December 09, 2013

I thought this quote was fitting for that time of year when everyone is telling you what they think are the best gifts ever: "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you who are you." You know what I secretly like? Holiday Gift Guides. I know some people get sick of getting told what to buy, but I love discovering new and interesting gift ideas. Holiday gift guide time is officially here.

There are endless posts of what to buy, stuff in a stocking or make yourself for lovely gifts. It's nice to give back a little with all that shopping and buy from local, Canadian companies. This is my gift guide to neat ideas from small, but mighty Canadian businesses that also deliver right to your door:

I am jealous of whoever lives or works in the Dufferin to University and Queen to Wellington area of Toronto. You all better sign up for this right now. The Feel Good Guru Soup Club launched recently and they deliver homemade, organic vegan soup to your home or office three days a week.

I would love to have soup delivered to me at work so I don't have to worry about packing a lunch. The menu changes weekly and their selection includes Green Lentil Vegetable, Pumpkin Coconut Curry and Carrot Miso. The only problem is that the upfront cost may seem like a lot; however, it's about the same as buying a lunch out a few times a week and it's delivered in jars--my favourite.

See their website for more information on how to be a part of the Feel Good Guru club.

Carnivore Club
The Carnivore Club will diversify your meat portfolio with cured meats, terrines and jerky delivered to your door every month. These Toronto entrepreneurs launched the monthly meat club on IndieGoGo and have also been on Dragon's Den with a past business venture. $50 is all it takes to get meats you will not find at butcher shops or grocery stores and you don't have to (literally) hunt around for them.

All you need now is a cheese club for a full dinner party in a box. Be a part of the Carnivore Club and get your monthly protein.

I met Elle from Petite and Sweet at the Delicious Food Show in October and had a peek at their beautiful desserts. They design beautiful dessert tables perfect for extravagant celebrations. Now you can bring out your inner stylist with their Holiday Sweet Table in a Box.

I love all of the colour palettes and the gorgeous mini desserts. You can also order them in your own customized colour palette. It's the elegance and glamour of a sweet table at a fraction of the price. Although I still dream of having a sweet table designed especially for me. I suppose that is something to go on my forever wish list. Visit their studio at 420 Summerhill Avenue in Toronto or order their sweet table supplies by email or phone.

Along with those treats and sweets, you may also need a bottle or two of wine. Avoid the liqour store lineups like the plague and order wines online with Wineonline.ca. It doesn't get better than this, Canada. Happy Holidays.
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December 03, 2013

This was my introduction to Portland: On the first of two days in the city, we rode the train into downtown. I sat down across from a man with a pet carrier on the seat next to him. I peered inside expecting to see a kitten or puppy he was taking on a nice morning train ride. I did not see anything cute and cuddly; it was a giant snake. Like, not a garden snake. This was a snake the size of a tire and could probably kill someone. A snake. In a pet carrier. On a train. Like this was nothing out of the ordinary. I sat in my seat and was terrified to move the whole trip. That was my first clue that this was not a place like any other. 

Portland bridge

There have been a few places I have travelled to that opened my eyes to weird, wonderful and mystical things. For example, Disneyland would be the first. Then, some parts of Asia were the definition of magical and awe-inspiring and so completely different than any other place. The weird thing is that everyone around you acts completely normal and unaware of the sometimes strange--but kind of cool--things happening around them.


Portland doesn't compare on a grand scale to Disneyland, but at times I thought, "Where am I?" and "Is this place real?" Did Portlandia hit the head on the nail in its satire of Portland culture? It's the things people in big cities say they do, but actually don't have the time to do: hanging out at coffee shops (actually hanging out); biking or jogging through parks; listening to live music from bands whose names you are sure can't be real (such as "Pure Bathing Culture" and "Woolen Men"); growing vegetables; buying groceries from the local co-op; and admiring latte art like it is real art. 


Where there are more coffee shops than you can swing a stick at and probably more baristas with sleeved tattoos per capita than any other city. There are Brewpubs with locally made beers of all flavours, food trucks to feed you every meal of the day, vintage shops, boutiques and bookshops on every corner and the snozberries taste like snozberries! Like Willy Wonka said, "Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination..."


It is a land where taxidermy creatures are sold in all of their bad ass glory and there are shops devoted to neat trinkets and things, including a store that only sold lightbulbs. Strange thoughts start to pop up in your head like, "I need to start buying more art. Maybe I should start my own Etsy shop. I could live off the land if I wanted to." 


And backyard chickens. There are a lot of backyard chickens. We woke up to the sound of them every morning even in the middle of the city. You can be sure the chicken you ate in Portland had a good life and many friends. The dream of the 90s really is alive in Portland. 


Portland is Oregon's largest city with a population of about 582,000 and has steadily become a popular tourist destination for those making the trip along the Pacific Northwest. Yes, all of the stereotypes are there--the hipsters, activists, outdoors types, vegans and animal lovers--but they all somehow live in perfect harmony. It is also a family friendly city with many charming neighbourhoods, green space and a thriving downtown. 


There are too many food options to even make a dent in with two days visiting. There are more than 500 food trucks alone, as well as every type of ethnic cuisine, sandwich, burger, beer, wine and baked good you could want. Portland is also an extremely walkable and bikeable city; in fact, it's one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America. There is no excuse for not working off the calories from all of those treats, such as doughnuts. 

Voodoo Doughnuts

We kept seeing all of these people walking around with pink boxes, so we followed the trail of pink to VooDoo Doughnuts. There were so many options. I just pointed to one that I thought looked neat and said, "that one!" I ended up going with the Miami Vice Berry Doughnut and the Triple Chocolate Penetration Doughnut. The names and flavours get a little racy from the Maple Blazer Blunt doughnut to the Dirty Snowballs and more. 

VooDoo Doughnuts

Most of the food trucks in the city are placed in pods. A pod is a cluster of food trucks grouped together and makes it easier to sample and compare a few trucks instead of trekking to different locations for each one. I recommend this map for navigating and finding trucks throughout the city. 

Food trucks in Portland

I believe the pod we chose was one of the biggest downtown and was located at SW 10th Ave and SW Alder St. If I lived and worked in this city, I would make it my mission to try a different food truck each day. Who would even have time for working? 

Food trucks in Portland

After a tough decision, I settled on a taste of Thailand and Mike had Indian curry. Nong's Khao Man Gai brought me back to Singapore with its Chicken and Rice (Khao Man Gai, hence the name of the truck) with poached chicken simmered in chicken stock with herbs and sauce. Poached chicken, white rice and some secret spicy ingredients; that's all you need. 

Nong's Khao Man Gai, Portland


We sat by the water and had lunch. The only problem with food trucks is you have to walk around for awhile carrying your food while you find somewhere to sit. My Chicken and Rice also came in a bag and reminded me of eating fish and chips out of newspaper. It was an interesting if somewhat messy way to eat the dish. Apparently this dish has been voted one of the best food truck picks in Portland, if all of America. 


I know I'm being a little snarky. Portland was actually my favourite city of the trip. There is that farm-to-table mentality and real appreciation of food and it all harks back to a time when people were skilled artisans, bakers and brewers and even artists. As well as great food, there is an overall shared appreciation for culture, the environment, art and well, other people. You might run out of actual things to do after a few days as a traveler, so I don't think an extended stay is necessary. There is also so much outside of the city in other parts of Oregon to see that you would be best spending your time seeing national parks and coastal views. I could actually see myself living there though, as I'm sure the vibe of the city does to many people. 


Disclaimer: When a site in your guidebook says "breathtaking views of the city" that means you have to walk--usually on an incline--to get there. "Oh, this rose garden sounds nice," I said. Half an hour later, huffing and puffing, we made it up the steep incline covered in sweat to find the rose garden that gives the city its "Rose City" nickname. 


International Rose Test Garden Portland

The International Rose Test Garden has more than 500 types of roses and is also a testing site for new breeds of roses. It is the oldest public garden of its kind in the United States and also boasts great views of the city, as well as nearby Mt Hood. The ombre roses were breathtaking:

ombre rose

We stayed in the North Mississipi Avenue area of Portland slightly removed from downtown that features a long street of bars, food trucks, restaurants and shops. It's kind of magical at nighttime when everything is lit up and there is so much energy, like those times you spend all night listening to records or hanging out with beers in your backyard talking the night away.


You could actually start at one end for coffee and breakfast and work your way down to lunch, do a little shopping in between and then hang out all night long with live music on a patio. Not a bad way to spend a day. I also like that the night scene isn't too overly obnoxious, even if it becomes a little too cool for some to handle, such as bars so hip they named them twice: 


The next night we ventured down to the up and coming Albert Arts District. The area isn't quite as built up at the historical Mississipi District. There are a few neat food spots that have already been discovered, including Salt and Straw Ice Cream where I had Almond Brittle and Salted Ganache ice cream among choices of Balsamic Strawberry, Pear with Blue Cheese and Bourbon Pecan Pie. 


We stayed at the Tierra Soul Urban Farmhouse. This was one of the accommodation places I booked and the point in the trip where Mike questions my judgement a tiny little bit when he hears we are not staying at a swanky hotel, but rather, a cozy urban farm. One of the owners is actually Canadian and told us she used to live in British Columbia, but came to Portland for a few days vacation, loved it, bought a house and ended up staying. 

Tierra Soul Urban Farm and Guesthouse

The family was charming and were eager to tell us about their farm, permaculture and the city. We stayed in the Barn Dance room that was cozy and decorated with cute, rustic touches. They also have a vintage caravan you can stay in, as well as many other rooms with a definite guesthouse feel. You can even help out with farm chores and hang out with other guests in the kitchen or family room if you choose. 

Tierra Soul Urband Farmhouse

Breakfast is not included because there are so many eateries and coffee shops available down the street on North Mississipi Ave. With the cheap cost of transit in Portland, this is the perfect location to stay in while enjoying different eclectic pockets of the city. 


After Portland, we drove to Newport, Oregon and spent another charming night at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. Then we continued on to San Francisco. My creative, quirky side definitely flourished in Portland, and like most Portlandians, I was totally cool with that, snakes and all. 
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November 26, 2013

Creamy Tomato Rice Soup

When a friend is getting married, you go out of your way to make sure she feels special. This particular friend didn't want a huge, over-the-top Bachelorette party. Like me, she enjoys hanging out low key-style with watching movies, playing boardgames and enjoying good conversation. So I suggested something more active, fun and adventurous.


I first heard about these new additions to Ontario Parks through their blog when they were promoting their "glamping" adventures this past summer. A few years back, I was invited to go "winter camping" and was not too pleased at the thought. I think the other girls were a little hesitant this time as well until they saw where we were staying. The soft-sided shelter had a stove heater, lighting, electricity, bunk beds with mattresses, a microwave and a fridge. When I plan a weekend getaway, I go in style and this definitely lived up to the "glamping" name. 


These types of yurts and cabins are only available at Pinery Provincial Park, Arrowhead Provincial Park and Murphy's Point in Ontario and fit a maximum of five people. We started the weekend by going for a hike around the park and then headed into town for dinner at a local pub. Afterwards, we went back to the yurt and spent the night playing games, chatting and staying warm by the fire. At one point we were complaining that the stove was turned too high and we were TOO warm. I felt a little bit sorry for the other people in the park camping in tents. The weather was gorgeous and not too cold and after two days we officially survived a weekend of "winter camping." 


Food is an important element of any weekend trip. In our old age, we tend to lean towards healthier snacks and no longer eat a whole bag of "Smart Food" in one sitting--unfortunately that was a regular occurrence for me in first year University. On this trip we had fruit, muffins, smoothies, cheese, crackers and vegetables. Look at us being so responsible and healthy. It was a Bachelorette Party though, so what happened at the campsite, stays at the campsite...


For lunch on Sunday, we were treated to some homemade soup made by the Bride herself. When I asked where she got the recipe, she said it was from the 2013 Milk Calendar. "The Milk Calendar, really?" I said. Yes, the same Milk Calendar I have had hanging right in front of my face this whole year. I stared at this soup for the month of May and I couldn't then recall seeing it. I guess it had become so ingrained in my brain that I knew I would make it eventually. We warmed up with bowls of soup and spent the morning playing more boardgames and hanging out before driving back to the city. 

Milk Calendar 2013

Creamy Tomato Rice Soup (recipe from the 2013 Milk Calendar)
Ingredients:

1 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 chopped onion
1 1/2 tsp dried basil, oregano or Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup sodium-reduced chicken or vegetable broth
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup cooked rice or mixed grains (quinoa or lentils would also work)
1/2 tsp sugar (optional)


Directions:

1. In a large pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, basil, salt and pepper; cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until tender.
2. Add tomatoes and broth; cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and boil gently, covered, for 10 minutes or until tomatoes are soft.
3. Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender in pot or transferring soup in batches to a blender, puree soup until smooth. Return to post.
4. Whisk flour into milk; gradually pour into pot while whisking.
5. Stir in rice and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Season to taste with sugar, pepper and salt. 

Creamy Tomato Rice Soup
 
I don't know if it was because we were camping, it was November or I was hungry, but the soup was so good that when I got back I ripped the recipe off of the calendar and stuck in my "to-make" recipe file. This is such an easy and hearty soup that is also only 200 calories per serving. Just like girl's weekends, you can be responsible and still enjoy yourself--splurging is alright sometimes too. 
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November 14, 2013

Green beans with dates

We don't really have official date nights. The last time we had what I thought was a date night, my fiance asked: "Wait, is this a date night? Does that mean I can't go and play video games?" In my mind, watching a movie and going out for ice cream constitutes as a date night. I'm not the type of person who needs to label things anyway. A date is a date is a date, or is it? We'll get to that later, but first...

Canadian Parliament Building

Recently, we went to Ottawa for a family wedding. We like traveling together, so I suppose that is something we like instead of official date nights. I hadn't been to the capital city in a long time. It was nice to see the Parliament buildings and the many interesting museums. I thought it was neat to see people from all over the world interested in learning more about Canada.


However, anyone who has been following Canadian politics lately knows there is some tension in the goings on of the senate. Because we were there on a Saturday, it was fairly quiet. I am sure it is not so quiet during the week, especially in the senate room. I wouldn't mind hanging out at the library all the time though--or living there.

Senate Building

The highlight of the weekend was the wedding at the Museum of Nature. I never thought about having a wedding in a museum. It was like a night at the museum. We got to explore the dinosaur exhibit during cocktail hour and the reception hall was a beautiful, historic hall. 


Instead of photoshopping funny things into your photos, just take them next to real (well, somewhat real) dinosaurs. The decor was a mix of rustic and elegant and everyone took home a jar of jam as a favour. Plus, there was a candy bar, which is always my favourite part besides spending time with family. 


Back at home, I got a special treat and I officially pronounced it "date night." This treat, however, was from Natural Delights who sent me a tub of their Medjool Dates. These are not the dried up, stale dates you buy in the bulk store. Natural Delights Medjool dates are fresh with a caramel-like, chewy texture. They are soft, juicy and practically melt in your mouth. I learned that not all dates are the same. Sometimes, you need to proclaim an official date night to celebrate all the sweet things. 

Natural Delights Medjool Dates

My first thought was to make a dessert or squares with the dates. Instead, I added them to a green bean side dish instead of regular dried fruit. The dates made the dish quite sweet, so I would use them sparingly. 

Green Beans with Medjool Dates and Almonds

1 lb of green beans, trimmed
1/3 cup dates, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to season

Green Beans

Directions:

1. Trim and rinse the green beans and place them on a baking sheet. Toss them with the olive oil,  sugar and season with the salt and pepper.
2. Roast for about 20 minutes until slightly browned.
3. Toss with lemon juice, almonds and dates. 

Green Beans with Dates
 

I made these green beans for a side along with pork and pumpkin sage polenta. I know this is not so romantic, but green beans are good for you and a couple of Medjool Dates provides 12 per cent of your daily fibre, as well as plenty of potassium and polythenols. It is a happy ending for all. 

Disclosure: I received samples from Natural Delights for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.  
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