Category Archives: Memoirs

When life offers you lemons…

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Don’t just limit the fun to lemonade!

Quite frankly, the day could not have announced itself with any more majesty than it had at that particular moment! Watching the sun rise, at first peeking timidly from behind Mount Vesuvius to suddenly quickly ascend to its full early morning glory was more than I had hoped for. Wow, what a scene and hurray for the early bird that I was!  Yes, this sunrise was maybe a tad more spectacular than most I’ve had the privilege to see in my life. The simple fact that I was on a beautifully appointed cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean may also have played a role in the euphoric mood of the moment… I just knew this was going to be another epic day! I stood on deck for a bit as the ship slowly made its way to port, welcoming the site of Naples with the giddiness of a school girl who’s about to wear her prom dress for the first time. I needed to share this moment with my King and flew down several flights of stairs to reach my cabin, barely touching the lush carpet under my feet. I just couldn’t wait to start exploring!image

From the moment we reached Salerno, our hearts were conquered and we fell head over heels in love with the land of lemon groves… Although we reached Salerno by tour bus, we were about to discover the Amalfi Coast by water. It was… Words escape me… Even two years later, as I write this post… I feel transported in that special moment in time. You know that feeling? When you are living an epic moment that is causing  your insides to flip and flop all over in sheer joy? When you need to pinch yourself to make sure you are actually wide awake and not dreaming? Yes, it was that surreal feeling that was taking over my entire being as we bobbled along the rugged coast line under the most spectacular azure blue sky. If I could have made time stand still forever, I think it would have been right there and then. We were feeling ageless and privileged: youth exploding from our pores, our skin glowing from sun and love and contentment.image

The town of Amalfi added to our awe and bliss of the moment. From the water, we had marvelled at the artfully layered terraces  of lemon trees, carved right into the rocky and steep mountain sides, the fruits so plentiful you could see them in the distance. As if an impressionist had purposely dabbed the greenery with a shower of yellow polka dots. Beyond the picturesque mosaic tiled roofs, beyond the old world charm, beyond the gazillion photo ops of weathered wooden shutters & narrow alleyways, it is the mighty lemon that stands tall and proud in this beautiful region. Amalfi oozes lemon everything: freshly picked lemons the size of oranges, lemon scented soaps, perfumes, desserts, gelato, pastries, Limoncello… Lemons are painted on canvas, on ceramic tiles, on paper… They adorned salt and pepper shakers and every possible kitsch plastic tourist souvenir from Amalfi “made in China”. Lemons, lemons, lemons everywhere. But if you must indulge in anything lemony, then nothing is more Amalfi “lemon authentic” than “delizie al limone” (lemon delight), a dome shaped dessert made of layers of genoise cake drenched in Limoncello and covered in sweet lemon cream. No one twisted our arms as we selected a prime seat at a little terrace in direct sight of the famous Amalfi church. We gleefully dug into a serving of this lovely cake, sharing an ice cold shot of Limoncello (obliged to partake, even at 10 am) and a semifreddo cafè crema, probably paying way more than we should have but not caring one iota! Our one-and-a-half-hour stop was merely a tease as we would have easily spent several days somewhere along this coast, basking in the warm sun and making our way through lemon scented menus…

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Although there are recipes online, I have not even attempted to recreate the scrumptious lemon delight cake of Amalfi. And I don’t really want to. Nope, these little creamy domes are not meant to be baked in my Canadian kitchen; they belong elsewhere. They are part of that travelling experience. I would rather visit again hoping to relive the joy of that moment, including a side of cold Limoncello and a view of mosaic tile roofs…

I am transported back to that magical place every time I grab a handful of beautiful lemons, especially when they come with a few leaves… I may not bake Amalfi Coast lemon delights but I hold my own with a few luscious lemon dessert recipes. Like these easy one pan lemon squares for instance: a shortbread crust topped with a rich and creamy lemon topping. They resemble nothing you would find in an Italian Pasticceria: they are truly a North American creation originating in the United States Midwest. According to my research, this popular dessert could very well be the brain child of the Betty Crocker™ Brand… But that is what the internet says sooooooo, may not be entirely true. Well regardless of where and when, these little squares are now hugely popular, many families handing their own recipe from generation to generation.  I find they are the perfect summer picnic/potluck/BBQ contribution because they can tolerate the lack of refrigeration for a while. They have the right balance of crunchy & creamy, tart & sweet. Refreshing too!  I have had this recipe for so long I now forget where it comes from. I wish I could give credit to the source of such wonderfulness so whoever you are, thank you!  And I love you and my family loves you and my friends love and I’m pretty sure the readers of this blog now love you too!!!

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LEMON SQUARES

What you need

For the Crust

  • ¾ cup butter at room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 cups flour

For the topping

  • 4 eggs
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 2 tbsp lemon zest
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp icing sugar

How to make it

  1. Heat oven at 325°F
  2. Grease 9X13 pan and line with parchment paper extending over long edges for handles. Then grease the sides only of the parchment paper well. It is not necessary to grease the bottom
  3. In large bowl, beat together butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Stir in flour in 2 additions. Press evenly into prepared pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden and let cool in pan
  4. Topping: in bowl, beat together eggs with sugar until pale and thickened. Beat in lemon juice and zest, flour and baking powder. Pour over baked base, spreading evenly. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and center is set
  5. Let cool in pan on rack. Then refrigerate until very cold before removing from pan
  6. Gently peel the parchment paper and generously dust with icing sugar
  7. Cut into 12 squares (or more if you prefer)image

 

 

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“Pouding Chômeur” and the Road That Leads Me Home…

“Home is where the heart is”

As cliché as it sounds, it is exactly that. Or how about this one: it is the people not the things that make a house a home? We may move our things from one address to another but we bring all our memories along and as corny as these clichés may sound, they sure ring a bell don’t they? The first most dramatic move in my life (I am sure this is shared also by many across the board) was flying away from the nest. I was so young but I felt totally ready to try things out on my own… There was a first attempt at riding solo followed by a brief return back to the nest and then, the big flight out for good. Seems I felt ready to be my own person, even if I was not quite sure who that person was or was going to be. I was eager to tackle the world and experience «it all». Nothing feels more empowering than being the boss of you right? I hardly ever looked back even though there were struggles and growing pains…I was quickly nostalgic for many of life’s familiarities but above all and for many, many years (and I still do from time to time), I missed coming home to my mom’s kitchen.

“The kitchen is the heart (or soul) of a home”… Another cliché but ohhh so true. For as far as I can remember, and I have a pretty darn good memory, there always seem to be something cooking at home. Opening the front door and smelling the aromas of dinner floating out of the kitchen was always the biggest welcome home hug ever. Although my mom could go to extravagant extremes when she was entertaining (and she still does), her day-to-day meals were simple yet full of flavour and über comforting. Once in a while, she would tackle something off the wall in the middle of the week, but for the most part, she prepared what she knew well. I started recognizing and anticipating smells. My favourites were pot roast, spaghetti sauce, pork chops, chocolate cake, roast chicken; mmmm such divine mouth-watering aromas! It is only when I started to live on my own that I quickly realized how much I would long for my mommy’s edible love and hugs… For some, it is arriving to an empty home and hearing the silence. For me, it was arriving in a neutral smelling apartment. Even when I started a family of my own and started to tie my «mom» apron on, even when appetizing smells drift out of my own kitchen, even when my kids (now adults) walk into the kitchen wondering in anticipation what is going to be served for dinner, even then and even still now do I miss being greeted by my mommy’s cooking. I still get the treat from time to time when I visit her but you know, it is not the same as coming home after a day of whatever and walking into a house that smells absolutely divine, yelling “I’m home! Sure smells good in here, what’s for dinner?”

The closest I ever get to that edible hug from my mom now that I am nearly all grown up is cooking up one of her classics. Pouding Chômeur is exactly that. To translate it literally, it means «pudding of the unemployed». It is a truly authentic French Canadian heritage recipe. It is a moist cake baked in a caramel maple sauce. Mmmmmmm, so, so good! I am not exactly sure of the origin of the first ever one made but it seems that it became wildly popular during the depression when basic foods were rationed, especially white refined sugar and butter.The sweetness came from maple syrup or brown sugar or a combination of both and lard was used instead of butter. Most Quebec families have their own heirloom Pouding Chômeur recipes. Even a few big restaurant chains offer this dessert on their menus! These days, it is maple syrup that is expensive, go figure!!! In my younger days, when it was sometimes hard to make ends meet, brown sugar was all I used when making this recipe. It is delicious either way so don’t fret if you do not have maple syrup. And although maple syrup is now a constant staple in my fridge, I like to use equal proportions of syrup and brown sugar. This is my mom’s recipe and it has all the warm and fuzzy you may be looking for and to boot, it is super easy to make using ingredients you probably have in your pantry right now! It’s a big mommy hug I am sharing with the world xo.

Mom’s Pouding Chômeur

What you need:

For the cake batter

1 large deep dish pan, such as a deep casserole dish. grease well with butter. I use Corningware™

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Preheat oven to 350ºF and set rack in the middle

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cups of butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups of white sugar (regular granulated sugar)
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2/3 cup milk

For the sauce:

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp. flour
  • 1 cup maple syrup (amber is best for baking, it has more depth of flavour)
  • 3½ cups of water
  • 4 tbsp. butter (salted)

How to make it:

  1. In a deep saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar and the flour until well blended. Add the maple syrup, mix well then add the water and the butter. Whisk everything together and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside
  2. In a bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside
  3. In another bowl, using a mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy
  4. Add the eggs in one at the time, beating on high until well incorporated, about 2-3 minutes. Add the vanilla
  5. Add 1/3 of the flour, blend until just mixed.
  6. Add half of the milk and blend well
  7. Repeat with another third of the flour, then the remaining milk and then the last addition of flour.
  8. Spread the batter into the prepared dish
  9. Gently pour the hot syrup over the batter. You can use a ladle, it will not disturb the cake batter as much but I go ahead and pour directly from the pot.
  10. Bake for 50 minutes. The liquid will settle at the bottom and the cake will rise to the top. You are looking for a nice golden crust and the syrup should be bubbling on the sides.
  11. Let cool for 1 hour. It is torture to wait that long I know…But show some restraint LOL!
  12. Serve while still warm, in deep bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

This dessert is ooey gooey yummy good when served warm but also still impressive cold. Many have been caught digging into the leftovers with a spoon straight from the fridge while standing at the counter. You know who you are 🙂

Oh mother, I am home!!!

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A summer in Provence – The Quest for the Perfect Ratatouille

“As high as the sun was hanging in the sky it was still managing to drench with blinding luminosity and intense heat the entire world around me. I was crouched in the middle of the sand road under a tiny bit of shade provided by a tree branch, captivated by a huge black shiny beetle I had just found. I’d never seen anything like this bug in my entire life. Actually, I didn’t even know it was a beetle… Armed with a sturdy twig, I was trying to observe everything about this bug, flipping it, nudging it but staying far enough away as to ensure it wouldn’t jump on me. Its legs were thin and fuzzy jotting out crookedly from very hard black shell. I thought this bug was definitely the ugliest and the biggest one I had ever encountered in my entire seven years of existence. After a while, I lost interest in the ugly black bug and felt a bit of a tug in my stomach. It must be near lunchtime I thought. I straightened up and pushed off strands of damp long hair away from my face. I could feel the heat of the day catching up with me: my eyes were starting to feel the heaviness of the sun, begging me to succumb to a blissful afternoon slumber… But before the siesta, which I would resist as much as I could for fear of missing out on any minute of this gorgeous day, a healthy plateful of food may be in order, right this minute! As I made my way back to our campsite, I stopped again, just for a moment, closing my eyes to enjoy without distraction the eerie song of… What was it called again? Oh, yes, the cicada… What an intriguing sound: a crescendo of a pure single note, starting out clear and crisp, getting louder and louder for what seemed like an eternity, as if hanging to its chant until the very last little bit of breath was available only to die off abruptly in a raspy choke. Incessant. Starting again, and again, and again… Beautiful… I had seen pictures somewhere of this musical creature but I had yet to see one up close and personal. I guess the cicada was far more timid than that ugly bug that I had seen lazily crossing the road! Maybe the ugly bug was trying to compensate for its lack of musical talent by showing off its glossy black iridescent blue turquoise shell? Because even though this bug was ugly, its shell’s colour was pretty to look at. Come to think of it, the cicada was pretty ugly to look at as well but such a wonderful singer. It must be the right thing to do then, to show off your best attribute…
As I pondered the question of beauty and ugliness in insects, secretly wishing I would never find one in my bed or in my hair, I strutted back all the way to our campsite. There was no denying lunch was about to be served: my nostrils were instantly impregnated with a wonderfully intense aroma of garlic, tomatoes and herbs… I recognized it immediately: ratatouille! Oooo, I was starting to feel that hunger in the pit of my stomach as my mouth filled with anticipating saliva. I sure was hoping that this time, it was my mother, and not our campsite neighbour, who had been cooking all morning and who would serve me up a big bowl of that ratatouille…”

(The ratatouille recipe follows this text…)

My family lived in Lahr Germany from August 1969 to August 1972. My father was not in the military but had been hired by the Canadian Army as a teacher at the high school on the Canadian Base. In order to make the most out of our three years living in Germany, my parents purchased a Volkswagen Camper (also known as Westfalia) which gave us the freedom to gallivant pretty much anywhere in Europe, on a whim and on a trim budget. Weekend trips were customary and longer treks the norm during the summer months and extended school vacations. My sister and I loved, loved, loved that camper! My bunk was perched up high, in the rooftop bellow shaped pop-up tent: it was magical, my very own little space where I would spy on the outside world through the screened windows. In the era of flower power, our baby blue camper was joyfully decorated with those hippie style 60’s colorful flower stickers; we were definitely the cool family!

The summer of 1971 was one of the best and most life changing summers of my entire childhood. It was the summer my father landed a teaching contract at the University of Aix-en-Provence. My mom, my younger sister and I followed in tow for 6 blissful weeks of southern France living and my life has never been the same since. Provence is by far the area of France I would move to permanently. It has captured my heart in many ways: the sun drenched white washed stone homes adorned with red tile roofs, the endless undulating lavender fields, the white jagged edges of rocky mountain dotted with patches of tortuous weathered evergreens, the deep milky blue rivers flowing at the bottom of deep crevasse canyons, the pull to-be-lazy chant of the cicada… And the azure blue of my Mediterranean sea: yes, yes, yes! My sea because no other sea has ever captured my heart quite the way this beautiful big blue has! Oh how I long for a glimpse of my Mediterranean. Oh how I wish I was there again, and again, and again…

I vividly remember that amazing summer of 1971 in Aix-en-Provence. We settled our bohemian home in one of Aix’s campgrounds, close enough to the university where my father held tenure. While my father commuted to the university everyday on a little moped, my mom, sister and I took to the lazy days of campground living. When my father was off work on weekends or for a few days, we would go on exploring missions. I never tired of road trips… Eyes glued to the window, discovering unfamiliar scenery as the camper burned rubber on highways and small country roads. The rolling vistas were as good if not better than watching any movie or television show: Marseille, Toulon, Camargue, Château d’If, Grasses, Moustiers Ste-Marie, les Gorges du Verdon… Oh the irresistible sites of Provence, how I long to be enveloped by your charms again…

The beauty of Southern France’s landscape was not the only love affair I had with this part of the country. The fragrant Provençal dishes awoke my taste buds in a way few other cuisines ever had. As a child, I was rarely put off by food. Lucky for my parents and lucky for me… I was bold! From trying sea urchins freshly plucked from the Mediterranean to squid, fried smelts and winkles, my gastronomic discoveries fluttered from one delectable offering to the next. I dove into bouillabaisse like it was nobody’s business and savoured the sweet earthy flavours of Calisson d’Aix: diamond-shaped confiseries of melon and almond paste artfully nestled in paper-thin wafers. Pan Bagnat purchased seaside were the perfectly cool, refreshing sandwich to enjoy as the sun hit its zenith before begging everyone to lie down for a nice little siesta. Yes, the flavours of Provence have haunted my life and my kitchen ever since that blissful summer of 1971… Pizza Margherita, stuffed courgette flowers, gelato, salade Niçoise, pistou, tomatoes with basil… And ratatouille niçoise! That one dish standing majestically above all, oozing essence of Mediterranean fare. Yes. Simple. Humble. Ratatouille! Oh how I adore that rich vegetable stew! Years later, during the short Canadian summers, when all the stars line up properly and the produce is as sun-drenched here as it is in the gardens of le Midi de la France, I transport myself back to my beloved Provence by cooking up a big batch of ratatouille.

At the Aix campground, our next door neighbour often cooked huge batches of ratatouille using a pressure cooker set on a little Coleman style stove. Her ratatouille days were the most powerfully scented days I had ever experienced! Lunch traditionally being served in France as the big meal of the day, preparation often starts early on in the morning. Even though we were on a campground, our neighbour was no exception to the rule and got on to preparing her lunch as soon as the last bit of baguette dunked in café au lait had been devoured. Nearly every morning, she tantalized us with her perfumed concoctions. But none were as insanely amazing as when she made her ratatouille! When the steam vent of that pressure cooker started to whistle, the fragrance of everything Provençal permeated the air: eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs… OMG that smell still rocks my world! Oh that smell… I will always remember the aromatic steam escaping in angry short burst from the pressure cooker… Sadly, we never had the pleasure of tasting her infamous eggplant and courgette stew (she was not the socializing type…), but we sure ate it as often as we could in restaurants and from small charcuteries. It would come then as no surprise that my mother, upon our return from Aix, invested in her very own pressure cooker, a cocotte Seb… Need I say more? I think I was not the only one who fell under the spell of the ratatouille! Over the years, she attempted to recreate ratatouille numerous times, it never quite tasted like the one we devoured in Provence. As I grew older and started to dabble in the culinary arts myself, I tried, just like my mother, to cook up the ultimate ratatouille. Alas, the flavours never really quite pulled through… Nevertheless, at least once a summer, year after year, sun-kissed eggplants and tomatoes would cast a spell on me and I would try once again to unlock the secrets of the ever elusive taste of my childhood…

I must admit though that I have been blessed by life and even if I live a huge ocean away from Provence, I have had the opportunity to return to the land of Marcel Pagnol on several occasions, rekindling a passion as poignant in adulthood as it had been in childhood. I was 23 years old when I returned to Provence. Would you be surprised to read that I feasted several times on anything and everything that featured ratatouille? The first mouthful (and second and third…) was as explosively and as blissfully delicious as I had remembered. Why then couldn’t I recreate this back home? What was I doing wrong? Upon my return, and armed with new resolve, I vowed I would master the ratatouille if it killed me! I tried every recipe I could put my fingers on and still yet, I faced disappointment. Then one day, I unlocked the secret code: someone finally told me my problem lay with how I was handling the eggplant! Dear lord could it have been that simple? Really? All I really, really needed was to show this oddly textured vegetable a little bit extra tender loving care, by letting thick slices sweat off the bitterness with salt??? Eureka! Not only did this new-found trick permit me to finally master the best ratatouille I had ever made in my entire life, it also elevated any other eggplant dish to the next level. My Ottawa ratatouille finally tasted like Aix-en-Provence! In all my attempts and recipe searches, why on earth could I not have found one recipe, one cookbook offering the proper technique of preparing eggplant? That fact is beyond me… And to this day, eggplant based recipes seldom point out that this vegetable needs to be sliced then gently sprinkled with coarse salt and left to rest over a colander for a few hours. Only then will the bitterness dissipate, cook properly and expose its sweet silky texture. It is not complicated… It is not even labour intensive: all it needs is to sit for a bit while the salt works its magic. Simple. Easy. Life changing. Well, in the world of eggplant that is!!! Removing bitterness and excess moisture is not the only role salt plays: it also changes the texture slightly, allowing eggplants to brown better while absorbing less oil and rendering a flesh that is as smooth as silk.

The produce is bountiful again here in my little corner of the world. For such a short period… I am enveloped with nostalgia, trying to bring the Mediterranean back to me by capturing the flavours of Provence in my Canadian kitchen. And so yes, you have guessed it, I have been making big batches of sun drenched ratatouille! Ok, ok: this obsession of mine may border on insanity… Like seriously, it is really just a simple, silly eggplant and zucchini stew after all! Who writes a few thousand words on such a lackluster subject except for maybe a slightly lunatic cook like me? Well maybe lunatic, maybe even insane! But most definitely a nostalgic cook!!!Because writing this text has allowed me to put into simple words a very spectacular summer from a long time ago. It is a story that pops up in my head when my hands reach out for shiny aubergines, firm zucchini, perfectly ripe tomatoes, peppers and garlic… I know then that I won’t be just making a rustic ratatouille. Nope! It is far more than that… It will be like being magically transported to Provence, if only for a meal, to feel once again its intense sun, strident chants of the cicada and some incredibly sweet moments of my childhood…So excuse me for I must leave: there is a bottle of rosé chilling and a certain purple vegetable that has sweated just enough. And if I am lucky enough, I might toss a few boules just before supper…


Ratatouille «almost» Niçoise

  
I say almost because I have swapped the green peppers for red (in my household, not everyone can tolerate green peppers) and I omit the onions. Most recipes call for onions but I prefer the overall taste and texture without them. You may add 1 large sliced onions and swap the red peppers for green if you really want to stay authentic!

Reserve a few hours of «standing» time to let the eggplants sweat it off. Just like marinating meat: 3-4 hours is plenty.

Cooking each vegetable separately first is the key to a perfectly balanced stew…

What you need
1 large regular eggplant*
Coarse salt
4 medium zucchinis
1 large red pepper
5 large and very ripe tomatoes
5-6 cloves of garlic
A few twigs of fresh thyme
Your favourite olive oil
Fresh basil, freshly chopped for garnish (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
* swap with 2 medium or several mini ones.

How to make it

1. Cut the eggplant in 1/2 inch thick slices. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt on both sides. Arrange standing up un a colander. Set the colander on a deep dish to collect the juices. let sit for at least 3 hours and up to 6 (thicker slices require a bit longer sweating time). Once this step is completed, rinse each slice under cold water to remove all the salt and pat dry. Discard the accumulated liquid.

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2. Chop the eggplant, zucchini and pepper in approx. 3/4 inch pieces. Keeping all the vegetables separate.
3. Peel the tomatoes* and chop coarsely. Set aside including all the juices and seeds.
4. Add a few generous tbsp. of olive oil to a large and deep heavy bottom pot such as a heavy cooking pot or an enamel coated cast iron Dutch Oven. Place on stove top and set to medium-high heat. Add half the eggplant and sauté quickly until the edges start to brown. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon, shaking as much excess oil as possible. Repeat, in batches, with the zucchini and pepper, adding oil and reducing the heat as necessary. Proceed with the onions If you are using.

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5. Once all the vegetables have been browned and set aside, add a bit of extra olive oil and the tomatoes to the same pot. Bring to a quick boil the reduce heat to simmer a few minutes. At this point, you can add a splash of white wine, maybe a half a cup, to loosen up the sauce. I purposely omitted the wine in the ingredient list. It is not necessary but I find it adds a little «je ne sais quoi» which I really enjoy. You can use water instead if the tomatoes thicken a bit too much.
6. Add the minced garlic and the leaves from the thyme sprigs. Let cook for 5 minutes until the garlic has completely softened.
7. Now add all the vegetables to the tomato sauce. Stir gently to coat well. Bring to a soft boil then turn down heat to a gentle simmer. Let the ratatouille cook slowly, stirring occasionally. I usually let it simmer for about one hour to let all the flavours  develop really well. It can simmer longer… If it thickens too much, you can add a bit of water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
8. If using, add the freshly cut basil just before serving

*Dunking the tomatoes in boiling water for about a minute then shocking in a cold water bath with help the skin peel of easily. Or, if you are anything like me and hate to dirty more pots than I need to, you can invest in a small serrated vegetable peeler especially make for delicate and thin skin produce such as tomatoes. This is what I use and I hardly ever use the boiling water method unless I have huge quantities of tomatoes to peel.

It tastes even better the next day! Hot or cold. It can be used as a side, with pasta, over meat, as a sandwich spread, stuffed in an omelet, on top of a Quiche…
It keeps well in the freezer too. Although for some odd reason, mine never makes it there!

Final note: having sold you on the virtues of sweating the eggplants, I must tell you that I apply this technique to the large common deep purple aubergines. For as long as I can remember, this was the only variety of eggplant we could find here in Ottawa. Now, the landscape of the produce world is changing rapidly and for the better in our markets. Many different types of eggplants have become increasingly accessible: small Italian, baby Italian, Japanese, speckled, light purple and even white eggplants… And like with any other vegetable, the taste and texture varies slightly from one to the other. Japanese eggplants and baby Italians have nearly zero bitterness, allowing cooks to chop and cook right away, happily leaving behind the sweating process. I still like to use the good old big bitter eggplant. I enjoy its transformation from bitter to sweet, at a fraction of the price! It is still the cheapest by far, often overlooked for the more «cook friendly» varieties… But let’s face it, don’t we all love the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan?

Breaking Barriers and Self Discovery… A Diet Story Part 3

There is something to be said about having a lot to do. Busy minds and bodies usually produce healthy people. Hubby and I still had so much work ahead of us, I had no time to dwell over my lack of comfort foods. As well, I was warmly surrounded by my community: my dearest friends, my immediate family, my extended circle of loved ones and acquaintances. So as the days turned into weeks, the pounds just kept coming off. Some days were challenging: we were so busy coordinating the renovations to our 100 year old downtown apartment and getting the cottage organized as our temporary full-time home until we could move into our new digs, I was left with very little time to plan and prepare meals. However, meals could not be neglected! The success of any diet program is committing to your body’s nourishment. I had to cook for myself every single day in order to keep on track. And I did!!! I was committed and focused. At the end of my first month, I had lost a little over 20lbs. I was in heaven! My clothes were starting to feel loose and my feet hardly ever swelled anymore. Of course, I still had to wear that extremely sexy Darth Vader look alike mask every night to control my sleep apnea, but I was feeling better. Just twenty pounds lost and I felt like a super-hot and sexy mama!!!

It is around that 20lbs mark that I met for the first time Dr. D, the medical director of the weight management program. Meeting Dr. D was a defining moment in my journey. Dr. D was so kind and so respectful yet displayed a great sense of humour. He put me at ease instantly! He explained his program in great details, the research he was conducting and what the clinic was hoping to achieve with all of us who came to him out of desperation. He even thanked me and all my partners in «crimes of obesity» for the survival of mankind! Truth be told, the reason there are so many of us battling the bulge these days is that the human machine is made for survival. The history of mankind is plagued with famines and droughts. My people, we the Fat Ones who can’t seem to control what we stick in our mouths, we seem to have a gene that permits us to store the goodies in our bodies very efficiently when food is plentiful. All that stored energy is saved to be released in times of need. And to boot, we, the Fat Ones, the saviors of the human race, we do not need much energy to survive on a daily basis: we are like super-efficient, ecofriendly engines! So now that you know, kindly and simply refer to us as «Green Hybrid Super Heroes» because we can definitely make our energy source go a very long way. Ha! That about sums it up LOL!!! In our defense, there has not been a famine or rationed foods in North America since World War II. And since then, we have been storing fat for fuel just in «case». Ok, the fact that our food supply is over the top bountiful and easily accessible is not helping here either. No wonder there is an epidemic of obesity and obesity related illnesses: we have not been given the opportunity to use our super powers! Ah ha! I knew I was not some twisted freak of nature. Roll out the red carpet people because we, the Fat Ones, are the stars here! We have saved humanity! Ok, good for us… Yippee and hurray! Gaining that knowledge was great but it didn’t take away the fact that my morbid obesity was not saving me right now. If anything, it was taking years off my life, a life that I love so much! Hope, however, was part of the program. And understanding for the first time in my life how my body was reacting to the food supply was extremely empowering.

I know I have made many jokes and allusions to my constant food obsession. It is how I tend to cope with things: putting humour in an otherwise very despairing situation. The reality was that what I fed myself on a daily basis was nowhere near what my food obsessed brain wanted me to feed it! There is a HUGE difference between thinking about poutine all day and actually eating one (or 2, or 3). Quite frankly, my morbid obesity was a mystery to me. I ate very well: I cooked nearly all our meals and I was conscious of what I was cooking. I ate tons of vegetables because I really love veggies and I had a very balanced food intake every day. I dreamed of food (and still do) all the time but honestly, I did not indulge that often. Thanks to Dr. D, who explained that my fat cells were just like athletes on steroids, I learned, much to my chagrin that my caloric intake would have to be lower than the average Joe if I ever wanted to lose weight and keep it off. He encouraged me to start the program. Well, I was a little pissed off that he would even suggest that since I had already lost so much weight (I was down about 28lbs by then): dear lord, could he not see this skinny woman sitting across from him in all her glorious sexiness??? I was insulted that he judged me still obese enough to partake in this weight-loss journey! Can you spell DENIAL? Ok fine, I get it… I was still well over 200lbs and no, it was not because of my heavy bones and water retention (DENIAL). I was still morbidly obese and still using a CPAP machine to sleep at night. OK! I hear youuuuuu! And sigh… I will join the program! I get the message. although slightly offended and also discouraged, I was also very relieved to be taken seriously. Truth be told, I was actually quite elated to embark, in a few short weeks, on this new program and say goodbye to a big chunk of me.

There was still about 2 months to go before I would start the program at the clinic. I didn’t know what to do about the «other» diet: should I stop or should I keep going? Dr. D had suggested I stop but I was scared that if I did that, I would not only gain some weight back but I would lose the momentum. So I decided to continue for a while. It was tough but I kept going… I was becoming a pro at making egg whites taste like something a chef would pull off on Chopped and win the competition LOL! And I greeted my 30 pound mark with a lot of yippees, and hurrays. Since I have divulged earlier that I started at 236lbs, you now know that I was celebrating 206lbs. Ohhhhhh so close to 199! And yet, ohhhhhh so far. After weeks of delivering results, the steady progression and weight loss came to a very sudden screeeeeech and halt! Baffling! The body works in mysterious ways… Seemed at that moment in time, it didn’t matter that I ate a ridiculously low number of calories. It didn’t matter either that science stipulates that every 3500 calories deficit results in a one pound loss. It seemed not to matter at all that I was hitting that deficit over and over again every 5-6 days. When Mr. Plateau comes to visit, unannounced, he is like an uninvited guest that just won’t leave! Three weeks he stuck around. Need I remind everyone the weekly cost of that private clinic program? I was D.Y.I.N.G!!! It was 1 lbs down, 2 lbs up. 3lbs down, 2lbs up. Over, and over, and over again. After 3 weeks, I just could not afford to host Mr. Plateau anymore. By then, I also knew I was starting in September with the other clinic (I had a definite date) sooooo I took a huge leap of faith in ME and decided to ride the wave solo until September. I was weighing in at 203.

One must understand the stigma around excess weight. For instance, if an overweight person eats a «diet» style meal in public, that person is perceived as either a closet eater (like really, who is she trying to kid: to be that heavy, she must eat in hiding) or either as a lost cause because obviously the diet is not working. If that same person eats a luscious meal, then «no wonder she is that heavy, look at what she is eating for goodness’ sake! ».  It is a never ending plethora of judgement, some silent and some quite vocal. Or comments that seem inappropriate, but for the most part, are not really meant to «hurt» as they are just stating the obvious… Yes, the obvious: because even a dieting overweight person had to contribute at one point or another to the condition he/she is now facing. For instance, upon entering a fashion boutique during a shopping expedition looking to buy my mother-in-law a new top (she wears size «normal»), the young sales clerk nicely pointed out to me that the store didn’t carry anything in my size. You may think these comments are harsh but I have held that same dialogue with myself and I have also passed judgement on others for various reasons INCLUDING other overweight people. Deciding then to stop one program while waiting top start another one was causing me a fair bit of anxiety. Would my peers question everything I would put in my mouth? Would I be subject to their reproaching glances? Would I be able to spare my feelings from my own harsh judgments of myself? Would I lose the momentum? Dear God, I was sure hoping not… Because once (and if ever) I reached my goal weight, I would eventually have to resume normal eating habits. I would have to stop the deficit and return back to regular life. This weight loss moment in my life was meant to be temporary, not forever. So if I ever had a chance to prove to myself that I was not wasting my time, efforts and money in losing weight and that I may be successful one day of keeping it off forever, this little interlude between two weight loss programs was maybe the ultimate test I needed!

And off on my own I went: it was July, right in the middle of barbecue season and hazy, lazy cottage days. The time of year when weekends sometimes sit still and are best enjoyed watching the day go by with a nice cold drink in hand… My first weekend «off» program was liberating and terrifying all at once! That first glass of wine was absolutely blissful! And so was the second and third. Actually, that entire bottle of wine was absolutely divine!!! Getting off the «diet» was like a mini vacation… I had a huge, HUGE steak on the BBQ that weekend too. Oh My!  Was it ever tasty! The private clinic weight loss program was so rigorous, I felt a sense of freedom being on my own for several weeks. And at that moment in time, I was extremely uncertain of myself. I had traveled that road many times before and the reward for reaching the destination had always been edible. In the past, after intense deprivation, I had often fallen into the arms of over indulgence. I had very little faith in my abilities to control those crazy and insistent little voices in my brain that kept luring me to a buffet of mouth-watering offerings. However, I knew in my heart that I could not go back to the old me or to my old ways, so I stayed away from bread, potatoes and sweets (not even a Margaritas). And for some strange reason, the downward spiral into gluttony did not happen. What a relief! Sure I had some wine (I think it is what I had missed the most) but kept this vino dependency to weekends only. Not much changed there: I have always been a weekend party animal in the past: my bed time is wayyyy too early during the week to ration my portions of nectar of the gods. My hubby and I are NOT re-corkers LOL! And although I was now eating a bit more than on the private clinic’s meal plan, I was following a regiment of mostly protein-vegetables-fruits (wine is a fruit, just sayin’). For the first time in my life, I did not feel «jipped» when it came to feeding myself. Since the heartburn was completely gone and I no longer needed to pop Zantac™ 2-3 times a day and since my feet no longer resembled little string tied Italian sausage links likes the ones seen hanging in a deli, I was quite aware of the direct impact this weight loss was having on my overall well-being. I was able to rationally opt for the «good for me foods» instead of simply diving into everything for the ephemeral pleasure my taste buds would experience. I had already dumped so much weight (and getting sexier by the minute, need I remind everyone of this fact LOL), I had to remain focused. With my new found inner strength to back me up, I decided to go to war against the old me. Since all previous battles had failed,  I had to find a new strategy: like Dr. Phil says all the time regarding a behaviour that does not produce expected result even when repeated over and over and over again: «Soooo, how is that working for you?». Damn Dr. Phil, always on my shoulder with his no non sense and somewhat condescending ways. You are absolutely right Dr. Phil, it had not worked for me. So back to the drawing board I went. And so I started an exercise that to this day has been at the root of my continued success, even if I was not conscious at the time of the powerful and positive impact this mental exercise would have. It started with long and daily inner chats with yours truly over the meaning of food. I had to make the distinction between nourishment and Play Dough!

To completely understand the attraction I had to food and how I would be able to master it in the future, I decided on the first step by making a list of all the food, meals, recipes, restaurants that I really liked. The List was to show no restriction on the type of food: it was not dependent on a food’s nutritional value and foods would be jotted down in no particular order. To make The List, a food item had to be loved: not a «meh» or «just ok»… When a craving smacked me right in the mouth without warning, I would add it to The List. I also decided I would list what I did not like at all such as broccoli (surprise, surprise for those who know me well LOL), baby beef liver and foods that left me indifferent such as green peppers, bananas and cereal. By indifferent I mean that I don’t necessarily mind eat them, I just never actually feel like eating them. Once established, I took The List one step further. For instance, if the item was cucumbers, how did I like them? I like them plain. Not even salt added (I know, I am in absolute shock too… Sour cream or mayo didn’t even come to mind for cucumbers). With this exercise, I discovered I love veggies but more often than none, I prefer them cooked. I also love salad and prefer it with a homemade vinaigrette of shallots, red wine vinegar and olive oil. I am a deep down carnivore that can be vegetarian on a whim but not forever! I have a deep love affair with anything Asian (ohhhh, that’s good and healthy most times) and I love Indian (ok, that is a little richer). As a matter of fact, I have always been attracted by the Cuisines of the world: Mexican, Latino, Italian, French, Spanish, Mediterranean… Ohhh la la what a selection! I have yet to find a culture that leave my taste buds flat. How sick is that? I know people that have yet even tried to venture past KD and canned cream of tomato soup: they are missing out on so much. Here I am drooling over sushi, croissants, paella, sauerkraut and sweetbreads! Yes, I am food obsessed and quite proud of it too! Although I draw the line at fried bugs, even the chocolate covered ones, snake blood, 100 year old eggs and bear. I’ve tasted bear before, once… I’ve tasted the 100 year old egg before as well. Once. Therefore, I feel no need to taste chocolate covered ants, deep fried scorpions on a stick or fermented snake blood and/or venom: my libido is just fine thank you very much and snake blood is absolutely not needed LOL!

That list my dear friends, was the real Ah Ha moment (to quote Oprah) in my entire bulge battling life! I was amazed at how many healthy, good for me things were on this list!!! OMG! Up until now, I thought what I really liked were mainly contraband foods. How enlightening! Yippee and hurray for me: I am not a Pacman Gobbler of everything taboo!!! As the list progressed, I started to divide the food items into 4 categories: 1. very healthy, 2. healthy, 3. could be tricked into being healthy and 4. not so healthy at all even though it is damn good. I was able to create a list of my healthy faves which could be incorporated in my daily life and those that should be consumed as treats only and of course, sparingly. AMAZING!!! In front of my eyes, I had such a powerful tool: a wide array of foods that could be eaten guilt free. I was soooo excited about this revelation: instead of having a list of «Do Not Eat, EVER! », I had a complete list of options that were bang on par with my new lifestyle. I took it one step further and made sure I was specific with the treat foods: they had to be the real deal in deliciousness to be actually pass through the gated community of my mouth! None of the crappy fast food joint poutines for me: no siree! If I was going to dive in a plate full of deep fried potatoes smothered in rich gravy and melted cheese, it had better be hand cut fries with homemade gravy and fresh squeaky cheese curds. The same principles applied for all other things decadently overflowing with deliciousness! And suddenly, eating became uncomplicated… I had broken my own self imposed barriers! Ohhhh, except for a tiny little detail: portion control… Yes, another issue to be discussed in therapy hahaha. Well, let’s tackle one twisted mental issue at a time here ok?

To be continued…

Closing One Door… A Diet Story Part 2

June 2013

So here I was, defeated and disgusted but not hopeless! Without hope, I would have never signed-up for this drastic, expensive and self-funded program. From the moment I made the call, things started to move rather quickly: within a few days, I had an appointment booked for my assessment. This meant that the diet would start the very next day following the assessment, yikes!!! Do I need to S.P.E.L.L. out what my eating patterns were like in the 72 hours preceding the big cut off from planet food? Damn girl, I can write the book on the last supper!!! Oh and the last lunch, the last snack, the last breakfast LOL!!! Move over apostles, wine and bread should have been considered side dishes, not the main attraction for a last supper, geezzzzz! You could swear that I would never eat again from that point on. I was going bananas. Like OMG, what should I eat: so many things I like that would soon be out of reach! I just couldn’t decide and although it has been quite a while now since those pre-diet days, I distinctly remember that one of those meals was sushi. I think it is an important fact to note: this particular «last» meal would dictate my future eating habits. I didn’t quite realize it at the time but over the course of the last 2 years since that dreaded day, spending many hours reflecting on all food related issues, this simple choice of sushi would prove itself pivotal. As hard as I have tried recently to remember the other treats I consumed prior to «The Diet», I simply cannot remember any of them. It was most likely burgers & fries and definitely chocolate, but it surely isn’t popping up in my mind as something that was so spectacular and so scrumptious that I would bring the memory of it with me to the grave!

The initial assessment happened on May 23 and the diet started the very next day, on May 24. A Friday for God’s sake! Who starts a diet on a Friday? Isn’t the weekend meant for awesome grub and countless glasses of wine? However, at that particular moment in my life, I was ready to jump in with both feet and a sane mind. There would be a ton more weekends in my life and hopefully a fair number of extra ones if I managed to reverse the damage obesity was causing to my body. Resigned and determined, I decided to embrace the changes that were going to start showing in a short while. I was encouraged by the claim of rapid weight loss guaranteed by this program. And my new mantra became the following: weight loss and food choice restrictions are only TEMPORARY! Get with it my dear Nat, do it now and reap the benefits later! The «temporary» affair would prove to be my life saviour through the next several months. So why was this diet I was on so effective (and controversial)? Well, besides being super expensive, it was really, really low cal. It was low everything LOL!!! Because of this, one must take some vitamin and potassium supplements as well as endure shots of vitamin B12 three times per week. And what does one eat you may ask on such a rigorous diet regiment? Well, not much to be quite frank! On this medically supervised plan, you can enjoy (I am being facetious here) 2 portions of protein (3.5oz raw weight), 2 cups of vegetables, 2 mini fruits and 2 portions of starch per day. PER DAY! And for the record, 2 Triscuits™ for instance, count as 1 starch option! A few mini (I mean MINI) flavour booster add-ons were allowed such as fat-free condiments and calorie free beverages, but that was about it. So why on earth would anyone subject themselves to that? Well, in my case, it was simple: I just could no longer stand being in my own skin. I wanted results and I wanted them fast. If I was going to restrict myself, then why would I want this to last any longer than it should? And I knew that once I would start to see concrete results, my willpower and motivation would follow rather quickly. So I nearly died from cravings the first few days on the program. And other than being pissed off at the world for eating around me all the time (you know, they constantly eat on TV dammit!), and having the breath of a dragon, I survived the «purge» my body was going through. And on my first weigh-in, after 3.5 days on the strict program, I had dropped 8 pounds. TADA! Don’t care if it is water, don’t care if it will not be that fast for the next round and don’t care if anyone raises an eyebrow at that crazy number. That is what I needed to see to keep the focus going. This weight loss journey was going to be temporary, the big job of weight management would come later which would prove to be the biggest challenge ever!

I won’t bore you with the details of the few following weeks: the diet itself was pretty straight forward and humdrum, to say the least. As I have mentioned, my family and I were moving out of our home. We were so busy trying to purge the house, packing boxes, hosting garage sales and cleaning up; I didn’t have much time to succumb to my own pity party. I was on one track mind only: from here to skinny Minnie whatever it took. Needless to say, the first few weeks just flew by, pretty much at the same rate the pounds did. And we were so physically active moving all the stuff out of our house that I was actually starting to feel a lot better already. Within a week or so of eating air, water and dust, I had ditched the Zantac. Yup, in just a short week: uh-huh, no heartburn going on anymore! That was the number one sign that I was doing the right thing. In the midst of all the chaos, when I least expected it, I received some pretty awesome news: my spot at the hospital’s weight management clinic (covered by my medical insurance) would be available soon, if I was still interested. Still interested???? Are you kidding me? Let me think about that one here for one moment: private clinic at $125/week or weight management clinic funded by OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan). Hmmmmm… private «for profit» weight loss center, or WMC: «for science» bariatric institute?  I think the decision was a no brainer… Both were drastic and both were highly controversial. But I will repeat: I strongly felt (and still do), that the damages I was doing to my body by staying obese far outweighed (excuse the pun) the benefits of shedding the excess weight. These 2 programs were medically supervised including regular visits with doctors and healthcare professionals. I was constantly being assessed for any side effects. My assessment with the lead doctor at WMC was set for June 7th. We were moving our possessions to storage and to our temporary home (the cottage) that very day. Did I miss the appointment? Hell no! We had hired professional movers: they could do the job under the watchful eye of my husband while I was taking care of myself. I was definitely going to that info session, come hell or high water!

June 7th 2013 is a date I will never forget: I was moving AND changing my life forever. As I entered the clinic to attend the information session on the various weight loss solutions offered by the clinic, I was feeling an equal amount of shame and relief. Here I was, sitting in room full of people just like me. If there were smiles on faces, they were sad smiles. The kind of smiles people pin on their faces when grieving a loss… I was not the heaviest nor was I the smallest. Isn’t it funny how we tend to always compare ourselves to a group: as if that would define the very person that we are. And funny that I still thought I probably did not belong there. I was sort of convinced the clinic would turn me down because I was not heavy enough. I was also worried that I may be rejected because I had already started a weight-loss program. As I sat there, assessing all the others, I noticed many with obvious ailments: oxygen tanks, canes, wheelchairs, leg bandages (often seen in diabetic patients), just to name a few. The age group was varied although it seems there were more women than men. The presentation was about 2 to 2.5 hours. They presented the philosophy of the clinic, the various programs available including gastric bypass surgery, the expectations and the cost of the meal replacement program. It would be the only portion of the program that would cost something: the cost of «nourishment». All other services would be covered by OHIP. The lead physician, Dr. D, had done such a great job developing this program and contributing to bariatric research that the province of Ontario had decided to fund the medical weight-loss program about 5 years prior. The most important message I retained from that session was that the obesity I was plagued with was not my fault… What a shocker! You mean to tell me I am not a hopeless, lazy, food orgy lover fat person? Wow! I left feeling empowered and for the first time, I thought maybe I was not such a looser after all. That maybe, just maybe, the science could help me figure this all out according to my body’s needs and genetic markup. It had a name: genetic metabolic disorder! And maybe, just maybe I would be able to manage this condition with scientific knowledge instead of going about it blindfold. But, I still had to wait for a spot… If I was lucky, I would make it into an early fall group. This information session was set merely to explain the various programs and take our registration if we were still interested in joining. It goes without saying that I signed up immediately. Until I was given a start date, I thought I would simply continue to follow the diet at the other private clinic I was attending since I had already purchased an 8 week program. It would mean I would be that much further ahead when I would finally get my spot at this clinic… Although a bit disappointed to not start sooner, I didn’t have time to dwell on it: I had a moving truck to go meet!

The weekend of June 7-11 was particularly trying: I was leaving my HOME forever… It was more profound than simply moving; I was letting go of so much more. I was closing the big, big life chapter of owning a house purchased mainly as a home in which we would raise our children and create a nurturing nest. My dreams as a young woman, longing to have a family of my own and building mental images of children growing up around us, had materialized and they were all what I had ever hoped for.  On moving day, it was hard to accept that this part of my life was now over. That it would never come back… I would never be the mother of young children ever again… Sigh… Ahead was a future that had once seemed so distant it had almost become an afterthought. Many young girls (myself included) dream of meeting Prince Charming, of getting married, of having children, of living in a house with a white picket fence and of living happily ever after. For some reason, the dreams of the future that lies shortly after «happily never after» never seem to spring up in a young person’s mind. The following chapters of life may get the occasional thought or reflection but it invariably starts with: «when we get old…» but never get much further than that. The «getting old» part never seems quite as romantic as the first dreams that’s for sure! And I think safe to say that most of us would rather not think of aging at all, even if it is a privilege to grow old… Well, at any rate, I had reached that time in life. And good for me, I still had the original Prince Charming by my side, still my prince and still charming!!! We had been blessed with two beautiful, intelligent, healthy and happy children. And through my many struggles with weight, even when my body took dangerously wide proportions, my Prince Charming had always stood by my side. Yes, I have been blessed by life so far. All I had to do now at this intersection in my life was to concentrate on the «and they lived happily ever after…»!

As I toured my house in the suburbs for one last time, I was an emotional mess… My eyes were like streams in the spring as I couldn’t hold the tears that were profusely pouring out. I would later blame the redness and puffiness to allergies because God forbid one should show weakness through emotions right? And to make matters worse during that last farewell to a house that had seen my children grow up, I couldn’t even count on my dear, dear, old friend and accomplice for solace. FOOD, my faithful ally, was not available to comfort me… In the past, I would have, without a doubt, pacified the pain and sadness I was experiencing with a comfy meal (or several). Well this time, I was not about to sabotage my weight loss efforts by downing a few sugar-fat-salt laden feasts (because one feast would not be enough). And boy oh boy did I want to drown my sorrows in a bountiful plate. Pretty much like an alcoholic seeking comfort with a bottle of scotch… I took the last walkabout in my empty house by myself, hiccupping and blubbering away like a fool, remembering so vividly the day we had bought the house and the first day we had gotten the keys: it had been a magical moment! This house was so big it made me swell up with pride: I felt so wealthy! Never in a million years had I ever thought that I would someday own such a magnificent house. It had a circular staircase in the foyer and to me, it was as grand as the one Scarlett O’Hara would run up and down in Gone with the Wind. My house was simply beautiful and I loved every minute I lived there. As I entered each room, I closed my eyes and let the memories invade my mind. I could see our Christmas tree standing tall and proud in the living room… I could hear the laughter, the giggles, the pitter-patter of little feet running around and even the brotherly fights between my little boys… I could see (and smell) those stinky hockey bags piling up in the basement and the memory of it made me wrinkle my nose out of habit… I could see my basement fitted for a daycare and scrapbook studio, cramped up by day with toys and the happy children I cared for everyday and filled by night with a lot of amazing women who came to scrapbook… And of course there was the kitchen: the soul of many homes and definitely the soul of mine! And a good kitchen it had been helping me concoct so many chef worthy meals. My house was a happy house: there were dinner parties and birthday parties and Margarita parties and celebrations of all kinds. Every single square inch had a story to tell and thank goodness for my scrapbooks, I was bringing all those stories with me, captured in photos and documented diligently.

I was relieved to have these last intimate and private moments alone with MY house. And after the door was locked for the last time, after gently sweeping my fingers over the mailbox I had tole-painted myself, after sitting in my car looking at the front of the house for a good 5 minutes, it was finally time to go and to let go… It is maybe at that moment that I let go of many things too? But I did not know that yet… At that particular moment in time, filled with the grief of a life past, all I really wanted was a BIG MAC meal, supersize it please, and an extra Quarter Pounder with cheese on the side. Comforting, familiar, filling… To fill that void… But I DID NOT go there! I gave myself the time to breathe and to calm down. As I drove away, I knew I was starting a new exciting chapter of my life: MY life, completely lived and invented by me. Since it had been pretty amazing so far, why should I expect anything less from this moment on?

Seems I was closing more than one door for the very last time…

To be continued…

A work in progress:

The first picture was taken in June 2013, dressed-up as Superman for work, part of a team building exercise. The second picture is one month later, July 2013.

????????July 2013

A Leap of Faith… A Diet Story Part 1

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I started to write the experience of my battle with obesity as part of a healing exercise encouraged by a behavioral therapist who has been part and has played a huge role in my weight loss journey. I have decided to share this intimate journal… Maybe  there are others out there that are going through similar struggles, that may have lost faith in their body or their own will power and who may relate to my personal trials and tribulations. This is a sensitive subject: the words written simply recant my inner thoughts, state of mind at different stages of the battle and evolution… It is not a diet program nor does it offer diet tips and techniques. I am not a professional: just a girl who needed to take control. I think there are enough programs out there to meet your dietary needs: you just have to choose the right one for you. Myself, I require a rigorous program because I need that accountability and I need to see regular and consistent progress.  Expensive programs make me think twice about «falling off the wagon» since I hate to throw my money out the window. And I know for a fact (tried and done) that I do not do well with programs that are extremely lax or offer too many choices. I am «get’er done kind of a gal»! And so for me, in this particular time in my life, a program that would let me reach a fairly normal weight in the shortest yet safest time frame was the right option. What I was really looking for was the education for the  “forever after” part, the weight management! How to keep a sustainable diet in my life became more important than the temporary weight-loss phase.

The thoughts expressed here are extremely personal and I feel slightly vulnerable sharing them with the outside world. However, if only one person out there gels with my words and finally finds the mojo they need to finally embark on a weight loss journey of their own, then exposing this vulnerability will have been all worth it… It is impossible to post the entire content of my diary at once. It is also in constant evolution. I will therefore publish my story in sections. Although it is a serious subject, I have tried to incorporate some humour and a fair bit of silliness. And of course, I secretly hope that many of you will enjoy it… Here goes nothing: a leap of faith!

Part 1

And this is how it all started. Project DIET: attempt number what again? I forget since it seems my life has been a constant argument between my brain, my taste buds and my fat cells (they are all wrong by the way). I proudly joined Weight Watchers for the very first time at the ripe old age of 13, after a year of going on and off the tuna-cottage cheese-grapefruit diet proposed by my mother. It was the start of a lifelong quest to find my slimmer me… So many, many years later, after countless programs, some successful and some not so much, I think I hit rock bottom in 2012. Since 2008, and after a few good years of maintaining a fairly healthy weight, the scale was on a steady climb again. Throw in pre-menopause, a business that did not allow for any free time, ill in-laws and challenging teens: I was creating a perfect storm! Yes, I was getting heavier and heavier by the minute and my overall wellbeing was poor. I was suffering from extreme fatigue, joint pains, severe oedema (legs and feet), poor intestinal health, everyday heartburn, recurring rashes, puffy face, low energy, low libido, neck and back pain, difficult monthly cycle and plain poor overall physical health. Since I ate fairly well: you know, I cooked most of all my meals, ate whole grains, dairy, lean meats, legumes and plenty of produce, I never thought my symptoms were directly related to my weight and my eating habits. After several years of investigation (including a self-funded complete blood analysis with local wellness center and compound pharmacy), trying biomedical hormones and a bunch of different things, the diagnosis became very clear in the fall of 2012, it sure looked like obesity although I was trying to deny this… My doc was trying to figure out if I was suffering from fibromyalgia: I had nearly all the symptoms except for one. She sent me to the sleep clinic to assess my REM sleep as it seems most sufferers of fibromyalgia experience lack of REM sleep. To my surprise, my REM sleep was fine but I was diagnosed with moderate sleep apnea. Actually, the diagnosis was «obesity induced sleep apnea». Hmmm, obesity induced! I knew I was overweight but to actually have a health condition directly related to my weight was a bit of a shock, to say the least. That would not be the last shock: the doctor at the sleep clinic not only told me that my sleep apnea was 100% related to my weight, he told me that it is quite the norm with those who are morbidly obese…. Brraaaaaaake!!!! What did he say? Morbidly obese you say? Really? How dare you, sleep specialist doctor? Ok, I was overweight but did he account for the water retention? And I have big bones right? Plus, I am sure I was just before my monthly cycle when you weighed me. That tends to add a good 60lbs just like that, no? Like come on, morbidly obese??? I never, ever in a million years, thought that my weight could «induce» anything other than a low self-esteem. At that moment, I was finding out that I was at risk for a stroke because I suffered from obesity related sleep apnea? How could that be? My blood pressure had always been normal, if not on the low end, my blood sugars were pristine, my cholesterol was just slightly above the norm, but not even a concern to my doc. So what was this all about? I was devastated, to say the least. A few weeks, later, I came home with my brand new CPAP machine and was utterly depressed realizing this would be my new nighttime accoutrement. It was soooooo sexy! NOT! I joked about it and kept imitating Darth Vader, trying to diffuse the utter disgust I was feeling for myself at that very moment. Well, at least joking about it would maybe alleviate the situation. I mean, how many are we out there that create our own health problems because of lifestyle and denial? And I think at that moment, I knew something had to give. I didn’t really know how and where and with whom, but I had to lose weight! I could not continue like this and expect a stellar quality of life while ageing gracefully. But how would I do this? Everyone who knows me also knows all the efforts I had been putting into trying to lose weight. I mean I had done it all: Weight Watchers (7 tries in 4 years including the online tools), private expensive medically supervised weight loss clinics, private consultations with a dietitian, juicing, gym memberships, Zumba, pedometers… The results would be good for about 10 lbs and then nothing. No changes, no improvement… At 225lbs, after 5 months following a well esteemed local medical program, following their eating plan to a T, adhering to an extremely regular exercise routine (including weekly visits with their in-house nutritionist) and only experiencing a 5lbs weight loss, the associate doctor told me that maybe I would just have to accept my weight and «live with it»! Basically, that my goals were unrealistic and that I was meant to be a heavy girl. BAM! How’s that for bubble bursting? You know, after that visit, I never went back! But I was right back at square one. So I joined a gym and Weight Watchers, again… And again, the results were nothing! Sigh…

In the spring of 2013, after diligently wearing the CPAP every night for nearly 5 months and thinking I would probably never be accepted as a patient at the Weight Management Clinic at the Civic Hospital:  my referral had gone in 6 months prior and I had not heard a thing yet. I was still in denial about that morbidity thingy, thinking I was probably not overweight enough to make the cut (even if my BMI was way off the charts). So instead of waiting around, I decided it was time to take drastic measures. I analyzed every program I had ever been on and zoomed in on the only one that had ever delivered results for me; not only in successful weight loss but in longer term maintenance (I kept the weight off for nearly 4 years). This particular program was extremely expensive and somewhat controversial, even if it was medically supervised. That was a difficult decision mainly because of the reaction that would ensue from my joining this private weight loss clinic, but also because of the cost of the program and knowing how restrictive it would be. But to be extremely honest, I really didn’t care what others would think at that point in my life. No, let me rephrase that: I did «care» but it did not bother me that others would have an opinion. For one thing, those who would voice their opinion on the subject (positive or negative) would be people that truly loved and cared about me. The job of any respectable friend and family member is to try and protect those that they care for the most. Therefore, I had to reframe my mind set on this, get rid of my defensive attitude and really count my blessing for being surrounded by so many people that genuinely cared about my overall well-being. And secondly, in the end, it didn’t really matter what the world thought because I was starting this quest for better health for me and me only… It was time to be selfish, assertive, confident and at peace with my decision. Like the “Nike” ad says so well, it was time to «Just Do It»…

To pretend that I was not scared right out of my mind would be a load of bull… I had done this program before and it is brutal!!! Well, brutal in the sense that I would have to let go of all the fave fare I loved so much. You know the stuff that got me here in the first place; the stuff that was keeping me here all along… Ok, it may seem like I woke up one day last spring and heard a mysterious voice call out to me: “Go and join Dr. B my friend, you have been called by the force and must follow the path…” Ha, ha, ha! Nothing like that: no epiphany, no mysterious angelic voice, no shining light descending above my forehead! In real, hard cold facts, the decision had been brewing in my mind for a very long time… The CPAP machine was the last straw but the need to lose weight had been weighing on me (Oh my, what a perfect pun LOL!!!) for YEARS, with every new program, with every new Monday morning, with every Lean Cuisine™ purchased, with every new season of The Biggest Loser™. This time though, I knew it would be different. Over the course of the past few years, I had also taken the time to educate myself about the big, big world of food because I was really baffled by my inability to lose weight. This education included: very stimulating discussions with friends on controversial GMO foods, scientific news articles and documentaries on such subjects as the prevalent place highly processed foods occupy on our daily table, the silenced (by our very government) truths on some of the synthetic foods that are sold as healthy alternative, the moral issues surrounding mass farming and other controversial topics related to feeding an ever growing world population. Just to clarify things here: I am not nor will I ever be an extremist on nutrition (or on anything else for that matter). I do not follow a specific regiment: I am not vegan, vegetarian, paleo or anything of the sort because I am lucky enough not to suffer from intolerances and/or food allergies. I do not have an autoimmune condition that would prompt me to eliminate certain food irritants from my diet. I was simply and plainly fat… Because of my own baffling failures with weight loss and management, I was also becoming alarmed with the obesity epidemic in our country. I mean, obviously, I was part of that epidemic, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that I had thrown my very own children on that same band wagon. I was seriously questioning my job as a parent on that subject matter as well as my REAL knowledge of nutrition. Wasn’t my science background in nursing qualifying me to make educated choices for me and my family when it came to nutrition and meals? I thought I had it in the bag! This weight issue was becoming more than just a plain aesthetic problem. As teens, my kids had already been flagged by the medical community as obese, with increased «bad» cholesterol and higher than normal blood pressure for their age. Add a history of Type II diabetes on their paternal side, it was reason enough to be alarmed. Ok, now I was actually scared, freaked out even! If I kept on this path, I was going to die from a condition directly derived from my obesity. And I was teaching my children the exact same thing! I know I am going to die one day but quite frankly, I am kind of hoping to die from old age, if you know what I mean… Ok, I digress here…

But you know what? All these were contributing factors in my decision to tackle my obesity. Ooooops, I forgot: not my obesity but rather, my morbid obesity! I was hoping these facts would trigger the difference between just losing (temporary) and actually changing (lasting wellness). Although I have not yet proven that I have changed, I can say that I have never, ever stayed this long on any life changing program and I have never, ever kept as much focus since 2013. That is the difference… And to me, I feel that it is what will make my efforts pay off. MORBIDLY obese: these 2 words (still to this day) just kept going around, and around in my head… And this is where I started, in the spring of 2013, when my dreadful scale topped 236lbs and my size 20 pants were starting to feel snug! Oh my, I just let the cat out of the bag… Now you know what my start weight was at and it is the first time that I actually expose that fact to the world. And thankfully, that was the highest it ever went. The bus STOPPED there! And when I weighed myself that dreadful day first thing in the morning after the daily emptying of everything, I was naked and I was not «in my cycle». Whoaaaaaa…. I am only 5’2”. How did that happen? What was wrong with me???? Maybe the size 2X I was wearing was not really because they are making everything so tight these days? You know, since most clothing is manufactured in Asia, it is bound to be made smaller right? Was I so negligent I could let my weight climb that high? Was I so lazy and incapable of restraint that I could be as wide as I was tall? This dialogue was frequent with my alter ego… Maybe it sounds harsh but I need to remember how I felt then so I stay on track now! I need to remember the shame and the pain: the fact that I never accepted invitations that included a dip in a hot tub for instance, or dreading riding public transportation at rush hour, or not really wanting to be in any picture…

So here it was, May 2013: D-day! Why not? I was in the middle of changing my life anyways by downsizing from a single family house and moving downtown in a small two bedroom apartment. I had just started a brand new job. So why not just change everything? I was hoping that while I would be so busy packing, purging the accumulated stuff in our old house, cleaning, renovating the new apartment and learning about everything food related, I would certainly have very little time left to cry a river over the cheesy pasta dish I just was not allowed to happily sink my teeth in! Even my loving husband questioned the timing of my decision and my answer to his well-intended concerns was: «Honey, it couldn’t be a worst time nor could it be a better time»! Because let’s face it, is there ever a good time to eliminate 90% of the comfort foods in our daily diet? What season is better to ditch the buffet in life? Every single season boasts its fair share of celebrations and seasonal treats. And quite frankly, wine and chocolate have absolutely no season!!! Maybe a preferred colour of wine for a certain season, but it is ALWAYS in season in my books! Ok, now was becoming nauseous just thinking of making that call. For 1 month, I visited the website regularly, all the while hoping to hear from the Weight Management Clinic. And because I was going to restrict myself for some time to come, I was shamelessly enjoying every forbidden food know to any dieter! And that was served daily with a healthy dose of Zantac (which I bought in bulk at Costco) to alleviate the intense heartburn I was suffering from. Hello???? Nathalie???? Are you sort of an idiot here???? Like, isn’t the heartburn alone telling you anything at all???? Well it was telling me plenty but I was not listening!  Blocked ears and lalalalalalalala all the way! And since you, my alter ego, were trying to be a show off, I would bake a chocolate cake for dessert for absolutely no occasion whatsoever! There! So when I weighed myself that dreadful day and the scale showed 236lbs, and when I huffed and puffed trying to get my pants & socks off and climbing the one set of stairs from my kitchen to my bedroom, that is the day I made the call…

Pictures are worth a thousand words…

Then

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Now…

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To be continued…

Here we go again…

Man, why does it have to be so hard to lose weight and why does partaking in sharing the daily bread need to be so unforgiving? I am feeling slightly defeated with my weight, again! After 9 months of stellar maintenance, December rolled in with all its glorious holiday events while outside, the polar bear weather settled in. A perfect cocktail of luscious foods and comforting cocooning habits! Until then, my typical week revolved around 6 days of dietary vigilance paired with one evening of gustatory indulgence. But by December, the one evening of «anything» goes turned suddenly into two… The 6km walk to and from work screeched to a complete halt thanks to the ice and bitter cold; I am such a wuss, even with all the proper winter wear accoutrement. But not only a wuss: my entire genetic make up steers me towards inertia. I am a  carb loving couch potato! I am perfectly happy sitting still while reading , crafting, sinking into a good movie or writing.  As much as I love vegetables, I would sooner eat a big bowl of pipping hot pasta than a salad and I would definitely choose the sandwich over a bag of carrot sticks. So it seems I have been happily reverting back to old habits that had gotten me into the morbidly obese category not so long ago. At work, more often than none, I let my guards down and started to partake in all food related festivities: bake sales, birthdays, promotions, retirements, holiday lunches etc. I chose to forget that it was much better for me to attend with a nice cup of tea while saying «no thank you» to scrumptious scones, decadent brownies and drop dead muffins. Even restaurant menu choices were marred by the complacency of a very short lived stable weight:  I knew I could «splurge» once a week without any fluctuation on the scale. But let’s face it, these “splurges” were not big ones either: picking a few fries from my hubbie’s plate with a glass of wine all the while choosing a diet friendly meal for myself. But, and as many others who,  like me, have been battling obesity all their lives, I lost momentum… Since the occasional splurge kept me at my current ideal goal weight, I started to get cocky thinking I could expand my carb horizons a little bit more!  I started to boldly overflow the splurges on other evenings. The «good» menu options were slowly side swiped for very rich favourites I fantasize on daily… Calorie dense items made their way back into my plate: even though I still am extremely picky about where and what I eat, hand cut French fries, even if they are made with local potatoes, have way too many calories per serving than my metabolism can handle… Especially when they land in my plate instead of simply grabbing a few from the man! Yes, organic pasta loaded with local cheese and pasture fed meat sauce is still super calorie dense. I totally get it! Or do I? If I did, I wouldn’t be so terribly disappointed with my performance over the past 3 months now would I? I wouldn’t feel like a failure when it comes to weight management. I wouldn’t feel like I am losing control, again! I am in a state of panic at the moment because I have no idea if I can regain the momentum I had. I worry that my mental exhaustion at having to calculate every single bite and analyse every frigging food choice I make will get the better of me. I am really annoyed that no matter how I slice it, it is so unfairly easy to simply eat too many calories in a day… Yes, I am feeling defeated…

One thing hasn’t changed though: the quality of the food I allow to enter my home and the type of restaurants we patronize. I just eat too much of the good stuff!!! So I guess I should celebrate that as a small victory: while it’s a small step,  I am trying to hold on to with all my might, hoping it will keep me from sliding back into obesity. I am so discouraged with my never ending struggles of a slimmer me that can actual remain a «slimmer me». On a molecular level, I think the cell gang is happy: I am providing max nutrition and also trying my darn best to support local growers, merchants and food crafters. I am still pro-active when it comes to selecting main staples at home making a solid effort to predominantly buy ethically and locally grown/raised foods. Although I have allowed big brand peanut butter and mayonnaise back in the house (the men were close to declaring war), I strive to follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to food source: eighty percent really, really good on all counts and twenty percent maybe not so great (like purchasing non-organic grapes from Chile in the middle of the winter).  Hubby maintains his peanut butter is part of his 20%: since he no longer frequents fast food chains, I guess I can let him have that.

But today, after bravely stepping on the stupid scale, I really do not care about that small victory of eating better foods… I feel beaten, conquered, desperate… Today, I am back to the drawing board: counting calories, trying to make wiser choices and learning to say no thank you to the constant offerings that happen almost daily. As the world is trying to convince me that counting calories is not important as long as you feed yourself well, I scream back HOGWASH! Calories do matter… No matter how holistic and wholesome my calories are, too many of them in my daily intake make my fat cells jump for joy prompting them to fill up for a rainy day! As I tackle today and the need to shed those few pounds before they multiply even more,  I know I will feel hungry and I know I will struggle to stay away from any bread product, choosing a delicious (yet not fulfilling) orange as my mid-morning snack. Thankfully, the Arctic air mass that had been on stage now since early January seems to have taken a bow (it’s about time, seeing March just rolled in), giving me the spunk I need to resume my 6 km/day walk to and from work. It should help… Three little meagre months of letting a bit loose have managed to pile on my body 12 pounds of unwanted love handles. Whoa, I am recoiling with horror by admitting publicly the actual number of pounds gained and the lightning speed at which I actually packed these on. My only wish for today is that by dinner, I will not have lost the resolve I started my Monday morning.  Can I count on a simple equation of 12 lbs on in three months for 12 lbs off in an equal amount of time? I have this cute little sleeveless sun dress I am dying to wear again soon…And in three little months, it will be sun dress season! But until then, please allow me to cry a river over this set back! Here we go again…

P.S. I am currently putting together a short story / memoir of weight loss and obesity. It just needs a little bit of fine tuning. For those who have ever struggled with weight problems and who constantly hold an internal dialogue about food and weight…

Chicken Soup Does Not Cure Everything…

I am in mourning… My blog has been put to simmer on the back burner these past several weeks (excuse the pun)… Actually, cooking at home has become more mechanical than joyful since early January; I was not feeling one iota of interest in playing in my kitchen. I have resorted to cooking the necessary daily meals using good old faithful recipes that require little preparation and zero flashes of genius. Even more so: I have cooked big batch meals ensuring I had enough leftovers from one meal to keep me away from the stove for a few days in a row… Even as I am trying to write this, I find myself struggling for words… So I will say it as it is: on January 24th, a friend’s child passed away. She was only 15 and she was rudely taken away by osteosarcoma. She was such a beautiful girl: so smart, so loving, so full of joy, so full of promise. An only child… It took 9 months for the evil disease to invade her body. And even though we rallied around her, that big community lovefest was not strong enough to beat the beast. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But is also takes a village to support a family that is going through such an ordeal. Everyone rallied together: messages of hope & love were sent, meals were made & delivered, crafts were created, fundraisers were organized, love was freely distributed… I myself, made a lot of chicken soup. I am not sure what it is about really good home-made chicken soup but to me, it is like getting a huge comforting hug from my own mother. It soothes many ailments from colds to tummy aches and it also soothes the soul and the heart. Sadly enough, in this case, chicken soup did not win the latest round. No matter how much love was served with every ladle, no matter how much care was taken selecting ethical and organic ingredients, when cancer decides it is boss well, it simply is…Maybe it is why so much joy has left my kitchen lately. That is until this past weekend, where I felt a faint urge to dabble in my favorite quartz and stainless steel laboratory again. I suspect my need to write about my culinary experiences on a more regular basis will resurface soon. But for now, I think I need to mend my broken heart. Making chicken noodle soup for Flavie on demand was not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things but hopefully brought a bit of comfort to her and her parents’ tummies and souls…

So needless to say, I make a wickedly good chicken soup and I have perfected broth making over the years. If you are in need of really yummy comfy chicken noodle soup in your life, this recipe may just be the ticket home. I never thought I would feel the need or see the benefits of writing an entire post on making chicken broth/soup. However, in discussions about food with friends, many have shared that they do not get the expected results when making chicken broth. I am often asked what is the secret to my soups. I say it all begins with a good broth! I have scoured numerous recipe books looking for decent step-by-step instructions on making chicken broth, but few actually offer enough details. I also often read about using left over carcasses of roasted chicken (and turkey) to make a broth. From personal experience, I find these broths always come out flat. My unscientific deductions on the subject of using cooked carcasses for broth:  the bones have already released most of their flavour during the roasting of the fowl. The following recipe may not be of interest to those of you who are masters in the kitchen but it may help the rest of the gang who would love nothing more than to serve an awesome chicken soup!

To make a really flavourful chicken broth, you need fresh uncooked chicken, of course, and a bit of patience too. I normally buy whole organic chickens from my butcher. I find  the cost of a whole chicken, even organic and ethically raised, is by far more economic than buying traditional grocery chicken pieces. I recommend buying 2 chickens at a time. I spatchcock one chicken, which is the activity of cutting a chicken’s back side so it will lay flat when roasting. Spatchcocking a chicken reduces the roasting time in the oven and increases the surface of skin that will get crispy and golden: BONUS (see picture at the end of this post)! Spatchcocking chicken allows to remove excess pieces such as neck, ribs and skin to be used for making broth.  Some butchers also sell chicken bones and scraps for cheap, a great option for making broth without spending time in the kitchen cutting up loads of chicken! Another tip: keep a freezer container with trimmings from butchering fresh chicken, especially if you do not have enough trimmings to make a broth. The second chicken, I usually cut the wings and legs away and save for another meal. I keep the entire double breast portion as is. Now, from my 2 chickens, I have 1 Spatchcock chicken for roasting, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, 1 double breast on the back bone and a fair bit of trimmings. Freeze or save your good chicken pieces for another meal. Now on with the broth and the soup. If you have made it so far, you have completed the yuckiest part of the job!

Really Good and Hearty Chicken Broth

1  double breast of chicken, uncooked, skin and bones on

About 6-8 cups of uncooked chicken trimmings (give or take)

The foot and leaves of a celery, plus a couple stalks

4 carrots, trimmed and peeled but left whole

1 large yellow onion, peeled

3-4 large bay leaves, fresh or dry)

a good handful of fresh thyme (I do not recommend using dry thyme)

1 tbsp of fresh summer savoury

1 generous tbsp coarse salt

pepper to taste

1 large stock pot

1 fine mesh sieve

Instructions

Clean all the vegetables; the celery foot is often discarded but it is full of flavour yet perfect for stocks. Just make sure to clean the creases very well. Peel the carrots and leave whole: they will be used later for the chicken noodle soup.

Place all the ingredients in a large stock pot. Add just enough water to cover everything by no more than one inch. Bring to a rapid boil but then, reduce to keep just a gentle bubbling going on. It is important to not vigorously boil the chicken as it will toughen instead of staying moist. Simmer for about one hour, partially covered. Remove breast from broth as well as the whole carrots. Leave the rest of the chicken pieces in the pot and leave to simmer. Set the carrots aside. Let the chicken breasts rest until cool enough to handle.  Once you can handle without burning your fingers, remove the cooked breast meat from the skin and bones. refrigerate the breast meat for later and return the skin, bones and any accumulated broth to the stock pot. Continue the simmering process until the liquid levels have dropped by about one third. This is where patience comes into play: it will take 2-3 hours to bring your broth to its glory! Let cool completely then pass the broth using the sieve to remove all the solids. Adjust seasoning to your taste. If you have reduced the broth too much and find the flavours overly concentrated, just add a bit of water until you are satisfied with the final product. Degrease the broth either using a ladle to scoop off the excess fat that accumulates to the surface or refrigerate until the fat congeals; it is much easier to remove when cold! Your broth is now done! You can freeze in batches, use for any broth base soups, save some for gravies and sauces, make chicken à la King… Home-made chicken broth is divine!!! Once your broth is made, making chicken noodle soup is breezy easy!

Assembling Chicken Noodle Soup

Chicken broth (of course!), about 3 litres

3-4 finely diced celery stalks

Reserved chicken breast and cooked carrots, diced

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

3/4 cup of your favourite soup noodles* or more if you like your soup very “noodly”

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley (optional)

A dash of ground sage, rosemary and savoury (optional)

* I like acini di pepe, which is a tiny round noodle that resembles couscous. I like that it doesn’t turn to mush, even after freezing the soup. And I also like that it is easy to slurp up without splattering soup all over my face! Acini di pepe is found easily in most grocery stores and at Italian speciality food stores.

Bring broth back to a soft boil. Add the celery and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients except for parsley, bring back to a soft boil and cook until the noodles are tender. Add the parsley, adjust seasoning to your liking and serve.

 

 

 

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Part 3: The Ugly

I am Charlie ❤️🇫🇷

What can be so “Ugly” in the land of Paul Bocuse, Escoffier and Le Cordon Bleu? How about McDonald, Subway, Burger King, Dominoes, Pizza Hut and KFC!!! This for me sums up The Ugly: the complete invasion of the great American grub!!!

I could understand to a certain degree if these restaurants were offering a really inexpensive alternative to eating out for busy families. Let’s face it, restaurant food is expensive anywhere you go and the cost is relative to any country’s economy. I believe the success of the fast food outlets in Canada and the USA is a combination of fabulous marketing, accessibility and price. They offer the busy households the ability to feed family members at a somewhat reasonable price: my husband and I have noticed that fast food meals often cost about the same as buying the ingredients and making the meal yourself. Not always, but often! No mess, always ready when you are hungry and affordable.

That formula is the North American formula. But here in France (and in Spain), the cost of eating at any of these restaurants is far from cheap. We stopped at a McDonald on the road once near Avignon, hoping to buy cheaper sodas than what we had found so far and restrooms. My husband was also hoping to get a Canadian size coffee… For the hell of it, we ordered one BigMac combo with fries to share. We just wanted to see if the BigMac tasted the same because we had heard it was quite different. My sons both said they found some nuances in the taste of the bun and the meat. My husband and I thought it tasted exactly like a BigMac. Experience completed! But what was a shocker was the price: one combo meal plus 2 extra sodas and a coffee cost just short of 15€. In current exchange rate, that is about $22CD!!! In comparison, you can find sandwich shops and counters every few meters in most town centers. The average sandwich, served on crisp and insanely tasty baguettes (that’s a huge sandwich) cost anywhere between 3.5€ and 5€. Add a soda each at 2-3€ and you have the cost of a BigMac meal but as a bonus, you get the YUM factor!!!

The Europeans, more often than none, have strongly disregarded North American food, labeling it as being anything but real food. It has always been considered low grade and rightfully so (we even think so ourselves). The elevation of gastronomy in Canada (and the US) is a fairly recent phenomenon: thank goodness for that! And I can honestly say that now, some restaurants in my hometown would easily give French eateries a bit of a run for their money. So if they have laughed at our way of eating for so long, why on earth are they helping these icons of the fast food industry set roots on their territory?

Soooooo, if this type if food is sub-grade especially here in Europe and the cost of it equivalent, if not more, to their own classic take-out street food merchants, why are these restaurants experiencing such success here? That question baffles me other than maybe the youth is longing to experience the US way of life… And successful they seem to be as they are popping up EVERYWHERE! We could have eaten that type of food during our entire trip: they can be found at rest areas, shopping malls and even incorporated within the old town centers. There is a Golden Arch symbol wherever you go… And, it is all in English to boot!!! In the heart of old Montpellier is the famous square called Place de la comédie: it is a huge piazza boasting the beautiful fountain called “Les trois Graces” and surrounded by stunning Renaissance buildings. Countless cafés and bars spilling into postcard perfect terraces where one can enjoy a beverage while people watching. The quintessential European experience, even in January! And smack in the middle of old world charm, surrounded by names such as “Le Café Riche” and “Chez Joseph” is good old McDonald’s!!! And without trying to insult anyone, I find that at the top of The Ugly!

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Part 2: The Bad

The Good was easy to write about and I suspect The Ugly will as well… But The Bad, for me and for the purpose of this recapitulation, is the in-between: I should call it The Mediocre or The Letdown!

I think at the top of this food chain of the bad is the tourist trap. I have travelled a fair bit in my life but not all over the world: mainly Europe, Canada, the Caribbean and the eastern half of the United States. There are restaurants surrounding major attractions in every city that will always be overly expensive for what they offer, and some are downright nasty. In my hometown of Ottawa for instance, the spectacular restaurants are not necessarily plentiful (although the numbers are increasing drastically) but I can say that even in the core of the tourist zones, most eateries are decent and priced fairly. I say most: Ottawa is not void of nasty, over priced restaurants, but I doubt a tourist would feel jipped simply because he is transient. If you read this and have never been to Ottawa but plan on visiting one day, simply remember that the average restaurant (excluding large chains and fast food giants) will offer you a decent meal, even in the center of the Byward Market. As a matter of fact, the Byward Market boasts some of the best restaurants in the city. Just bare in mind that any place with the word “Pub” in it will be mediocre and not the best choice for culinary discoveries. Now that I have pitched my hometown as a decent tourist destination, what about “The Bad” here in Southern France and Barcelona?

1. The Tourist Trap: with the unbelievable number of restaurants surrounding any visitor hot spot of any European town/city, the Tourist Trap is more prevalent here than anywhere in North America. And the sad part is that you will not know until you sit down and eat the food! Barcelona was a prime example of this hit and miss game. For starters, the entire center of Barcelona, which stretches over many kilometers, is “Full Tourist” zone! So it is hard to escape at all. To find an eatery frequented mostly by locals is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The hotel staff had recommended the beach area near Port Vell as a great place to eat. But of course, we fell on “The Bad One”! Without access to WIFI, we went in blind and walked away disappointed. A huge bill for a meal that was subpar… I can’t remember the name but it was right next to the Surf House Restaurant which we should have chosen instead considering the online reviews. Well, lunch was 133.50€ and it sucked. Frozen shrimps served still frigging frozen, tasteless mussels (appy), paella for two with 1 shrimp, 1 mussel, 2 clams and half a mini lobster each (18.70 € per person), tough & fatty steaks served with frozen potato patties (such as those found at McDonalds for breakfast). Yes, we had been “tourist trapped”! But dinner was the complete opposite!!! By then, we were in the heart of La Rambla. Amazing tapas and service at a little spot called Taller de Tapas. For four, including wine, beer and bottled water, our bill was 101.50€. Tip: ask the hotel for specific names of restaurant (which we did for dinner) instead of a general area (lunch). The number one “Bad”, for me, is definitely the tourist trap because a huge part of my traveling experiences revolve around food!
2. The coffee: tastewise, it is fantastic! Everywhere we have been so far, it has been really, really good. But the PRICE of it is insane! Even at the stand-up bars and counters!!! Obviously we, North Americans, are spoiled with the cost of a cup of coffee when out and about. Fine, we are often served horrid coffee by the bucket full but we also have plenty yummy coffee houses that offer a really decent product, at a decent price! I will never complain again at the price of a latté in my city! Promise 🙂 !!!
3. Same old, same old: it seems difficult to find restaurants that offer something unique… Pizza, sandwiches, Steak-Frites, Moules-Frites, burgers (yes burgers), croque-monsieur and crêpes/waffles is all there is it seems! Don’t take me wrong, I LOVE European pizzas and sandwiches but would have liked a bit more variety… We have not been disappointed with any sandwich we have eaten, I just wish we could have seen more original stuff however, the sandwiches are by far the most affordable easy to grab foods available. And if you are lucky, you will find a counter that offers unusual combinations of ingredients slapped between amazing breads!
4. Vegetables anyone??? Where on earth is the produce? Obviously not in restaurants… Although we have had some decent salads here and there, for the most part, vegetables for the sake of eating vegetables as a course are M.I.A.! Many, many places offer shredded iceberg (I know, how weird is that) with a few sprinklings of carrots and tomatoes. I was hoping to dig into ratatouille, peppers of all kinds, fresh tomatoes & cucumbers, huge buttery lettuces. My vegetable consumption has beeb reduced to a handful of iceberg and a few chunks of tomatoes…
5. The invasion of the processed foods: large North American style grocery stores abound now in France. Frozen pizzas, pastas, waffles and easy meals seem to be taking over the working families’ dinner table… The dinner convenience that is putting North Americans at the top if the obesity epidemic seems to have crossed the pond. The consumption if sugar also seems to be on the rise: thank goodness high fructose corn syrup is not accepted as a food additive! It is hard to predict the long term effect this will have on the younger generations here in France. Currently, the French population is still quite svelte! But the highly processed foods are a fairly new phenomena; twenty years ago, the typical household would cook from scratch nearly everyday. And I remember a not so distant past where the French would snub anything that came out of a box!!!

While it upsets me to get caught in a tourist trap, it is par for the course while traveling abroad 🙂 . But I am saddened by the increasing availability of mediocre foods in supermarket. France has always been the mecca of culinary integrity. Is France, the cradle of gastronomy, becoming an endangered species? Will the new generations have lost the art of cooking? I sure hope not because when you dig into good here, you dig into the very best!!!