s say “mature”… I’m going to simplify and relax and make completion of these runs, regardless of time, my HAPPY PLACE.

2. CHARITABLE

a) 10% Charitable boost – adding 10% to my monthly automatic charity contributions is a great goal because it requires next to no sacrifice or sweat. Two phone calls (hang on a second … there … done!!) and the year’s objective has been met.

b) Volunteer Time – In the past few months I’ve begun volunteering some time at the local soup kitchen, and assembling Christmas hampers at the Salvation Army – my goal here is simple (see? Simplify!)… keep on keeping on. Chopping vegetables and making sandwiches a couple of days a month is fun for me (I love to cook) and there’s a warm and fuzzy factor that settles in when I survey the tables of folks chatting and enjoying a steaming bowl of soup. The downside (there’s ALWAYS a downside) … these poor unfortunates have to eat MY cooking!

3. WRITING

a) 50 Additional Blog Posts + 75 views/day on blog – Writing blogs is my therapy and my routine. In this post-paid-work world I now inhabit, there’s a big need for day markers and deadlines, otherwise couch-dom and sloth become my best friends (well alright, La-Z-Boy is already my best friend). But I’m not just physically lazy, my mind needs the push of writing blog entries to keep it fine-tuned like a Maserati that just happens to motor along more like a Rent-A-Wreck version otherwise …

2014 brought an average of about 54 views to this blog each day. My fragile male ego would be really swollen in gratitude if enough new folks came along to bring this to 75 daily.

4.  MUSICAL 

a) Purchase 12-string guitar this carryover from last year will be looked after soon dear friends, I promise. I’ve done most of my homework, now I’ll only need to haggle for price and terms eg. does it come with guarantees of perpetually perfect tuning (after all, 12 strings is a lot to keep tuned, right?)?

WAIT... I said a Taylor 12-String Guitar... not a Taylor Swift guitar!

WAIT… I said a Taylor 12-String Guitar… not a Taylor Swift guitar!

b) Build A Guitar – This is a brand new idea that powered its way into my head this past year. There are a number of places worldwide that offer the opportunity to build your very own guitar over a 2- to 4-week period with lots of instruction and expert guidance. What could be cooler than to craft your own musical instrument and add Luthier (no, not LOSER!) to your resume?

c) Write more Songs and perform original songs publically. I hesitate to give a number as far as writing my own songs goes (SIMPLIFY), but I know I have momentum pushing me in the right direction. So rather than choose a number of songs to write as a goal, I want to press myself to make the pieces as high a quality as I can manage … great, meaningful lyrics enshrouded in wonderful, harmony-laced melodies with a fantastic chorus that draws one in and sets the happy or melancholy emotions aflame.

Stepping further into the musical abyss, beyond the writing lays the performing side. Here I’ll need to kick myself in whatever direction gives me an opportunity to throw myself at the public audience.

5. TRAVEL 

a) Visit New-To-Me Central American country – learning and improving Spanish has been on my agenda for about 5 years now (hence “school” trips to Peru, Spain, Cuba). But we’ve never touched ground in any of the Central American countries, so this is the year to say HOLA to one of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, or Guatemala.

b) American States? I think I’ve managed a visit to about 26 states of the little country to the south. I’m barely past the halfway point of my goal to see ’em all, which means I’ll have to live to … oh, about 110 years old at this pace. I’d better find a way to get my puny Canuck ass into another state or two. Maybe a visit to those old carved Presidential dudes on Mt. Rushmore is in order, or a whirlwind tour of  tornado alley to catch up on Dorothy and Toto.

6. FINANCIAL

a) 15% returnI spent the first 30+ years of my working life saving and accumulating a financial base. Now it’s time for that base to pull its weight. Slavery has found a home in my investment account.

I can live indefinitely with about a 7% average annual return, but I enjoy the research and stimulation of investing, so why not be entertained and make a few bucks along the way. Besides, the better investor I am, the more I can drop into my charitable contributions bucket. I’d call that a WIN-WIN…

My investing hero...Warren Buffett... hey, wasn't he in the movie "UP"?

My investing hero…Warren Buffett… hey, wasn’t he in the movie “UP”?

My 5-year average annual return is looking a bit light of my 15% goal at 12.2%.  Intriguingly, my 10-year average is now identical at 12.2% also.

Despite a bit of underachievement here, these numbers don’t make me unhappy. After all, the 10-year record includes a pretty precipitous drop in 2008. But I’m thinking that as I get older and wiser, maybe I should be capable of bringing that average up a bit without bumping up the risk levels.

So… help me out here please, OK? Perhaps if each of you could buy just a few more APPLE products and drop by MCDONALD’S for the occasional BIG MAC while making sure to chat/text with your friends on your BELL CANADA cellphone? Am I asking too much?

8. FOOD & EATING

a) Study Cooking for One Day in any Travel Destination – I’ll make reasonable attempts to catch at least one day of cooking classes on local cuisine for any locale to which I travel. Last year was TAJINE in Morocco… maybe this year, GALLO PINTO in Nicaragua.

c. 2013 www.GretchenAlms.com

b) Develop a Repertoire of Egg Recipes – the chicken palace under construction in my backyard should be finished by early spring. This means an abundance of fresh eggs by summertime. I’ll want to get innovative and creative and ply friends and relatives with fabulous frittatas and Green Huevos Rancheros and Ham.

……………………..

Look Into Your Crystal Ball and Read the Tea Leaves of Your Tarot Cards (huh?)

In 2015 I’m trying to release any pretensions of perfection as part of my SIMPLIFY theme. And it truly is pretension – I’ve never approached perfection in any segment of my life. I discussed my simple thoughts for this in an earlier post about my 1,000 hour rule.

This life “thing” is fascinating. Each year I find out something new about myself as bits of inner flotsam are released and rise to the surface where I can see them. This is one of the very cool things about aging – and aging is a concept and process I struggle against. One of these years I’ll likely have an epiphany and gracefully accept the creaking ship that is life.

But for now, I’ll be who and what I am and run madly off in all directions in search of adventure in all its forms.

Adventures that come in physical form such as building things, cooking things – maybe even skydiving – and also mental adventures in the form of ideas. There are a ton of great ideas out there that set my heart and mind on fire just waiting to be plucked and mated via idea sex.

I’m seeking a simple, balanced life that accommodates an ADHD kind of personality like mine.

So … simply tomorrow … take in a boot camp class but not snack (physical), write a thank you email to my sister for her Christmas gift (emotional), come up with 10 ideas for future blog posts or songs (mental), spend 10 minutes in meditation feeling grateful (spiritual).

Load up your gun with all of the passion and goals you can muster and let’s head into 2015 together, OK?

 There are worse ways to start …

… or finish … a New Year. 

2015 goals

Clap Along If You Feel Like Cookin’ …

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Man-cooking

This is definitely not ME! Paying close attention to recipes is not in my playbook…

Why do I feel so damned Pharrell Williams “HAPPY” when I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen? Even if the kitchen isn’t “a room without a roof“?

What kind of a real man eschews the world of sliding under cars to manhandle greasy gaskets, or watching blood-spattered UFC supermen, to “perform” on the stage of culinary arts?

I think I must be what you would call gastrosexual.

Cooking and food – as we all know –  is really a metaphor for the warm and soft, fuzzy aspects of our lives.

Food provides calories, but isn’t just sustenance, would you agree?

Food means sharing, friendship, family, love, sex, laughter, discussion.

Throw a bottle or two of wine into the equation and it also means political arguments, RAUCOUS laughter, louder talk, dysfunctional families, wine goggles, raunchy sloppy sex.

dinner-argument

A typical Sunday night at my house…

……………………

Sometime during the 1980’s I remember a great heated discussion in the (now defunct) Canadian back-to-the-earth magazine Harrowsmith about the cover photo of a woman holding a hot steaming loaf of bread, fresh from the oven.

The blush and shiny glow in her cheeks hinted to some readers of a post-orgasmic flush and maybe even a hot-and-ready yeasty bun in her own personal oven.

To naive little me, it looked like a woman proudly offering up a beautiful loaf of bread, but I’ll admit that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar. Yes, once again, sex rules the media, and it’s everywhere.

Switching to the movies, one of my favourite “family” cooking scenes from cinema comes from none other than big John Candy and little Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck.

Whenever my kids are home and I’m stirring and chopping away in the kitchen, inevitably, one of them will whisper the classic line loudly, “Dad’s cooking our garbage“.

Now you might prefer the more serious-toned Julie and Julia for your film cooking chops. This is all well and good but makes cooking and cuisine a job to be wrestled into an organized round of beginning, middle, and end.

DING, the round is over … the recipe has been followed exactly … there, done!

Damn, forgive me. I keep getting sidetracked from the message I’m here to talk about today.

Which is … that I have a different approach to edible art.

The Alternate Zen of Cooking

Aside from the obvious connections between cooking food and family and love in its various forms … for me, cooking also means musical themes, and exploration and travel.

How so, you ask?

Cooking can be regimented and stiff, or, if you’re like me, free-form like jazz.

I know that for some, food preparation is a rote symphony – you measure every quarter note and 1/4 cup to the T… you place every rest and teaspoon in its perfect momentary place. The cuisinary maestro is to be strictly adhered to for the music and vittles to sound and taste so sweet. This is fine, I suppose.

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In Marrakesh, Morocco, Karina ensures I measure everything for a Tagine dish just so …

I was told by Karina, my cooking guide in Morocco this spring to:

 Respect the Recipe”

Bahhhh… I want to play my cooking-style like uplifting jazz, using a recipe only as a guideline where a list of ingredients is important but amounts vary from time to time, and my imagination allowed to summon up a flavour that I favour on that day.

More lemon today, more ginger tomorrow, less oregano and cumin this time around. Maybe quinoa in place of rice.

Cooking is like playing in the sandbox with the kids, it’s fun and learning all mixed together in an agreeable mess.

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Lugme, a delightful Cusco friend, stacks our freshly-baked guinea pigs into a container for the short walk back home from the community oven … a tasty Peruvian delicacy…

A wonderful bonus of today’s connected world is the availability of ingredients from every region of the world, all of the time.

Any day of the week, I can choose to eat Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, French, Spanish, Caribbean, Hawaiian, or whatever style of food you can name with one quick visit to the local supermarket.

Is this a great world, or what?

I can hear you already. You might believe strongly in the 100-Mile Diet.  I get it. I want the local grower to do well too. But, I figure that the peasant farmer in Quillabamba, Peru or Wenchang, China or Ladysmith, South Africa deserves a livelihood as much as my friendly orchardist down the road. I support both. ‘Nuff politics, OK?

Even if I’m not travelling, cooking transports me to other worlds and exotic locales.

A special meal is like catching a plane and taking a vacation in your own home – a STEAK’ation if you will.

We can create recipe sex in our own homes where Thai meets Italian meets Brazilian and an incredible taste explodes for us like an atomic bomb in our mouths.

But at some point I grow tired of staring at the map on the wall and making dishes from afar.

The true measure of great cooking, eating, and enjoyment is to settle in the dust of the region where that food originated.

Just put a forkful (or chapati-full, or chopstick-full) of locally-cooked, flavour-laden food where the street sounds and smells encircle you … music floating on the evening air… then close your eyes and absorb all that surrounds you.

Here, I’ll take you on a short cooking-style trip right now… hang on… it won’t take a lot of your time or money!

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Oscar showing us Spanish-language students in Cusco how to prepare “Ahi de Gallina”.

I’ll throw a great little Peruvian peanut-chicken stew recipe at you here from my Cusco, Peru master-chef amigo Oscar? Listen for the pan flutes playing through the thin, cool Andean air.

Oscar makes lovely gourmet-style meals for large groups using only a 2 burner propane-fired hotplate. Try this in your own kitchen and feel free to adjust the amounts.

Ahi de Gallina (Serves 6 – Oscar gave this recipe to me in Spanish, but I’ll make it a bit easier with translation)

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 100 g white cheese (mozzarella or cheddar or monterey jack)
  • 1 1/2 onions
  • 4 aji peppers (any small hot pepper will do)
  • 1/4 litre milk
  • 50 g roasted, ground peanuts
  •  150 g chicken stock
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 150 g water crackers
  • 4 garlic cloves

Preparation:

  • Boil the chicken breasts in 2 litres water with a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper for 15 minutes
  • Drain the broth but reserve 1 litre of the cooking liquid and hand shred the chicken into small strands
  • Chop 1 onion, garlic and peppers into small pieces (remove and discard seeds from hot peppers)
  • In a large frying pan on medium heat, saute the chopped vegetables in a small splash of oil, add salt and pepper to taste
  • After a few minutes, add the milk slowly in equal portions to the crushed water crackers
  • Add cubed cheese, the peanuts, and the chicken broth and stir for a minute
  • Pour the entire mixture into a blender and liquify until smooth
  • Cut the remaining half onion into julienne strips and add to the frying pan and saute for a minute before adding in the blender mix and the shredded chicken
  • Stir over heat until it reaches the boil point and add more milk or broth for a smooth consistency
  • Serve over rice or potato, accompanied by olives and hard boiled eggs

…………………..

Now when I travel, I want to spend time in the company of local cooks and learn their magic with local traditions and foodstuffs. Few things in life bring us more warmly, more peacefully, together than cooking and sharing a meal.

And I’m just at the start of this journey. Morocco, Peru, Spain, Cuba, China, even Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories of Canada … the list will grow and recipe sex will make the spicy ambience of life a bit richer.

So it might seem crazy what I’m gonna say but I’m just gonna put on my Pharrell cooking hat and keep pirouetting and gyrating my Happy-dance as I blend the fusionary, culinary, provisionary, sometimes flavourful, sometimes disastrous kitchen concoctions and dream my way to the furthest corners of the world.

What’s Cooking in the Baths of Marrakech?

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I’m loathe to admit it, but I must be only moderately attractive because he obviously wasn’t aroused when he showed me his … you know … stuff.

OK, raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself sitting naked except for your Hanes’ boxer underwear on a hot, wet, polished cement floor, surrounded by men, young and old, who speak only Arabic.

Then one well-proportioned young fellow looks directly at you, right at YOU, and discretely lowers the band of his shorts displaying his junk with a come hither look.

But seriously, this was the admittedly surreal vision in front of me as I sat in a traditional Moroccan “Hammam” (Public Bath) within the Souk of Marrakech.

Let’s move on, we can come back to this later.

………………………………….

A Day’s Journey

Our day began bright and clear, the temperature sitting at perhaps 6C or 7C in Fez as we headed out with an early start.

The full-day driving journey from Fez to Marrakech took our group of 5 Canadians, Moroccan guide Redouane, and driver, Fouad, over the Middle Atlas Mountains through a schizophrenic set of agricultural fields and orchards. Our trek morphed from huge lush green fields of hay and orange orchards, to dry scrub land with prickly pear cactus in abundance.

As we climbed the grey morning hills, the air grew cooler and cooler, and then … surprise, we were in snowy terrain.

Maureen looked out the van windows and pointed out to us the spray of almond blooms hanging pretty pink, like delicate earrings in the trees, with white snow clinging to the branches and as a backdrop. Well constructed, rocky fences surrounded fields almost as if we were in the highlands of Scotland.

We stopped for a short break of cafe con leche in a white-enshrouded alpine town called Ifrane. Some of us frolicked, and froze our unprotected hands in a cold and wet impromptu snowball fight and then participated in the classic Canadian winter ritual of pushing a powerless car down a hill for a jump start.

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Not a scene we had anticipated in Morocco …

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Moroccan guide Redouane and I get our morning workout!

Within 15 minutes of leaving Ifrane, we were back into the green, sumptuous farm land we were more accustomed to – and had expected– in Morocco.

Sometimes small, often enormous flocks of sheep, scattered either side of the road, always, always, always accompanied by a solitary shepherd. One flock, one shepherd.

Concave, concrete water flumes, like the ones used years ago in our Okanagan Valley here in Canada, lined the fields for irrigation.

We were surprised to encounter our one and only visit to squat toilets at a fueling station along the day’s journey. My expectation in travelling to Morocco had been that the “western” porcelain toilets would be the exception, not the rule. And I admit to you, porcelain was a pleasant surprise for this comfort-seeking westerner, especially so for the women!


It was a full day of driving in the Mercedes van over good quality, but mostly winding two-lane roads that brought us into the early evening sunset and heavy traffic of Marrakech, the hometown of our eager young driver, Fouad.

Warm, Moroccan sun beamed bright orange through the front window of the van as we pulled up to the elegant entry doors of the hotel in the central modern core of this city.

Across the street was the impressive Gare, the train station. Far off in the western distance there was a hazy view of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, looking very Rocky Mountain’ish.

Pleasant, dry windy gusts blew warmly as we edged stiffly from the van after the long day’s drive. Tall, friendly palms waved as the sounds of busy traffic motored past on the spacious boulevard at front. I fondly remembered how special and exotic palm trees looked to me when I flipped through travel or National Geographic magazines as a kid (see, I noticed more than the naked Black women!).

As in each of our nightly stops in Morocco, the hotel was large and modern, like any 4-star European hotel. Even though they all lacked some small’ish detail such as functioning heat and air control systems, or occasional leaking bathroom fixtures, the beds were good, and the rooms were clean and well-appointed.

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Marrakech in the early evening sun with High Atlas Mountains in the distance…

Now We’re Cookin’!

The temperature when we awoke the following morning was warmer than we had experienced so far in Morocco. It was a delight to feel the sun and the low 20C temperatures, rather than the low- to mid-teens.

Maureen and I stood in front of the Cafe de France in Marrakech’s spacious main Jemaa el-Fnaa Square as carts of supplies and local trucks and vendors whisked in all directions to set up the small stalls for the day.

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Congestion in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square…

We waited, taking in our surroundings for a few moments, then a young woman approached and introduced herself.

Karina, dressed in jeans and blouse, jacket and knit scarf, was to be our Moroccan shopping and cooking instructor, charged with imparting the techniques of tagine cuisine to just us Canadians. On some occasions, she has conducted a class grouping of 18 people, but today, it was a private tagine session.

Oh, sorry, if you didn’t know already, tagine is an historically Berber dish from North Africa that is named after the type of earthenware pot in which it is cooked.

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Tagine cooking pots in Marrakech souk …

After our introductions, we walked out of the main open square and entered the souk, or marketplace. Much like the crowded and buzzing Fez Medina, but not so claustrophobic and tight, we zigged and zagged along the huge avenues of stalls and little foundries of metal workers pounding silver and tin over anvils and smoking coal fires.

Shortly we entered the “food” section of the souk. The first small stall we approached had a high glass-fronted counter – in behind were cages filled with live, clucking chickens.

Karina spoke to the small man behind the counter in Arabic. The fellow nodded, opened a cage door and grabbed one of the squawking birds and retrieved it and placed it onto the white surfaced weigh scale sitting just in front of us. Karina shook her head NO … too big!

He put the bird back in its cage and pulled out another, laid it on the scale where it sat pathetically and limply resigned. This time Karina was satisfied, and gave him the go ahead nod of her head. She turned to us and explained in English that a 1 kilogram bird was all we needed.

“We can go get vegetables and come back and it will be ready in a few minutes.”

Within eye-shot we spotted a vegetable “stall”, a patch of open ground on the side of the pathway where a selection of fresh produce was laid out.

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Karina grabbed a plastic basket from the shopkeeper man and asked us to begin selecting good tomatoes, onions, green peppers, lemons, oranges, coriander, and parsley. Rubbing elbows with a few elderly ladies, we chose a selection of produce, paid for it with just a few Moroccan dirhams, then returned to the meat stall for our now freshly killed, eviscerated and plucked chicken friend.

The butcher tossed the fowl into a plastic bag and we continued onwards for a couple more stops where we purchased some typical Moroccan flat breads, fresh mint, olives, bottled water, saffron, and olive oil.

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Paying for the just-selected live chicken …

Now, fully loaded with everything needed to make a chicken lemon tagine, we walked 2 or 3 minutes more to a riad (traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) on the edge of the souk.

Along the souk’s passageway we came to a beautifully-carved wooden door- the entrance to the riad.

We crossed the threshold into a bright hallway lined with framed photos of typical Moroccan scenes that led to a terra-cotta tiled courtyard. The inner courtyard was open in the centre to the sun and blue sky above.

Around the edges of the main patio radiated a large dining section, some stairs leading to upper floors, a smaller dining area with a square table and bench seating, with a small galley-style kitchen to its left. At one other side of the courtyard was a small, deep pool, like a fishpond, but empty of water and filled with potted plants for the winter months.

Karina led us into the kitchen with our fresh supplies where she had us cover up with pressed and pristine white aprons, and then set each of us up at a small workstation with a cutting surface and a short, sharp knife.

Karina chatted happily away in well-honed English about her single Moroccan woman’s life and a young man she was corresponding with in England whom she hoped would become a more serious connection someday soon.

But before we got down to serious cooking work, we returned to the dining table where Karina showed us the preparation of sweet mint tea. We had seen many small cafes in our Moroccan travels where tables filled with men (yes, never women) sat, facing the street, and sipped mint tea as the drink of choice.

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Karina prepares the mint tea …

We went through the multi-step process of making the traditional tea using loose green tea, a large handful of fresh mint and two sizable chunks of white sugar. Soon, Karina began pouring the steaming hot liquid into small glass cups from-on-high style. We sipped the final result and enjoyed the sweet, hot, spearmint flavour.

Tea time over … back to the kitchen.

The orange-clay tagine pots sat before us and we began chopping vegetables and piling the chicken and vegetables into the flat centre of the container. With each ingredient we chopped – just as she had in the souk – Karina had us learn the Arabic word:

Tomato- matisha, onion – basla, chicken – djaj, saffron – zaafron, olives – zitoun, lemon – hamed.

What probably surprised us most in making the tagine dish was the sheer volume of spice added. For each of our small, one person tagine dishes, a full teaspoon each of pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, and salt were ladled into the mix. Finally a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, a handful of olives, fresh and preserved lemon, a few tablespoons of pungent olive oil and then a careful turning and mixing of the entire blend completed the dish.

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A work of pre-cooked art …

It surprised me further when we placed the tagine pots directly over the stove’s propane flame for the dishes’ 1 hour cooking.

While the tagine heated, we moved on to the prep of a Moroccan salad.

Each noon meal we’d had on our Moroccan journey consisted of a collection of extremely-fine chopped salads. Today’s salad would be no exception.

Karina had us mince garlic and red onion and tomato so that it appeared almost like a Mexican salsa in consistency. After charring a couple of green peppers directly over the stove’s flame burner, we removed the blackened skins and minced the soft inner flesh as well. The spice blend was lemon and garlic and mint.

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Our salad creation…

In my own personal cooking style, I have a tendency to freelance and use a recipe only as a general guideline. A splash of this, a dash of that.

But today I was in a room of pragmatists, and as I added my spices just a bit haphazardly, Karina sweetly and playfully reminded me that, “You must respect the recipe”.

“You Must Respect The Recipe.”

When the words came from her mouth it sounded like a much deeper life lesson somehow. I’ll have to ponder that over a glass or two of wine someday.

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Karina and Larry “Respecting the Recipe” !

We laughed and joked in English, sometimes in broken French, but always sharing in the fun of a cross-cultural experience with a woman who lived in a Muslim world that bridged a historic past and a western-influenced future.

The scent of the cooking tagine enveloped the riad and the mix began burbling over the clay lip of the pot so Karina tilted the lids to allow steam to escape as if we were boiling potatoes on the stove.

Finally, she declared the tagine meal fully-cooked and sent us off to wait at the dining table that she had set with placemats, a flower, and a small plate filled with the round flatbread that we had bought earlier in the day.

Moments later, she carefully placed our individual tagine pots in front of us, steaming and smelling exotically fragrant. We raised a glass of water to toast (alcohol wouldn’t have been appropriate in this Muslim culture) our creation and then settled in for the tasting.

I could describe the character and quality and the impressions of the dishes, but instead I’ll just let you use your own imagination to absorb and enjoy the complex blend of flavours of our wonderful tagines.

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…………………..

A Visit to the Hammam

Alright, it’s time we returned to the Hammam, the Moroccan public bath, I mentioned at the beginning of this story.

The hammam is found deep within the enclaves of the souk marketplace, and could be easily missed if you didn’t know what to look for.

Redouane, my Moroccan guide, showed me the small, open hole-in-the-wall where I would enter. He came inside the front entrance with me to negotiate with an old man in Arabic, the terms of my visit. I paid about $8 Canadian and was assigned a young “assistant” (I’ll call him Akeem) who spoke no English and only the tiniest bit of French.  From there on, it was just me and the Hammam.

As instructed earlier by Redouane, I took off all of my clothes except for my jockey shorts, hung them on hooks on the side walls of an open room and then was led forward by Akeem.

The hammam was old and steamy. We passed through two tiled rooms with domed ceilings, filled with nearly-naked bodies of Muslim men, young and old. In the third and final room we found some floor space, and Akeem gestured with hand signals for me to sit on the floor.

I gazed around, feeling the warm and wet polished concrete floors, looking up to the grey-white plastered ceilings arched 20 ft above, stained with brown rivulets of who-knows-what.

Lining the walls were long blue and red painted pipes, insistently dripping with piping hot or cool water from which he filled a bucket from the cool pipe and placed it in front of me.

Hammam Fez

It kinda looks like this inside the Marrakech Hammam…

He looked at me, said “dix minutes” (10 minutes), turned and left the room.

I sat there, trying hard and failing miserably to look inconspicuous as the only obviously white westerner. I was growing warm quickly so I started to slosh bits of the cool water from the bucket over myself, much like some others were doing.  I took a few yoga-type breaths and relaxed, feeling the humid heat, letting it penetrate my pores for what seemed like a long, long time.

It was during this heating period that my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this story showed me his private parts.

I had been aware in my peripheral vision that he had been sitting about 6 feet away from me, washing and scrubbing a little and glancing over frequently. Finally, when I turned to look directly at him, he extended his personal invite.

OMG! I instantly shook my head in refusal.

It’s funny, but it took a few minutes for me to absorb the nature of the little interaction. Initially, I thought he was just a friendly, slightly horny young fellow who found me attractive in a sexual way.

But quickly I came around to the more probable truth that meant a single westerner in a hammam might just be seeking out male prostitutes to have some exotic and inexpensive fun. DUH!

My little naive mind grew up quickly.

He wasn’t persistent, but I was casting a closer eye on all of my fellow sweaty roommates now, even the ancient, elderly guy with the torn, old underwear and the sadly sagging scrotum that protruded through the rips.  And now I was getting a tad nervous about the next stage in the hammam experience.

Ten minutes and more had passed before Akeem returned in his tiny, tight little shorts to do the hard part of exfoliating my skin.  He led me into a slightly cooler second room and then gestured that I should lie flat on my back, and he prepared to start with my arms.  I closed my eyes, trying to pretend there was no one else in the room, and determined to enjoy being washed and scraped, only to have them fly open again in shock when the scrubbing began.

This little guy put on the Kessa abrasive glove and started in – it felt as though he was rubbing me down with coarse sandpaper!  After a long few minutes I got used to the pressure and pain, and actually started enjoying it. I was a little mortified at how much dead skin he was stripping from me as he scrubbed every single inch of my flesh outside of my protected shorts area till it was red raw. But he didn’t seem surprised or bothered, so I tried to stop worrying and just enjoy. Plus I figured with all of that skin gone, I had discovered a tried-and-true way to rapid weight loss!

Once my front was done from top to toe, he had me flip over and repeated the process for my back and sides, using black olive-based hammam soap.  He even scoured my face and almost ripped out my eyes, and I was certainly radiating pink all over by the end. At one point he leaned his knee into my lower back and lifted my arms into a painful stretch as a bit of a massage.

Finally, with wads of skin on the floor and lots still clinging to me, he took me to one last room where he scooped little ladles of cool water all over as a final wash.

I exited the hammam with a tingling all over, mostly from the scrubbing.

But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of nervous tingling too, came from the unexpected encounter with a young man who had hoped to make a few extra dirhams in the hammam that day.

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Our Moroccan/Canadian group playing in the snow…Redouane (guide), Fouad (driver), Larry, Sydney (Toronto), Maureen, John (Half Moon Bay, BC), and John (Toronto)

Sexy Man in the Kitchen

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SexyVegeMan

I love to cook, but it wasn’t always thus…

…turning the clock back…

There was a harmony of delicious scent when I excitedly pushed my way through my family’s back door on chilly winter Sunday afternoons.

I was still wearing the ice skates that shrouded my icicly-frozen toes. My friends Larry (yep, another Larry…to avoid confusion, he called me Lawrence, I called him Larry), Dave, Jerome, Hugh and I had just finished a game of hockey “shinny” across the road on the seasonal ice rink the city workers built for us each winter in the school park.

Mom was in the kitchen cooking, the dining room windows were hazy with steamy condensation from vegetable water boiling on the stove and all was well with the world … it just was.

From the living room, I could hear the sounds of the black and white console TV and my Dad’s raucous laughter at something a little tyke had said on “Tiny Talent Time”, a prehistoric version of the many “Idol” or “Talent” shows that litter our current TV screens. If I came in a few minutes later, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom would have a roaring lion or a soaring giraffe crossing the screen.

There were pan-roasted potatoes with a delicious salty-caramelized outer surface sizzling in the oven. A heady beef gravy smell wafted like a culinary aphrodisiac, saturating every room in the house. The dining table was set and soon an oblong ceramic dish would be laid down with large, dark slices of roast beef that occupied centre stage every Sunday evening in our house like a specially-invited dinner guest. I would feel a surge of pleasure when the plate was placed at the table.

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I’m pretty sure this is exactly what my family’s Sunday dinners looked like…

Idyllic memories aside, there were some downsides to this heaven-on-earth. Squishy piles of pumpkin-orange mashed turnips that I love so much now were a decided turnoff as were insipid soggy pale-green peas delicately served from a Green Giant tin can.

There are what we call comfort foods.

This is what I would call a comfort meal.

It was a warm, friendly, dreamlike scenario that played out once a week, every week. My parents and my brothers and sisters and maybe their partners gathered around a family table. We shared a roast beef and we shared the stories of the past week, both good and bad. This was the scene of many many middle-class WASP families in Canada of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

There were no cookbooks in sight or for that matter anywhere in the house. Food preparation was something handed down from mother to daughter with time worn recipes (sometimes hand-written on cards) that were part of the DNA of any woman worth attracting a man of substance.

But we boys and men didn’t cook. We might help out a bit on the side mashing fluffy potatoes or carrying plates to the table. And on hot summer weekend days, men held dominion over outdoor cooking on the BBQ where clouds of charcoal smoke, beer and red meat encapsulated the spirit of manliness.

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But real cooking belonged to the girls.

In yesterday’s world, men were the bread winners and women were the bread makers.

And yet, something that was taken for granted just 50 years ago, that is, that woman do the cooking, has been totally turned upside down.

Today, I love to cook. Lots of men do.

The reason? Men have finally learned one of the great secrets in life.

Good Male Cooking = Sex

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I first came to enjoy cooking as a way into a young lady’s pants.

Some guys build big vein-streaked muscles or hunch over greasy car motors to attract cute girls. For those of us non-hulky young fellows lacking any sort of mechanical aptitude, we had to resort to other means to draw sweet bees to our hives.

I developed two strengths that assisted in my often weak attempts to seduce and capture the hearts of young women. I learned to strum the guitar. And … I learned that cooking for the fairer sex could be a powerful aphrodisiac. Go figure.

Women chefs cook with their hearts and souls in pursuit of nourishment of the body and their families, while male chefs cook with their head and their private parts in pursuit of … well, you know. An exception to this is poutingly-hot TV cook Nigella Lawson who has cornered the sexy female side of food preparation. I would devour uncooked scorpions from her fingertips.

My go-to dish was French Onion Soup.

French Onion Soup with Stringy Melted Cheese 500

It was my fishing lure of choice in the sea of attraction. The broth was dark and rich and tantalizingly fragrant, with a hint of fresh thyme. It had the whiff of European sophistication that layered me with a hint of cosmopolitan elan. And there is something very pre-orgasmic about a dish that has a guy and a girl eyeing each other across a table with gooey strings of molten swiss cheese hanging teasingly from a spoon.

I used my cooking skills on one or two (OK, maybe 3!) occasions in my teen and early 20’s years to lure and seduce. Did it always work? I would say yes, although to be honest, I didn’t normally cook for someone until the outcome was almost 100% secured. Cooking just sealed the carnal deal!

Years have passed, and now that I’m older and happily coupled, cooking is a pleasurable part of my everyday existence, and not just BBQ’s! I love to combine spices and flavours to make something exciting to look at, savour, and taste.

My kids don’t see anything sexy or alluring about the dishes I set at the table, which is a good thing. While it’s all simple and straightforward, the colours and textures of foods are still a sensual experience of pleasure.

The sight and scent today of a plate of steaming roast beef at the table takes me inside myself to a warm time of family pleasure and the company of my long-gone parents. I longingly wish that I could make pan-roasted potatoes or apple pie that compared to my Mom’s.

Life has its cycles and rhythms. Yesterday my son in Nova Scotia phoned while walking on his way home from purchasing fresh beets to make Borscht … hmm … could this be his “seduction” dish?

If my kids only knew the thoughts that course through my head when we sit around the table together and I sip a spoonful of French Onion Soup … well, I can hear them now…EWWWWW!

When I grow up, I'm gonna cook sexy food just like Dad...

When I grow up, I’m gonna cook sexy food just like Dad…