Back to School Lunches

The Tuesday after Labour Day here in Canada means back to school for elementary school students in the public board. For my children, this comes with no little bit of anxiety, but as they get older I think it’s mostly balanced with a healthy dose of excitement. A big part of that excitement, I think, is getting to see their school friends on the regular again. Summer friends, i.e. neighbourhood friends and friends you meet at the park or wherever you’re traveling to, just don’t have the same staying power.

Of course, some of their excitement is purely material. While we don’t do a full back-to-school wardrobe in our house, each kid gets a first-day-of-school outfit (they’re usually identical, since they surprisingly still enjoy that). They also get new indoor and outdoor sneakers, as well as stacks of new school supplies in their favourite colours — mostly because they will have destroyed just about everything from the year prior by the end of June.

Although the kids are responsible for making their own lunches for the most part during the school year, for the first day I will generally do the honours. This year I’m trying to reduce the number of small containers sent to school because so few of them return (or return intact). Instead of lunch bags, this year I bought plastic, sort-of obento-style containers instead. Since everything fits in one box and the dividers don’t have to come out, I’m hoping that this means that less will be lost or left at school.

This year’s back-to-school lunch included:

– chopped pear from my pear tree
– cheese string
– slice of glazed lemon loaf
– nacho-flavoured Goldfish
– salami sandwich on bread machine beer bread

I was inspired by the lunches that I ate while in Japan on an exchange trip back in high school. I’ve seen some great videos on how school children in Japan help prepare and clean up from communal lunches, but that wasn’t a thing where I went (or possibly wasn’t for anyone in the time period I was there, I don’t know). Instead, we all “brown bagged” it, just like we do back here in Canada. The mother of the family usually woke up super early every day to make fresh obento boxes for her family. Mama-san, as she requested I call her, made some absolutely delicious food! I only too photos of two of the lunches; the one above is an assortment of little sandwiches, each one different, and a bottle of iced tea.

(And yes, I was taking pictures of my food even back in high school. Even when I had to pay to have the photos developed and printed. Some things just don’t change.)

And this one was a more stereotypical Japanese obento, with little bits of all kinds of dishes (it was so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what each one was, I just remember it was tasty), and some nori and I think a rice ball on the side.

When the weather was nice — and we were there during a particularly gorgeous spring — we all sat outside, exchange students and hosts and other Japanese students curious about the foreigners. It was a lovely way to spend a lunch hour.

Having had a school lunch in two different countries, and now being responsible for making sure my own children eat healthily at school, I do wonder about this meal in countries I haven’t visited. What do you eat for lunch? (Although I’m told that in some places you call it “dinner”…)

A Rainy Trip to the Cottage

Our last trip to the cottage my parents are renting was cut short by some rainy, stormy days. Not that I’m objecting to the rain! But when you have access to a cottage for the entire summer, you don’t feel the need to stay even when the weather’s not great.

The first night we arrived late, and so had a very simple dinner of hot dogs and sliced watermelon. Yes, I like mayonnaise on my hot dogs, which I know some people find disgusting!

When we got up the next morning, my mother made us all some blueberry pancakes, one of my favourites.

Because the weather was not supposed to be so great (although it turned out to be just fine), we headed into Shawville for ice cream and a trip to one of our absolute favourite stores, Renaissance Variety. This store is in and old house and is stuffed to the rafters with used books, video games, and movies. I could spend hours in there happily although, as usual, the kids have less patience.

Next we went to Mill Damn Park, which has a great playground for the kids to run off some energy. I was most interested in the peace and quiet of the babbling brook…

But the kids were more interested in the splash pad. Thinking the weather was going to be bad, we were woefully unprepared and the kids ended up playing in the water fully clothed… Oh well. No harm done.

After going back to the cottage to get dry clothing, we went to a local gourmet chip truck for dinner, courtesy of my parents. Then, thanks to all the rain that week, we were actually able to have a campfire, toast marshmallows, and make s’mores for the first time all summer! All fires still had to be contained, though, so we built it inside an old washing machine drum and covered it with a grate.

Then we got to go down to the dock and play with sparklers! The kids really liked playing with long exposures on my camera.

Thing 1 even learned how to spell “hi” in the air.

That night and the next day chucked down rain as predicted, so we left by lunch on our last day. We still had a lovely time!

Chicken Katsudon

Thirteen years ago, I went to Japan for a month-long visit. For most of that time, I was with my friend Michelle, who is a childhood friend from Canada who was teaching there. Together we traveled by train from Saga in the southwest along the coast to Tokyo over the course of three weeks, stopping many times along the way. One of our stops was to visit a young woman named Ayako Koyama and her family. Ayako had stayed with me back in high school as part of an exchange program; she’d also come to visit me as an adult about a year before. On this trip, I had the opportunity to meet her family and to get to know the home and the region where she had grown up.


Ayako, Mrs. Koyama, Mr. Koyama, Ayako’s grandfather, Ayako’s grandmother, and Michelle. Ayako’s brother must have been at work that night.

One evening, Ayako’s mother brought Michelle and I into her kitchen to teach us how to make katsu for dinner. I honestly can’t remember if it was chicken (torikatsu) or pork (tonkatsu) that we breaded and deep-fried, but I do remember the process! I was rummaging through my old photos yesterday and realized that I actually had a photo of us all eating the dinner we’d made (above). It was a lot of fun, although it’s always awkward to cook in someone else’s kitchen — even when there isn’t a language barrier! It remains one of my fondest memories of visiting with Ayako and her family. My one regret is that I wasn’t really into cooking at the time, so I didn’t take the opportunity to learn more from a Japanese home cook firsthand. Such a valuable resource wasted! I guess I’ll just have to go back to Japan someday and learn more.

These memories resurfaced recently when I saw a show on the Food Network that had a segment on some restaurant that makes a chicken katsu burger. I really had developed a liking for it in Japan (you can see one of the commercial meals that I had that included it in my Noodle Soup entry). It’s a real comfort food. Suddenly, I was craving chicken katsudon again. Although I’d made the meat part before and could pretty much remember how to do it without help, I had to Google for how to make the eggs correctly, since they’re not simply scrambled eggs. I used the Chicken Katsudon recipe from Just One Cookbook, and in an attempt to make it a little bit healthier I made Baked Katsudon instead of fried. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, although I know where I made some mistakes. I was running out of time at the end (I had to get the kids fed and out the door to Guiding), so I skipped cooking the chicken in the egg mixture and instead just put it on top, which made it a little bit dry. I think I cooked the egg a bit too long; when I had it in Japan it was just a little bit runny, more like a sauce than a scrambled egg. I also didn’t have any parsley, which would really have made it pop a bit more visually. Also, although I did manage to make up some miso soup, I ran out of time to make a salad, and a meal like this really needs some kind of veggie, even if it’s just a quick pickle. But given that it’s been thirteen years since I’ve attempted this dish, I don’t think it turned out too badly. It did get positive reviews from the family just how it was, so I am encouraged enough to try it again.

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.

The Country Garden

I’m a city girl, but I’ve been in and out of farmland since childhood. Ottawa’s a pretty small city, and it is surrounded by (and encompasses) a great deal of agricultural property. You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in town that is more than a 45-minute drive from planted fields (traffic aside, of course).


Sign at the farm at 1900 Kerr Line, Foresters Falls, Ontario

Once you get out of the city proper, you start seeing lots of signs like the one above for home-based businesses selling produce and goods that were grown, raised, or made on the property. However, there has been a sharp decline in the number of little sheds that I saw as a child at the end of just about every farm lane. I don’t know what has changed that caused them to become unused; did they become unprofitable to staff? If the booths were unmanned and ran on the honour system, was there just too much theft to make them profitable? Too much spoilage? Was it caused by the change over years in how farms are being run (increasingly, one large farm produces only a few select things and brings everything else in based on the profits, versus the older model of many smaller farms that fed their residents first and then sold the excess, if there was one)? Is it just because there are fewer people living on farms overall, as machines replace manual labour? Or is it because as the larger farms buy up their neighbours’ land, they leave the homes on the property to sit empty? A combination of all of the above, possibly in addition to factors I know nothing about?


Roadside sign for The Country Garden.


The Country Garden’s main area.

However, there are still a few roadside booths going strong. The Country Garden on Queen’s Line is the best example of a successful booth that I know of. The farm itself appears to be tended with a great deal of care. The grass is mowed up to the road, the fruit trees are neatly trimmed, there are flowers planted at the base of all the signs and hanging baskets wherever they’ll fit, the dirt road is without major potholes. And the food, oh the food… I make a point of stopping there every time we’re in that neck of the woods, and I’ve been going for almost ten years now.

The Country Garden is unmanned unless it is being stocked, and hence it runs on the honour system. There is some security in the shape of a lock box and a security camera. This seems to work out well for them overall, although there have been hiccups. Inside the shed there is a board with photos of people who have stolen from the Garden before, along with pictures and a written request for people to help in identifying the thieves. I don’t have a lot of patience with thieves in general, but I think it’s pretty despicable to steal from a small business like that.

The shelves on the outside of the main booth (shed?) are stocked up every day with fresh-picked produce from the farm (which I believe is run by the Martin family). This time of year there is a plenitude of tomatoes, peas, garlic, potatoes, lettuce, and green onions. Of course, this varies by season; I’ve been by in the fall when there are literal trailer-loads of squash for sale.


Inside the shed/booth.


Of course I had to buy a blueberry pie.

Inside the shed (booth?) are shelves lined with preserves, some of which come directly from the farm and others from Horst Homebaking (another local business, which is run by Noreen Horst at 74 Government Road (Foresters Falls, Ontario)). All of the preserves I’ve bough from The Country Garden have been bursting with flavour and not over-sweet, which is exactly how I like them. There is also a fridge that is re-stocked daily with eggs, fresh-baked pies and tarts that would make Dean Winchester weep, pepperettes, and sausages. The freezer is regularly refilled with cuts of beef and homemade ice cream bars.

There are photos on display of the family working on the farm; by their garb I would guess they are Mennonites, but I am not 100% sure. Most of what I know about Mennonites is based on the food I have bought from their booths at farmers’ markets — which has invariably been delicious.

Occasionally there are crafts for sale, like the above ride-on toy digger.

And there are often ornamental plants and hanging plants on offer as well.

If The Country Garden is still running for another ten years, as I hope it will be, I plan on buying fresh local produce and goods from them for all of that time. They don’t exactly have a web presence, but I can tell you that they’re open seasonally Monday through Saturday. They only take cash and, as you’ll have to deposit your payment in the lock box, you’ll need exact change. The Country Garden is located at 3024 Queens Line (Foresters Falls, Ontario), just down from the intersection of Queen’s Line and Acres Road, and close to Queen’s Line United Church (currently not in use). I highly recommend stopping by if you’re in the area. You won’t regret it. Come early if you can, as their stock can run low later in the day.

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.

Moncton Market

Spring has been exceptionally slow coming around these parts this year; we had a snowstorm last Friday, and the forecast is for more snow this coming Friday. Daytime temperatures have been just above freezing, while at night it has been dipping just below zero, so our snowbanks aren’t melting back very quickly. And it’s only a few days until the beginning of April!


A handicraft booth set up outside the Moncton Market building; there are many tables outdoors when the weather is nice.

Despite the weather, it’s technically spring, and spring to me means the start of the farmers’ market season. Technically it’s a little early for that; we’re not getting fresh produce for a little while yet, unless it’s from greenhouses. And yet I find myself thinking about all the great markets I’ve been to, and yearning for a chance to visit them again.


The main hall (Con Simon Memorial Hall) on an unseasonably-cool summer day.

One of my favourite markets to visit while on vacation is the Moncton Market in Moncton, New Brunswick. We seem to end up there on at least one weekend every time we visit the city. It’s not specifically a farmers’ market, although it does have a large selection of fresh local produce (when in season), as well as deli and butcher booths. There is also a food court and a huge number of handicrafts for sale.


Main hall.

The Moncton Market runs all year long, and actually is set up in its own proprietary building that was built in 1995 (although this market has existed, in one form or another, since the late 1800’s). Saturday is market day, but the food court is open all week long for lunch. Due to its downtown location and proximity to office buildings, particularly government offices, there is a brisk lunch business.


Main hall.

In addition to the main hall, there is a second, later-built hall (Festival Place) and a bay area, all of which are packed with vendors and customers on market day. Festival Place is sometimes rented out for other events on non-market days. There is also a culinary center on the premises, although I’ve never seen it in use. Every time I’ve been there, it has been used as a seating area for the food court.


Accordion player in the main hall.


Maple syrup and maple candy are pretty much prerequisites for any Canadian market.

There is often live entertainment throughout the market. There may be a single busker in the main hall, a duo in the secondary hall, and an entire ensemble on the stage outside — so there’s always entertainment. Thing 2 could happily spend her entire trip to the market sucking on a maple lollipop while she watches the performers. Thing 1, on the other hand, would rather hunt down a gourmet cupcake seller. Me, I’m on the lookout for fresh, local food to bring home for dinner.

Of course, part of the fun is to pick up some breakfast or lunch at the market while you are there. I am partial to the fresh-cooked crepes and waffles; the lineup is always long, but the food is cooked fresh to order, and the delicious portions are substantial.


Fruit-covered crepe drizzled with chocolate hazelnut butter, raspberry syrup, and whipped cream. Photo by my mother.


Classic crepe with banana, chocolate hazelnut butter, and whipped cream.


Waffle with berries, apples with cinnamon-sugar, and whipped cream.

Around here, the winter (indoor) version of the Lansdowne Park Ottawa Farmers’ Market runs on Sundays from January 8th to April 30, from 10:00am to 3:00pm, in the Aberdeen Pavilion. There’s nothing specifically stated on their website, but the outdoor summer market usually starts sometime in May. The Cumberland Farmers’ Market has their Spring Market on Saturday April 8th from 9:00am to 3:00, but their main season doesn’t start until mid-June.

I can’t wait for summer market season to start again. Come on, Ottawa… Thaw!