Family Day Chicken Dinner

Yesterday was Family Day, which is neither a religious nor a festival holiday. Rather, it is mostly an excuse to have a day off in February (a month with no other statutory holidays in Ontario) when you are nominally supposed to spend doing fun things with your family. This year I didn’t even get to spend it with my entire household, since my husband was off to Sweden on business, the lucky duck. I’ve never had a job where they flew me halfway around the world to attend meetings, I’ll tell you that right now. So while he was visiting the Arctic Circle…

And driving on ice roads…

And eating smoked moose and visiting fortresses, I am here at home with the kids. I might just be a little bit jealous.

(From his photos, Sweden during the winter looks a heck of a lot like it does here in Canada, so I’m not as jealous as I might be if he were in the Bahamas or something. And to be fair, the only time he had to go explore was the weekend, since he is working. I’m trying to talk my way out of jealousy here, and it’s not working very well.)

I’d hoped to take the kids to Winterlude and possibly skating on the canal, but it’s been unseasonably warm since Sunday and it started pissing down rain about halfway through Monday. So instead we went to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum for the afternoon. The highlight was all of the baby animals — most of whom, like the calf above, didn’t want to stay still long enough for a good picture. But the kids were thrilled to be able to pet the sheep and the goats and the calves, so it was a win. The calves were big favourites, since they were very sociable and leaned right into a good scratch. A few of them made my kids laugh by licking their hands and arms; I’m not sure whether they were looking for food, or tasting salt, or just investigating, but by the time we were out of the cow barn all of our winter coats needed a wash. After raising children and small animals, cow slobber doesn’t bother me that much, but that doesn’t mean I want to be wearing it any longer than I have to!

Given that we were out and about well after I’d usually be starting dinner, I needed something easy to feed the family when we got home. In the oven, I reheated the Costco rotisserie chicken that I’d bought the day before. I pricked a few potatoes with a fork and microwaved them until they were soft for easy “baked” potatoes. And then I steamed some spinach. Not the fanciest meal in my repertoire, but we had all worked up an appetite from our adventures, so it went down well.

Fast Food Ramen

I fell in love with ramen (restaurant-style, not the cheap instant packages) when I first went to Japan in 1998, and I fell back in love when I returned in 2005. There is such a variety of ways that it can be prepared, and such a plethora of potential toppings, that I could eat it every day and not get bored. When Ginza Restaurant opened in Ottawa’s Chinatown and focused on selling the best ramen I’ve had outside of Japan, I could not have been more ecstatic. (Seriously, try their hakata tonkotsu ramen, it is to die for.) For the longest time it was the only place in town where I could get this wonderful noodle dish. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the popularity of ramen is slowly growing, and it’s starting to be available all over town, much as Vietnamese pho came to be about ten years ago. If this means that we’ll end up with over fifty restaurants that serve ramen in Ottawa, I couldn’t be more pleased!

Here are a few of the ones that I have tried so far, all of which fall under fast food/takeout:

Umi Teriyaki & Sushi
Rideau Centre Food Court, 50 Rideau Street

This was the first non-Ginza ramen that I tried in town, and I was quite ready to be disappointed. The austere food court in the Rideau Centre mall isn’t exactly the place you go for haute cuisine — it’s where you go to grab a quick, mediocre bite. I mean, this is definitely fast food, but it’s cheap ($8.49 for the chicken teriyaki ramen that I had), flavourful, and satisfying. The noodles could use to be a bit chewier (a hallmark of good ramen is the chewy alkaline noodles, which don’t dissolve in the broth), but overall this was worth the money. Ask for it spicy (medium or hot) to clear your sinuses on a cold winter’s day.

Saigon Pho
232 Bank Street and 3722 Innes Road, Unit 2

At $13.49 for takeout and $12.49 for dine-in, this was the most expensive ramen so far. Heck, the most expensive ramen at Ginza is only $11.95! So for that price, I expected more. The broth is nice and the noodles are chewy, but they are really skimpy on the toppings. I did like that there were a variety of ways that you could customize your order. I had the tonkotsu black: tonkotsu broth with black garlic oil, pork belly, soft boiled egg, black fungus, and green onion. I just don’t think that you’re getting value for money on this one, though.

Nom Nom Kitchen
2160 Montreal Road, Unit 4

Nom Nom Kitchen is a little Asian fusion takeout place with a few dine-in tables located in a strip mall directly across from a McDonald’s. It’s not very glamorous, but the food is good, and it’s also very reasonably priced. Their lunch specials are usually around $7.00 and are generously portioned. Ramen isn’t one of their specials, sadly, and it isn’t on their online menu. It’s about $10.49 for a bowl of Japanese-style tonkotsu with pork, veggies, and soft-boiled eggs. They also offer a dish that is, I believe, a fusion of Japanese and Korean styles, and is a bit more spicy. Since this restaurant is aimed at a take-out clientele, the presentation is only mediocre, but the flavour is lovely, the broth is tasty, and the noodles are nice and chewy. I only wish that the eggs were more soft-boiled than hard. Even so, I have been back many times now and everyone I’ve taken with me has liked their food. If you value flavour over appearances, I would rank this ramen #1 of the four I’m reviewing today.

Bento Sushi
St. Laurent Mall Food Court, 1200 St. Laurent Boulevard

There are a lot of Bento Sushi locations, most of which you’ll find tucked into grocery stores peddling mediocre takeout sushi. But they do have a few standalone locations, one of which is in the food court of the St. Laurent Mall. Since this is a big chain that isn’t exactly known for its high-quality food, I went in not expecting much. However, as with Umi Teriyaki & Sushi, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the best ramen I have ever had, but the broth was nice and the toppings were flavourful. The noodles weren’t as chewy as I like, but they weren’t horrible either. I had their chasu ramen with tonkotsu (from their menu: “thin noodles in a tonkotsu pork broth with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and fish cake”), which was $9.99. Overall, their ramen was miles better than their sushi, which may be damning them with faint praise. But I’ll take their ramen over just about anything else in the food court — except maybe Jimmy the Greek‘s pork souvlaki and salad.

If anyone else has suggestions for ramen in Ottawa that I should try, drop me a comment with the name and location. I’d be more than happy to check them out! I have absolutely no qualms about eventually having eaten at every ramen-serving restaurant in this city.

Weekend Craft Fairs

I’ve spent a good portion of my last few weekends at craft fairs and flea markets, searching for those elusive perfect gifts for friends and family. Last weekend I visited the 2017 Christmas Craft Market at Watson’s Mill in Manotick, the Russel Flea Market, and the Holiday Miracles Handmade Fair. This weekend I attended the Fisher Park Christmas Craft Sale (always a good one, held the first Saturday of December every year at 250 Holland Avenue), the Christmas Bazaar at the Parkdale United Church (also a lovely yearly event, at 429 Parkdale Avenue), and my favourite of them all, 613Christmas at the 613Flea Market.

The 613Christmas flea market filled up the entire field house at Carleton University, which is a 58m x 49m indoor turf field. Not only was it a huge space packed to the brim with vendors and customers, but the artificial turf was much more comfortable underfoot than most places’ concrete and tile (or occasionally hardwood).

There were stalls with a plethora of interesting finds. I took quick pics of the ones that were the most interesting to me, but there was a lot more variety than that.

The booths with vintage kitchenware were my favourites. I drool over Thoroughly Modern Vintage‘s stuff every time I see her at an event.

Although I do have a soft spot for stuffies like the ones from Truly Charlotte.

Of course, there were all kinds of vintage Christmas finds at a market this close to the holidays (although I’m not sure I’d trust the old lights not to overheat or have broken-down wiring).

I have a special soft spot in my heart for all of the super-sparkly and super-fragile glass bulbs that are just like the ones my mother and grandmother hung on their trees. I especially favour the ones with a concave indent to catch the light, like the one that you can just see in the top left of this photo.

The highlight of my day was meeting Charles de Lint at 613Flea. This local author was there promoting his latest novels and signing autographs. I’ve been reading his novels since I was a kid and I especially like the urban fantasies set in the Ottawa area. I loved Greenmantle, Memory and Dream, and Jack, the Giant Killer, just off of the top of my head, although I have read so many more. (Although could I remember the titles when I was chatting with him, oh heavens no, I just stood there um-ing and aw-ing as if I didn’t have two brain cells to rub together.) We even studied one of his books in high school, and despite my teacher’s best efforts to study it to death, I still came out of that class enjoying his work — which is more than I can say for other authors I studied. To contrast, I would rather stab myself with a knitting needle before I read Shoeless Joe, Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies again.

So I bought a copy of the beautifully-illustrated The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (2013) and asked Mr. de Lint to personalize it for Thing 1. I really hope that she will grow up to be as big of a fan as I am.

Cocktail Party

Last night was the cocktail party for my husband’s work, which I attended as his plus-one. This is a yearly event held early every Christmas holiday season, and the general purpose is for middle- and upper-management to schmooze with clients. In years past it was open to all employees, which I got a kick out of because it was one of the few chances to see a lot of the non-managerial staff dressed in their finest, since so many of them never get more formal than jeans and a T-shirt for the average work day. I do miss that.

Of course, I don’t have anyone that I need to schmooze with; as the spouse of an employee, my role is mostly ornamental, although I am expected to occasionally make polite conversation. Mostly, it’s pretty much understood that I am there for the free food and drink. And boy, does the company put out a spread! This year the event was held at the newly-renovated NAC (National Arts Centre), although for many years prior it was held in a banquet hall at the nearby Westin Hotel.

The cold buffet was splendid. There was a wide array of Quebec cheeses (foreground center and background right), along with a delightfully large selection of sushi and sashimi (background left, where people are serving themselves).

The cold buffet also featured a couple of charcuterie platters (front and center) and, my favourite on the cold buffet, maple whiskey planked Chinook salmon with onion marmalade and caper remoulade.

There was an oyster bar where some of the caterers were shucking oysters fresh all evening. I’m told that there’s a real technique to doing so without slicing the crap out of your fingers; I’m pretty sure I’d rather not give it a try, myself. These oysters were tasty and fresh, and although I know they’re not everybody’s cup of tea, I quite enjoyed them. My husband tried his first oyster on the half shell last night and proclaimed it to be “meh”, mostly because of the slimy texture.

There were also a number of hot food stations scattered throughout the halls. Of course, the portions were tiny so that one could have a bite of this and a bite of that, but there was no limit as to how many each guest could take. There was a take on the traditional roast turkey with dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. The plate was garnished with microgreens. (What is it with this microgreen trend lately? They’re everywhere! It’s like how everything used to be garnished with parsley in the 70’s.) This was decent, with the highest point being the flavour of the gravy, but overall it was missing “oomph”.

The lamb was much nicer than the turkey, with a very soft texture and a savoury accompanying sauce (which I believe was polenta-based). And, of course, microgreens.

The funniest dish of the evening was what the servers called a “beef martini”. In each martini glass, starting from the bottom, was mashed potato, roast beef in gravy, tomatoes, microgreens (!), and crispy fried bamboo shoots. Despite the name, the dish is meant to be eaten with a fork, not drunk. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, the tomatoes were perfectly seasoned, and the crispy topping set the rest off in an interesting fashion. There was usually a line at this station throughout the night.

My favourite dish of the evening by far was the seared scallops and jumbo shrimp in Maker’s Mark whisky, on a smear of Gruyere white sauce, with a scattering of microgreens (!!). The seafood was cooked up fresh to order and there was always a line at this station, with people coming back again for more over and over again. The scallops were melt-in-your mouth, and although the shrimp were not as excellent in comparison, they were still very good.

After speeches by the company’s head honchos, the desserts were brought out. There were French macarons, which I had seen many times but I had never actually tried before. I had expected them to be more crispy and wafer-like, but they were actually quite soft.

As always, the chocolate-covered strawberries were a hit.

I didn’t try all of the dessert mouthfulls, but the peach thingies (upper left corner) were quite nice. The brown desserts at the center of the photo were not chocolate like I’d anticipated; they rather surprised me with a strong sour lemon flavour. Once I got over my initial shock, they were quite nice. And the traditional Nanaimo bars on the right hand side of the photo were pretty good too.

All in all, I had a lovely time at the cocktail party. I returned home stuffed to the gills and just a little bit tipsy. I loved the new venue, with its huge windows and views of the Chateau Laurier, War Memorial, and Parliament Buildings. I liked every food I tried, and I even loved a few of them. I do miss a few dishes that were standards at the old venue, like the roast lamb stuffed with rice pilaf (I’m pretty sure they did that same dish every year for over a decade and each time it was cleaned down to the bones). Last year they also served Oka cheese melted raclette style from a half-wheel and spread over something… Bread? Potatoes? I ccan’t remember now, all I remember is that the cheese was delicious and I was really hoping for it again. However, I’d trade the Oka for this year’s scallops in a heartbeat.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

I finally started to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit this weekend, probably because on Friday afternoon my yard looked like this:

And by Sunday it looked like this:

Many of my friends and family bemoaned the precipitation and freezing temperatures, but I always like a bit of snow before Christmas. A green Christmas just isn’t very Christmas-y to me. That being said, it’s supposed to go up to 9°C (48.2°F) on Tuesday, so it’s not like this is going to last.

It really put me in the mood for Christmas shopping, though. Unlike in the States, where the holiday buying season appears to officially start as soon as the clocks strike midnight the day after American Thanksgiving, we don’t really have a traditional time to begin. Some people shop all year ’round. Some companies put out their Christmas merchandise at the same time as they’re building their Halloween displays (which is a little early to me, but oh well). For me, all of the Halloween debris has to be cleared away and there has to be some snow on the ground for me to feel like shopping for gifts — although I have been known to pick things up six months in advance if the opportunity arises at a great price.

I went with my mother, Thing 1, and Thing 2 to a number of craft fairs on Saturday, but one of my perennial favourites was the one held at Cairine Wilson High School. It’s a huge fair; it packs full the big gym, the little gym, the hallways, and the cafeteria. Given the number of booths, I’m bound to find something that I know someone will like.

But even if I don’t find the perfect gift for someone, it’s a lot of fun to check out the wares of local craftspeople. This is one of the few times of year that a lot of these people make their work available to the public; many craftspeople work all year by themselves to make enough stock for one or two holiday shows.

After hitting a few craft fairs, we rushed home so that the kids could get changed into their uniforms and we could drive out to Epiphany Anglican Church where the Girl Guides’ Holiday Tea is held every year. Since I’d gone to all of the effort of baking brownies for the tea, I pretty much had to attend. It’s always a lovely time, with such cheerful little servers and so many delicious treats on which to nosh.

I may have kind of taken a picture of some of the sweets for our table after I’d already nabbed the chocolate ones. Just maybe. I think that the next to go was that shortbread on the bottom right, since I’m a sucker for those too.

Book Fair

This past weekend was a busy one, and it would have been even busier if I hadn’t been sick on Sunday. It started off in grand fashion with a trip to the Rockcliffe Park Book Fair. They advertised that they had over 30,000 used books, CDs, DVDs and records… And I think they delivered.

To be totally honest, a sale like this is a little slice of heaven for me. I’ve been a bookworm ever since I can remember; it was one of the things that I was teased the most for as a kid. That didn’t slow me down, though, and now I wear the label with pride. All of these books piled high in a gym brings me right back to the happiest days of my childhood, when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my school. I would bring the money my parents gave me, plus all of my saved allowance money, so that I could bring a stack of books home with me to keep. (Libraries are like a second home to me, but having books I didn’t have to give back was an extra-special treat.) Of course, now that I’m an adult I can drive out to a bookstore any time, but the prices at a used book fair are so much more affordable — and it’s somewhere that I can pick up vintage and out-of-print books as well as new releases.

I came home with two big bags of books, mostly novels and a few Christmas gifts. (Yes, I do buy some of my gifts second-hand; there’s a lot of stuff that is just as good that should be reused instead of going to the dump, and some things just aren’t available any more.) I did find a few cookbooks that I just had to have, though.

Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook (Julia Child, 1991) — This one is a reprint of Julia child & Company and Julia Child & More Company. It’s hard to believe, but this is the first Julia Child cookbook that I have ever owned.
The Ontario Harvest Cookbook: An Exploration of Fests and Flavours (Julia Aitken & Anita Stewart, 1996)
Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City (Sonia Day, 2010) — Okay, not technically a cookbook, but it’ll lead to more cooking in the end.
A Modern Kitchen Guide: A complete Book of Up-to-Date Recipes and Household Hints (Farmer’s Advocate and Canadian Countryman, 1946) — This is the book with the blank red spine. It’s one’s old enough that I haven’t found it online, which makes it all the more interesting to me.
A Little Canadian Cookbook (Faustina Gilbey, 1994) — This one is autographed by the illustrator!
Totally Bread Cookbook (Helene Siegel & Karen Gillingham, 1999)

What a great haul! And what a lovely way to spend a few hours for a bookworm like me!

Happy Halloween!

One of my absolute favourite things is people who go all-out to decorate for the holidays. Halloween is probably my favourite, but Christmas is another big one, especially because its decorative lights enliven the darkest days of the year. When it comes to Halloween, if you trick-or-treated as a child, to me you have filled an unwritten social contract if you keep your porch light on and hand out candy. If you carve a pumpkin or put up a few mass-market decorations, so much the better. But it’s those houses that go all-out that you remember long after you’re too old to ask for candy door-to-door. When I was a kid, our entire block did Halloween big time, which is probably why I’m still such a fan as an adult. My favourite was the neighbour who built three witches and a cauldron in his driveway, closely followed up by the people who dressed as dummies and jumped out at you, and the people who made spooky mazes on their lawns or in their garages.

Here are some of my nominations for “coolest house” this year (keeping in mind that I had to take these photos before Halloween itself, since I post so early in the morning, so some houses don’t have their decorations up/lighted):


This house had projections in the left window of ghosts and silhouettes, which is hard to catch on a long exposure for nighttime lighting, but it was still really cool.

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Halloween! May you bring home lots of your favourite candy, and may your feet and hands not get too cold. (It’s supposed to dip below freezing here, but in this climate we try to plan costumes that you can fit a snowsuit underneath.)