Campfire

The formula for a perfect night at the cottage is as follows:

One small campfire, plus:

Jumbo sparklers lit in the campfire, plus:

Perfectly toasted marshmallows on green sticks, plus:

S’mores!

(For those not in the know, that’s a toasted marshmallow and a square of chocolate sandwiched between graham crackers, called “s’mores” because you always want “some more”.)

At The Park

There are a lot of public parks in the Ottawa area; a lot of them even have splash pads and water features. This means that if you’re looking to do something with the kids (or even just to get outside yourself), there is always somewhere to go and something to do — so long as it’s not pouring rain. I take advantage of this on a regular basis. My kids are old enough now to pop off together to the closest park for an hour or two. However, their range is pretty small (they only just learned to ride bikes without training wheels earlier this summer), and I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them going much further or crossing major roads alone in any case. So whenever it’s nice out and the girls are getting restless, I head out to a park.


Brewer Park


Knitting at Cardinal Creek Community Park. That day I was working on the start of an adult sock in Araucania Yars Huasco 100% extra-fine Merino wool (colour 101, dye lot 74403) on 3.5mm circular knitting needles.

We alternate between parks, sometimes staying close to home, sometimes packing a lunch and driving downtown or even across town to check out some new scenery. I stuff a novel, a knitting project, and my phone into my purse, which is enough to keep me entertained for hours. No matter where we go, I also have to bring about a tonne of sunscreen. It probably hasn’t escaped anyone that I’m a blonde and my kids are redheads, so sunscreen is not an option, it’s a necessity. The kids invariably come home soaking wet, exhausted, and happy. To me, that’s a successful summer day.

Dill Pickles

By now I am well into seasonal canning mode. Two weeks ago I started with my first batch of strawberry rhubarb butter, and last week I found a great sale on mini cucumbers in bulk, so I had to make dill pickles. We were on the last jar from the batch that I made right before Christmas anyway, and fresh pack dill pickles must rest for at least a month in a cool, dark place before eating to develop flavour. I mean, they’re safe to eat right away, but they taste better after some time.

This is what my canning setup looks like, with some adaptations depending on what food I’m preparing. For large batches or large cans, I tend to have two hot water baths boiling at the same time. The largest pot on the right is actually my pressure canner, but it works quite well as a large hot water canner if I don’t clip the lid closed. The smaller pot near the front is where I brought my pickling liquid to the boil. I’ll admit it, I take the quick and easy route when I make dill pickles and I use Bernardin Dill Pickle Mix. It means that I can completely skip the typical fermentation stage; I just have to wash and cut up the cucumbers, pack them into hot sterilized jars, pour over the pickling liquid, seal, and then process the jars in a hot water bath. This means that I can make up a huge batch of pickles in a matter of a few hours (as opposed to about five days with the fermented method).

This year I tried out a type of jar I’d never used before, ones that have a vintage-look green tint. Normally these jars are about twice the price of the standard clear glass jars of the same size, but I was lucky enough to find a whole bunch of them at $4.00 for a six pack ($0.66/jar) at, of all places, Dollarama. I bought out that location’s entire stock. I mean, a twelve pack of the same size regular jar at Canadian Tire currently goes for about $12.99 ($1.08/jar), so it was definitely a bargain.

One of the reasons that coloured jars used to be considered better for canning purposes is that they allow less light to pass through the glass, and hence the food stayed good longer. Exposure to sunlight can cause canned goods to decompose faster and/or to discolour, which is why historically most food storage is in a cool, dry, dark place. The coloured glass is just one more way to help. These days, though, it’s mostly a fashion thing, a hearkening back to the old-fashioned canning jar look. I personally think that the green-tinted jars are great for pickles (or any other green preserve), but that they’d sadly make different-coloured foods look like they’d gone off in the jar. Even if the food was fine, it might not be eaten just because of its looks. I mean, have you ever tried to eat green eggs and ham? I know that even when I make the eggs myself and am sure that they are safe, I can have a difficult time choking them down because my brain is telling me that they’ve gone off because of the colour. So I think that I will stick to using the green jars for cucumber pickles, or for crafts or storage where the colour doesn’t matter.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter Recipe

One of my favourite things in the world to can is fruit butters, which are basically fruit that has been cooked, blended, and then boiled down to reduce the moisture content until the end result is smooth and spreadable. Simmering off the water increases both the flavour and the acidity, so fruit butters need less sweetening for taste or for preservation purposes. Fruit butters are a simple, wholesome kind of preserve that historically, in Canada, was a common way to make fruits last the winter. These days, they are made and eaten all year long, although most home canning happens in the summer and early fall when fruits are freshest and at their most plentiful.

Contrary to what the name may indicate, fruit butters actually don’t usually contain any dairy products, although some recipes call for a dollop of butter to prevent frothing (which I usually forgo and instead skim the froth). They are generally vegetarian and can be made vegan through proper sourcing of ingredients — as I’ve previously mentioned, some varieties of sugar use bone char as part of the filter process, so if that’s important to you, you’ll have to do your homework when choosing a brand to buy.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter will last up to a year when properly canned.

Fruit butters have easily as many uses as jams or jellies, including (but not limited to):

– a spread on bread, toast, or biscuits;
– a filling in donuts, cookies, muffins, croissants, turnovers, and tarts;
– a topping for ice cream;
– a mix-in for yogurt;
– a topping for pancakes or crepes;
– mixed with cream cheese to make a quick dip for fresh fruit or crackers; or
– an ingredient in fruit butter bread (apple being the most common)

Strawberry-rhubarb butter is the latest fruit butter I’ve made, and I’ve found that it perfectly encapsulates the tastes of late spring/early summer. Since the ingredients cook down, it’s a great way to use up rhubarb — especially if you’re searching for ways to use the stalks from an over-producing plant! I prefer to cook it in a combination of the microwave and the crock pot, because both are less prone to burning than cooking on the stove. The quickest way to ruin a batch of fruit butter is to scald it; you’ll never get rid of that burnt taste. If you choose to cook on the stove, you will have to watch your ingredients like a hawk, stir constantly, and adjust your cooking times. For these reasons, if you have a microwave and a crock pot, I highly recommend using them.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter on Dad’s biscuits.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter
Yields seven 250mL jars

Wash and chop until you have:
1Kg (about 8 cups) rhubarb, any variety
Place the rhubarb into a microwave-safe casserole dish with:
1/2 cup water
Cover and microwave in 3-minute increments, stirring every time you check for doneness, until the rhubarb are falling apart (approximately 15 minutes). Set rhubarb aside.
Repeat this process, cooking each fruit separately, with:
1.2Kg (about 8 cups) strawberries + 1/2 cup water
1Kg (about 8 cups) apples (any variety) + 1/2 cup water
While apples are cooking, put the rhubarb and its cooking liquid into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour rhubarb puree into crock pot. Repeat puree step with strawberries and their cooking liquid, and when they are cooked, the apples and their liquid.
To the crock pot add:
400g sugar (about 1 3/4 cups)
Stir until all elements are well combined.
Set crock pot on high and cook until resulting butter is a little bit thinner than the desired final product (fruit butter will thicken slightly as it cools). This usually takes between 24 and 48 hours. Cooking more than 48 hours is not recommended as the butter will develop a burned taste. If fruit has not thickened enough after 48 hours, finish the thickening process on the stove top, stirring regularly to prevent scalding.
Fill 250mL jars leaving 6mm head space. Process in a hot water canning bath for 30 minutes after the water returns to a boil. This fruit butter will last up to a year when processed. Alternately, the butter may simply be refrigerated for up to three weeks, or frozen (leaving additional head space for expansion) for up to six months.

Curtains

I have a pet peeve — and it’s not a tiny creature that sits around chewing with its mouth open. This time of year, it gets very hot around here, accompanied by high humidity. It hit 32°C (89.6°F) here yesterday, with a humidex of 38°C (100.4°F). That’s pretty hot no matter where you’re from, but around here our summers are short enough that we don’t truly get a chance to adjust to the heat. And yet, on days where the Weather Network is broadcasting heat warnings, I know people who sit in their air-conditioned homes and complain about the heat — despite the fact that they are sitting in a sun-bathed room. Put up some curtains already! You will be more comfortable, your energy bill won’t be so high, and you’re putting less strain on the environment. As a side bonus, in the winter those same curtains will once again help keep your energy costs down as they will help reduce drafts.


My kitchen table with the curtains open.

Now, I’m not talking about people who have legitimate financial, physical, or mental issues that preclude them putting up curtains. However, in my experience, the people who are in the direst financial straights are also the people who, out of necessity, will cut their utility bills any way they can — air conditioning is a luxury, after all. To beat the heat, many people will hang sheets or blankets over their windows with tacks. Sometimes people build improvised shutters out of flattened cardboard boxes. These may not be the prettiest solutions, but they are effective. Or, if a little money can be budgeted, it’s possible to shop around until the perfect curtains are found on clearance at 90% off. Learning to sew homemade curtains is also an option, not that much sewing has been necessary since the invention of iron-on hemming strips and curtain rings with clips.

No, what I’m talking about is people who should know better, and who have no impediments to putting up proper curtains, but choose not to and then whine that their summer cooling bill is so high.


My kitchen table with the curtains closed.

As I mentioned, yesterday was one of the first scorchers of the year here, and of course that’s when my A/C broke down. We managed to keep our house at an acceptable temperature by opening up the windows at night and in the early morning, then closing both our windows and our curtains up tight for the heat of the day. By sunset, the house had warmed up somewhat, but we were only on the verge of “uncomfortable” — whereas outside it was “too hot to freaking move”. I credit that partially due to the fact that we have decent insulation in the walls (just standard, relatively-modern stuff to protect us from Canadian winters), and our curtains on the sunniest windows of the house being lined with blackout fabric.


My kitchen table with the curtains closed, after adding blackout lining.

To illustrate this, I took photos of my kitchen with plain curtains open, plain curtains closed, and curtains closed with blackout lining added. All photos were taken within a ten-minute span, and the curtains were all white Merete curtains by IKEA — which I love as they open/close easily and are opaque enough for privacy’s sake. The lining used in the bottom picture was heavyweight stuff purchased at Fabricland some years ago. I didn’t change the exposure on my camera so that it’s possible to compare the difference between the light let in by the lined and unlined curtains.

Curtains lined with blackout fabric (or with an opaque coating on the back of the main fabric) have become really affordable over the last ten years or so, as has the heavy-duty drapery hardware that it takes to support thicker curtains. It’s even possible to sew an old curtain to the back of a new one to maximize light blockage and prevent the fabric from fading. Or there’s always the sheet/blanket/cardboard options. If you don’t like “living in a cave”, as some have complained to me about dark rooms, you can only open the curtains in the room you’re currently in, kind of like a reverse-Nicole-Kidman in The Others. So to me, if you choose not to put up or close curtains, it seems an act of artificial helplessness to bemoan how hot it is and how high your home cooling costs have become, or that your brand new air conditioner isn’t performing nearly as well as promised. Wouldn’t it be better to take a stab at mitigating the problem rather than complaining?

Breadmaker

Yesterday was a hot one, and today is predicted to be much akin to it, with the addition of thunderstorms. That’s par for the course in the summer in Ottawa: first we get a stiflingly hot, humid day, followed by an impressive deluge and light show, often in the evening of the same day.

Of course, I had run out of bread, but I didn’t want to fire up the oven on such a hot day. I would like to continue making my own throughout the summer, so I dug out my breadmaker, which I’d never used before. Over the winter I purchased a Black & Decker All-In-One Deluxe Horizontal Breadmaker at Value Village for $9.99. There were (and always are) a few on the shelf, so I picked the one that showed the least wear and tear. I also Googled to make sure I could get a user manual.


100% Whole Wheat Bread in the breadmaker.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was growing up, and one of the best lessons that my parents taught me was to keep the house cool, cook outside whenever possible. The most obvious example of this is barbecuing or grilling, but most countertop appliances work perfectly well outdoors. Breadmakers, toaster ovens, even toasters or kettles fit the bill, and it’s especially convenient to use them if you have a deck/patio or a balcony. They’re not intended for outdoor use, so you have to be very sure that they never get wet and are set on a surface that can’t be damaged by heat, like a concrete step or a glass-top table. If you’re uncomfortable leaving them out in the open, they can be left under a parking shelter or in a garage. Also, you have to make sure that any plugs or extension cords are up to the challenge (I recommend heavy-duty appliance extension cords just in case, you don’t want to start a fire).

So I made a loaf of 100% Whole Wheat Bread (page 24 in the user manual) in the breadmaker, and it turned out deliciously! It was really easy, and although I kind of missed kneading the bread and I don’t like the inflexibility of the recipes that go along with mechanization. But the results were delicious, and I can see why people will set breadmakers on timers so they have fresh bread first thing in the morning. Since I’m used to oven loaves, the bread looked kind of misshapen to me, much too tall and thin. The looks didn’t mar the flavour at all, though. My family devoured the entire loaf in a day (granted, we had grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner). I will have to make another loaf asap.

Lobster Rolls

The weather is finally changing to something vaguely resembling summer, and this is the time of year that I start thinking about all the summer trips to the Maritimes that I made as a child, and then again as an adult. We would drive there from Ontario, and it seemed that as soon as you crossed the border between Québec and New Brunswick, the food culture changed from land to sea. Just pop into a New Brunswick fast food restaurant in order to compare: McDonald’s in New Brunswick serves (very poor) lobster rolls, and Subway serves a (reasonable) seafood sub. The culinary transition is rather abrupt, because it’s not like the terrain and agriculture of eastern Québec and western New Brunswick are at all different. But New Brunswick is a maritime province, and this is reflected in the culture and the cuisine. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a strong agricultural foundation in the province as well; with an area almost the size of Ireland with one sixth the population, there is room for multiple local industries.


Golden Fry, Shediac, New Brunswick.

Most people who visit New Brunswick head for the coast. The best value for money as a tourist is generally to rent a cottage within walking distance of the sea, or if that’s not possible, to stay in an inn or B&B within a short drive of the beach. The town of Shediac (the self-proclaimed Lobster Capital of the World) has capitalized on its proximity to the gorgeous Parlee Beach Provincial Park and has, over the years, become somewhat overdone, over-hyped and overpriced. The town almost shuts down except for the months of July and August. There are some good seafood restaurants there during tourist season — but some of the best food in town can be found at the Golden Fry (560 Main St, Shediac).


Lobster roll and fries at the Golden Fry.

The place doesn’t look like much; it’s just a small building off the side of the road, with a gravel parking lot and some plastic tables and chairs out front. It’s takeout, pure and simple — it makes me think that a french fry truck grew roots and decided to stay in one place. But oh my goodness, their food is so good! Take the lobster roll, for example. It’s a toasted, buttered New England roll stuffed to bursting with chunks of fresh, cold lobster meat. Their their fries are fresh-cut, their poutine uses real cheese curds, their fried clams are crisp on the outside, soft in the center… A lot of the fancier restaurants in town could take lessons from this place, especially since “lobster roll and fries” is a standard menu item in the area no matter where you dine.


Bouctouche Beach.

To me, though, Shediac has been done to death. The town is packed to the gills during tourist season, the traffic can be gnarly, everything is overpriced compared to the same things just out of town, the cottages are so close they’re practically town houses… For my seaside vacation, I prefer something a little calmer. This is why I’ve fallen in love with the town of Bouctouche, which is a short drive up Highway 11. Like Shediac and Pointe-du-Chêne (which also has some lovely beaches), it is on the Northumberland Strait, and as such boasts some of the warmest ocean water temperatures on the Atlantic coast north of Virginia. Unlike Shediac, it hasn’t become a tourist trap, although Bouctouche does boom in summer. It’s a little further away from Moncton, and hence from the Moncton airport, so people aren’t as likely to make the effort.


Irving Eco-Center, La Dune de Bouctouche boardwalk.


Irving Arboretum.


Irving Arboretum.

The town of Bouctouche has benefited from being where James Dergavel Irving founded J.D. Irving Ltd. (the company most well-known these days for Irving gas stations) in 1882. The company/family has funded a big chunk of the most beautiful spots in town, like the Irving Arboretum, which is packed with scenic walking and biking trails, and the Irving Eco-Centre, La Dune de Bouctouche, which contains the local saltwater beach as well as a boardwalk and hiking trails.


Buctouche river.

In addition to the coastal attractions, the Buctouche river flows through Bouctouche and neighbouring towns, emptying into Buctouche Bay in the Northumberland Strait. This means that the town also has freshwater angling, boating, and scenery.


Banana split at Le Petit Crèmier, Bouctouche, NB.

One of my kids’ favourite places in Bouctouche was Le Petit Crèmier (103 Irving Blvd), which is the local ice cream parlour. Once again, it’s take-out only, but their ice cream is great, their portions generous, and the sheer variety of what they serve is mind-boggling. It’s totally worth a stop on a hot day (or, if you’re like me, any day).


Pirate de la Mer restaurant, Bouctouche, NB

The hidden gem of Bouctouche, food-wise, is Pirate de la Mer (10 rue Industrielle, across the street from the small mall containing the Co-Op and the liquor store). There’s nothing much to the restaurant when you see it from the outside. It’s in a plain red industrial building, with a couple of picnic tables out front, and a gravel parking lot. But if you head there on the weekend or at dinner time, be prepared for up to a half an hour wait in line just to place your order, with another half hour before your food is made. The place is popular with the locals and with tourists. It is not uncommon for there to be not enough seating for everybody, which is why a good portion of their clientele orders their food to go. The amply-sized parking lot gets full fast, with overflow parking on the road. After my first visit, I would order my food a half an hour in advance or so, giving them lots of time to prep while I headed over and then waited in line. This way the food was hot and ready to go as soon as I paid.


Double lobster roll, fries & coleslaw at Pirate de la Mer.

The lobster rolls at Pirate de la Mer are mouth-watering — enough so that I make a special trip to Bouctouche to order them, even when I’m not staying in town. Their fries are crispy deliciousness, and I’m told that their coleslaw is first rate (I don’t like coleslaw). In addition, they make their own tartar sauce – they’ll give you the option between their version and pre-made Kraft stuff. Go with their version. It’s definitely not a fancy restaurant, but I haven’t had better seafood at anywhere that charges four or five times more for “gourmet” and “ambiance”. If you want to eat somewhere prettier, you can always get your food to go and head up the road to the Arboretum or the beach.


Lobster roll at Pirate de la Mer.

There is no excuse for visiting the Maritimes without indulging in seafood. Unless you hate the stuff, I guess. Or are allergic. Or vegetarian. Or your religion prohibits it. Other than that, though, there is no excuse. If you can afford to travel, then you can afford at least one seafood meal — especially since, in New Brunswick, a lot of seafood dishes are on par or cheaper than any other kind of meat. So indulge! You won’t regret it.