Category Archives: Food Essays & Short Stories

My Balcony Garden Project

When I was growing up, my parents had a vegetable garden behind our house and a flower bed out front.  I remember helping my dad here and there, but I never took an active interest in gardening.  My first condo didn’t have a balcony, and I was convinced my cats would eat any plants I might try to grow so for many years, my green thumb lay dormant.

I moved into my boyfriend’s condo last year and for the first time I had a balcony.  I never thought much of it until I went with my friend to the local garden center one day and decided to try growing some herbs.

My Balcony Garden

My Balcony Garden

I was proud of my little herb garden and found it so relaxing to be outside potting my plants. I checked on them obsessively every day, finding such satisfaction in watching them flourish and grow.

I became just as excited to go to the garden center as I was about grocery shopping.  I hit up garden centers, markets even a church plant sale in search of interesting plants to fill my balcony.  I kept an eye out for pretty plant pots and started thinking about the decor scheme of my little garden.  To add some different levels to my garden, I even took some old furniture and repainted them.  Every morning I would spend time out on the balcony, watering, pruning and harvesting my plants.  The plants and herbs grew and prospered, I was amazed at what I had grown.  I even grew some (tiny) strawberries!

This was my final balcony garden project:

My balcony garden project

My balcony garden project

My final garden line up:  ivy, Blazin’ Rose, Dusty Miller, strawberries, oregano, basil, mint, parsley, lemongrass, cilantro, Sedum Dragon’s Blood, Jurassics, Wizard mix, periwinkle and an aloe.

Sushi: A Cultural Representation

Despite my half Japanese background, I only discovered sushi in my early twenties.  Recently, I traveled to Japan where I truly gained an appreciation for the cuisine and now I believe I will never tire of the endless combinations of rice, fish and seaweed.   Why do I love sushi? Trying to pinpoint any reason of taste is difficult.  This is because flavour is only one of the elements.  Sushi also represents culture and ritual through colour, balance and texture, and it is meant to engage not only your palette but to be “eaten by the eyes.”

The definition of sushi is “to sour,”  referring to the origins of the preparation method.  Traditionally, 1300 years ago, salted raw fish would ferment in between layers of rice.  Decades later, vinegar replaced the fermentation process and the resulting sour taste is closer to the sushi we eat today.

The three basic types of sushi are nigiri sushi, vinegar rice formed into a long box shape topped with raw fish; sashimi, sliced raw fish; and maki, sushi rolled inside or around pressed, dried layers of nori (seaweed).

Rice and fish are an integral part of Japanese culture, with rice considered a sacred food and where approximately 3000 different kinds of fish are consumed each day.  The waters around Japan are world famous fishing grounds and the Japanese take full advantage of their fresh, local produce. Rice and fish have been staples in their diet for centuries, and with such a strong appreciation for their food, the preparation of ingredients becomes as important as the final presentation.

Like in Japanese art and architecture, discipline, balance and elegance are represented in their cuisine.  To begin making sushi, the cooked rice is transferred to a wooden tub with sugar, rice vinegar and salt, and then fanned to a precise temperature.  The vinegar breaks down the stickiness of the rice and dissolves the sugar, which in turn coats the rice to become sticky again .  The amount of sugar controls the sour taste, while toppings, or “gu,” such as wasabi, nori, fukube (gourds) and pickled vegetables, provide balance for what the Japanese believe are the other four tastes to a balanced diet — hot, salty, sweet and bitter .  Other gu, such as Japanese cucumber, are used in maki to bring a firm, crisp texture, while colourful carrots and snow peas brighten the roll.  These contrasting textures, colours and flavours are elements that must be balanced in each dish.

How the sushi is consumed is an important process. When eating multiple plates of sashimi if moved must be returned to the exact same position on the table, showing respect for the chef.  When eating nigiri sushi, the leaner cuts of fish such as hirame or kasugo must be consumed first to keep a sharp palate, leaving fattier fish such as salmon for the end, as the rich fat globules will stick to the tongue and soften the taste buds.  Nigiri is always presented in twos for an aesthetically balanced presentation.

As the number of sushi restaurants continues to rise across North America, we must keep in mind that sushi is more than the popular California rolls & maki.  I only began to understand the subtleties of a great sushi meal after one particularly delicious spread in Hakone, Japan.  There was such care and discipline behind my meal, that I took a moment to sit back and take in the presentation, slowly absorb the tastes and textures and only then did I fully appreciate the origins of sushi.

Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 8.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sushi Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 13.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 22.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 4. The Harvard Common Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 4. The Harvard Common Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 267. The Harvard Common Press. 2005

Trekking Mont Blanc

After the first fifteen minutes of trekking uphill leaving Chamonix, France, with a 40-pound pack on my back, I remember thinking: “What have I gotten myself into”? I was on a nine-day trek in the Alps in the fall of 2008 with a GAP Adventure Tour, and when I planned the trip I had been looking forward to lots of wine, fresh bread and cheese. Now I was praying I wouldn’t keel over and die.

Trekking Mont Blanc

Champieux, France to Courmayeur, Italy

The first day we hiked up and down steep trails for eight hours. Not only were we carrying our gear, but we were also lugging lunch supplies. I was stuck with the melon. We ate lunch inside a little mountain hut, and all I could think about was how to persuade someone to eat this cursed fruit. While everyone else dug into an assortment of fresh bread, cheese, apples, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers, I realized I was having a feeling I had never experienced before – a loss of appetite.

Making the pass over from France to Italy

Making the pass over from France to Italy

The next morning, our guide announced that we would be hiking “up four hours, down two hours, up three hours, down two hours.”  He seemed amused. I wanted to launch my melon at his head.

After a grueling day of trekking, we made the pass from France into a small town called Courmayeur in Italy. It was a true test of strength both mentally and physically: “Ignore the pain and admire the beauty” was my mantra to myself. Keep pushing yourself, because everything seems insignificant amongst the grandeur of these picture-perfect mountains. That night after dinner, the bottle of Limoncello was passed around, but I couldn’t even fathom taking a sip – I was already dreaming about my bed.

A couple of days later, we hiked into Switzerland, trekking through a snowstorm only to be greeted by a sunny, vivid green landscape minutes after we crossed over. We arrived in a little town called La Fouly during “Festival des Alps,” a celebration that revolves around honouring their citizens’ cows by parading them through the main street in brightly coloured party hats.

Trekking Mont Blanc

Raclette @ Les Festival des Alps, La Fouly, Switzerland

That was the same day I discovered the wonderful world of raclette: melted cheese, a crispy gherkin, and a couple of boiled potatoes and pearl onions.  Huge wheels of cheese were brought out onto the cow dung–ridden street, ready to ooze onto your plate. The cheese was labeled by altitude and the number of cows used in production. Seven plates of raclette and many glasses of dry white wine later, I came to the conclusion that the higher the altitude and the greater number of cows, the weaker the cheese tasted. But the relaxing day was memorable for more than just gorging on raclette.  We were able to hang out with the locals, try some moonshine and finally relax.

Trekking Mont Blanc

Trient to Tre-Le-Champ

Trekking Mont Blanc

Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti, Italy

We had our last picnic lunch atop a mountain overlooking Chamonix, France.  Sitting under a clear sky with a light breeze cooling my face, I finally felt it.

My stomach grumbled for the first time since we began trekking. I thought about how far we had come, and I reached for a crusty roll filled with creamy Camembert cheese. I grabbed handfuls of crunchy carrots and overripe tomatoes and crammed them into my mountainous sandwich. Breathing in a fresh lungful of air, I took a giant bite. It was the same food I had eaten all week, only this time my mouth salivated.

Just like the first explorers to trek these peaks, I savoured that sandwich as if I was eating it for the first time.  I had grown stronger, matured like the wine being passed around the group.  My melon was long gone, but I would carry that baby back through the Alps any day.

Lac Blanc - French Alps

Lac Blanc – French Alps