Taking my joy from…7

Sycamore Gap Hadrians Wall

Autumn, with its crisp air, crunchy leaves, and hide-and-seek sunshine, is here.

Yorkshire definitely knows how to put on a good, lingering autumn, with lots of chances to wrap up in cosy knitwear, and pull out favourite chili and stew recipes for slow-cooking Sundays.

In Toronto the fall season starts with sticky, humid t-shirt weather, brief interludes of chilly jacket weather, and – far too quickly – intrepid Torontonians are back to zipping up parkas, wrapping thick scarves and pulling on gloves and hats.

Long live invigorating jacket weather, and having fun with layers!

Other things bringing me joy:

  • Because I am all about English and Scottish history these days, we recently took a road trip further north to what I kept accidentally calling ‘Northumbria’ (a medieval kingdom), but what are actually the present-day counties of Northumberland and Cumbria. We had a peaceful walk on the beach at Bamburgh Castle, a quick gaze at Hadrian’s Wall (Sycamore Gap is pictured above), and a stunning drive home through the Lake District. My mind thrilled to all the history, and my eyes soaked up all the splendor. Trips like this are why we moved over here.
  • After several months of bingeing, I’m all caught up with the podcast Rex Factor, where Graham and Ali review all the kings and queens of England (1st series) and of the Scots (2nd series). They’re partially responsible for my current obsession with history and I’m totally psyched to see them live in a few weeks.
  • It was very cool to tag along when Jeff was the guest of the lovely John Marley on his bi-weekly radio show, ‘Jazz on Tempo’ with John Marley on Tempo 107.4 FM. Although Jeff’s interview was live and is now lost to to the gods of ephemera, you can tune into future episodes of John’s show on alternating Monday nights from 8 – 10 pm (GMT+1). I know we will be listening tomorrow night – John’s fantastic and supremely knowledgeable about all things jazz.
  • Always love a good thrift-bookstore find. Most recently it was picking up The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook for a couple of pounds. I’ve already taken the pumpkin pie recipe out for a spin when we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving. It was a hit, even with English friends who’d never had it before.
  • I’m glad I’m part of the world’s population that can experience audio frisson – and for me it’s always in the same place in certain songs, no matter how often I listen to them. (one fave: AF607105 by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with my goosebumps appearing on cue at 2:27)

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Taking my joy from… 6

cheeky gin and tonic

Well.

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had lots of things to be happy about, but life has been busy, with good stuff, great stuff, and a lovely smattering of not-so-great moments that, while uncomfortable, have been talked out over wine with friends and shifted into their proper perspective: to serve as excellent counterpoints to make happy news and events even more awesome.

These days, I’m taking my joy from:

  • Days – no, weeks – of absolutely perfect weather. Blue skies, never ending sunsets, gentle breezes, lots of sunshine. And now that I have a little outdoor table and a couple of lawn chairs, my front garden is now the most exclusive place in Yorkshire for a cheeky gin and tonic, or splitting a bottle of wine.
  • Related to my first point and the photo gracing this post, it’s been over a year since I bought a set of 4 pink plastic tumblers from Flying Tiger and they still make me happy every time.
  • Binging old seasons of The Great British Bake Off on Netflix – especially because Jeff is just as enthralled as I am!
  • Grocery shopping at the new Aldi – it’s nice to finally have a big, good, affordable grocery store in the village.
  • Day trips: They blast the cobwebs out of my soul, make me glad to be alive, and fill me with gratitude for being around so much beauty and craftsmanship.
  • I’ve talked about Nigella’s Chicken Mango and Chilli Salad before, but it is so delicious and perfect for warm days that it bears repeating.

Harder to hit; becoming a moving target

No book on creativity has stayed with me quite like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s seared onto my mind, its concepts and ideas bubbling up in my thoughts, invited or not.

I certainly didn’t act on many of the concepts when I first read it in whatever the heck my twenties ended up being – let’s just say ‘not a creative time’ is a generous assessment. But I felt like I was doing something right and good for myself whenever I read it. And that’s not nothing.

Flash forward to now.

Moving to Leeds? Living a simpler life? Giving my thoughts more time to percolate? Addressing and reducing some anxiety triggers? Better ley lines? Beautiful places to walk? Friendly people? More cups of tea?

I’m never going to completely understand this phenomenon: put simply, my cup of creativity now runneth over. I try to harness bolts of inspiration when they strike, and more importantly, have the confidence to act on them.

Having different projects on the go means that I can hop around. If I’m in a proofreading drought, I can write blog posts to stay sharp. If I want to step away from the laptop, I can wander over to the kitchen and make something nice for dinner. If I want to keep busy while listening to a podcast, I can grab my knitting needles.

Recently I started a project that has been rewarding, challenging, frustrating, boring, and exciting. It has filled me with dread. It’s activated a virulent strain of ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s made me joyful to the point of exuberance. I’ve had to ask for help – I couldn’t do it all myself and outsourced key elements to talented professionals. I’ve also had to scold a printer for doing a lousy job and wasting a week of my time.

Working on it helped me through a cold winter week without heat, fallow times while freelancing, and kept my mind occupied during that grim time after the relief wears off after a job interview and turns into waiting to hear if I’ve progressed to the next level or not.

And that’s when I realised that I am embodying a principle from Week 8 of The Artist’s Way – something Julia Cameron calls a ‘diverse, hydra-headed productivity’, or put another way, becoming a ‘moving target’.

I don’t expect Bellicose Soap Co. to make me a billionaire, but I hope that having the occasional order to fill will be a nice change of pace from writing and editing. It will make me happy to send these little soaps off into the world – my idea, my creative burst made real.

Lisbon

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I’ve just returned from a few sunny days in Lisbon, a city that I’d previously made the mistake of overlooking. Portugal just wasn’t on my radar – not part of my European canon of long-cherished dream travel experiences. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Lisbon is white-hot at the moment and buzzing like crazy. As I write, they are hosting Eurovision and the city is reaching fever pitch with passionate fans of the annual song contest descending in droves. The food in Lisbon is fantastic, the people are friendly, and the prices are reasonable – for example, we made their excellent transit system our bitch for 3 days and it cost less than 15 euros each, including our trip to the airport.

I’d tell you to go, but the secret is already out – it seems like half the people I know are already planning to visit, or are wandering around those crazy cobblestone streets right now.

Armchair Travel

I love sharing other people’s wonderful media and photography and no matter how much I fill my phone with snaps, I appreciate the next level photography I find online:

Richard Ayoade just slays me – his Travel Man series may veer off into silly an awful lot, but you still get a good sense of the city:

Also,

15 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Lisbon – Condé Nast Traveler 

and

These 18 Pictures Will Convince You That Lisbon Is the Most Beautiful City in Europe – Culture Trip

Food and Drink

We really lucked out on this trip for eating well. I did a little bit of research and ‘starred’ a few noteworthy places (something I talk about here), but we also threw a few random walks down random streets into the mix and were handsomely rewarded for our adventurous spirit.

Honorato Hamburgueres Artesanais – totally random pick, saw it across the street while walking in our AirBnB’s neighborhood, knew we were on to something awesome before we even crossed the threshold. They have a simple menu of burgers, and they endeared me to them further by offering mini versions at smaller price points. Wash your burger down with a fishbowl-sized gin & tonic – flip through their impressive cocktail menu, or order their cocktail of the day.

 

Time Out Market – all I can say is WOW! This place! Bring your appetite, bring your patience, suppress your aversion to crowds, because this place is absolutely amazing. I’ll let Time Out explain it in their own words:

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Have a look at their Instagram page here to get a sense of the size and scale of the market. Our group opted to sit outside – it was such a lovely, sunny day and a bit more peaceful to sit and get table service at Balcão da Esquina. My pork sandwich seemed like a quick choice while scanning the menu but it was damn tasty, on some of the best bread I’ve eaten in ages. While wandering around the market after lunch, I could see myself coming back to Lisbon on a longer trip, simply to have more opportunities to eat at all the other excellent restaurants.

 

And a huge thanks to this Guardian city guide for tipping me off to Palácio Chiado, a palatial (#sorrynotsorry) set of five restaurants under one roof. The best part?  You can order off all five menus no matter where you are seated. This meant we could start with Spanish acorn-fed 100% Ibérico ham, olives and bread, move on to a Hawaiian poke bowl filled with bite-sized chunks of sushi-grade raw salmon and Japanese flavours, while the husband could go another healthy direction – grilled tuna covered in chimichurri sauce on a bed of millet and sweet potatoes. Then I veered over into Italy for some gelato, and Jeff finished things off with a nice glass of port. A great restaurant if you and your group aren’t quite sure what you’re in the mood for, but you know you want great food in beautiful surroundings. Sounds like me, all the time.

Fun

You don’t go to a city dubbed ‘The City of Seven Hills’ without craving a few lookout points. A few of my favourites:

Miradouro de Santa Luzia – calling it an observation deck just seems so clinical. Resplendent with red roses, a pergola, and sweeping views of the city and the Tagus River.

Castelo de S. Jorge – a Moorish castle from the 11th century. Of course, there’s much more to explore than just the view.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos – take the elevator to the top of this monument for stunning views of the Tagus River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and a beautiful suspension bridge called Ponte 25 de Abril.

I’m a big enthusiast of simply wandering, especially in such a sunny, warm city – stroll through ancient squares, have a glass of Vinho Verde on a sidewalk while watching the world go by, do a bit of shopping, and enjoy your city break. But if you need ideas….

The best things to do in Lisbon – Time Out

Top things to do in Lisbon – Lonely Planet

21 things to see on a weekend trip to Lisbon – lastminute.com

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Steel cut oats, 3 ways

brown butter chocolate oatmeal

brown butter chocolate oatmeal

Winter is still in full force in Yorkshire, which is totally not what I signed up for when I moved here from Canada. That means oatmeal, made from steel cut oats, continues to be my daily choice for breakfast – it’s not quite time for the refreshing chill of frozen berry smoothies yet.

I switched to steel cut oats years ago. Less processing makes for a lower glycemic index, which means my breakfast truly lasts until lunchtime. They take longer to cook than instant rolled oats, but make 4 servings at a time – just add a splash of water to a portion of the fridge-cold cooked oatmeal, and nuke in the microwave on high for about 2 minutes. They’re called pinhead oats in the UK, which my phone hilariously auto-corrects to ‘pinheaded oafs’.

The first recipe is the one I use the most often:

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup steel cut oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. As you add the oats, reduce the temperature to low and stir constantly at first, making sure the oats don’t boil over. Add salt after about 5 minutes of cooking. Simmer on low for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal is thick and creamy.

Add your choice of toppings – I usually sprinkle on cinnamon, maple syrup, toasted pecans, banana slices and milk.

But as delicious as this is, I’ve got two other recipes up my sleeve:

If it’s autumn and you’re jumping on the Pumpkin Spice bandwagon, give The Kitchn’s Baked Pumpkin Steel Cut Oatmeal a go. They’ve updated the recipe for slow cookers as well. Flavoured with pumpkin puree, brown sugar, vanilla, and scented with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg, it’s everything nice about the advent of falling leaves (and temperatures).

This next recipe steers directly into chocolate land, but manages to stay healthy. With a name like Brown Butter Chocolate Oatmeal you’ll feel like you should save this for a special occasion, but don’t. It perked up my Monday morning in no small way. You’ll need to sign up for NYT Cooking to get the recipe, but it’s worth it. Basically you brown butter in a saucepan, toast your steel cut oats in it for a few minutes, and then stir cocoa powder into the boiling water before adding in the buttery oats and a smidge of salt. I topped mine with a sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts, demerara sugar and a little milk.

 

A Canadian’s thoughts on British snow

Many people asked me what I thought of the snow this week in Yorkshire. On one hand, it’s been a laughable amount to this intrepid Canadian, but on the other hand, I can’t join in to the jokes that colder, snowier countries are making.

People have died. People have been stranded in their cars, stranded on trains, stranded at home.

It all boils down to infrastructure. Countries and cities that regularly experience heavy snowfall have the means to remove it and melt it, while I can only guess that many parts of the UK have a seriously limited contingency plan. In contrast, Montreal’s snow-removal budget for 2017 was $159 million. When we lived in Ottawa, I remember seeing special snow melting trucks slowly rumbling down our street during particularly heavy snowfalls.

But you simply can’t expect a nation that rarely has to deal with snow to have a good handle on things when it does. And it doesn’t matter how familiar I am with walking on snowy and icy sidewalks – when I’m on the bus, I’m still at the mercy of the driver’s abilities. I distinctly felt my bus slide to a stop a couple of times at red lights. An in-town journey that usually takes 15 minutes took 40 minutes on Thursday morning. I can completely understand why people commuting from further away chose to take snow days.

And why not? Why endanger themselves when something a bit unusual is happening? Schools and nurseries were closed for part of the week, so many people had no choice but to stay home. I heard stories of families playing in the snow – tobogganing in Chapel Allerton Park, making snowmen, making memories with their kids.

And who doesn’t love a snow day? I was really impressed with how seriously the office I temped in handled various staff members’ decisions to stay home. There was no shaming, no ridicule, no sarcastic  ‘air quotes’ about working from home. If I’m honest, I was a bit sad that I didn’t live far away enough to have a snow day myself!

I grew up in the country, on an unpaved rural road. If I heard my parents listening to the local radio station before 6:30 am, I knew it was only a matter of time before my bus and/or school would be cancelled. We’d also get an early-morning phone call if the buses weren’t running. I would snuggle back down under the covers, grateful for a reprieve from math quizzes and science projects; smug in the knowledge that my brothers and I would likely spend most of the day tobogganing. Turning on the radio in the mornings this week transported me straight back to that feeling, except I had to continue putting on my makeup and checking bus times.

I also have a happy memory of my father from when I was about 16. One icy, snowy night he picked me up in town, but we had to ditch our car on an icy road about a mile from our house. We left my shopping bags in the car, and walked hand in hand to keep each other from slipping. It was nice to have my dad take such good care of me.

So it doesn’t matter that the phrases ‘freezing rain’ and ‘ice storm’ strike more fear in my heart than the prospect of snow. All that matters is that everyone does their best to stay safe and warm.

Lost your cooking mojo? 5 ways to get it back

pIzza fella

if only pizza could be the answer every day

If you usually love to cook, ending up in a slump can be difficult. You might be recovering from an illness or suffering from burnout at work. Maybe the last few recipes you tried didn’t quite do it for you or your family, or perhaps these days you just. don’t. feel. like. cooking.

Unlike other creative pastimes, cooking is also a means to an end, and even though you don’t want to do it, you’ve still got to eat. What’s worse, if part of your identity is wrapped up in being proud of your cooking skills, it’s easy to fall into a bit of a shame-spiral that can make coming back to the kitchen even more difficult.

I’m here to say it’s ok, it’s normal, and it happens to everyone.

Here are 5 ways to get your mojo back:

  1. Can’t someone else do it? Sometimes you just need a break. Is there anyone else in your household who can pick up the slack? Every adult needs to know how to cook simple meals, even if they don’t like to. It’s just part of life. Can you order in? Pick up a ready-made meal? These aren’t long-term solutions, as they will hit you in your wallet, along with filling you up with sodium, fat and hidden sugars. But if you need a night or two off, go easy and give yourself some room to breathe.
  2. Watch or read (the right kind of) food porn. Don’t tune in to shows, cookbooks or websites featuring aspirational, gourmet cooking with tons of ingredients and fussy, time-consuming techniques. It will only make you feel worse about your slump. Instead, stick to simple recipes designed to get food on the table – fast, with short ingredient lists and time-saving suggestions.
    • Some favourites:
      • The Kitchn. This link goes straight to their videos page – I’m much more likely to be entranced by something if I watch a video rather than reading a recipe. At very least I need an awesome photo.
      • Jamie Oliver’s latest Channel 4 series, Jamie’s Quick & Easy Food and tie-in book 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food didn’t just get me out of my recent slump, they inspired this post as well.
      • Buzzfeed Food. I can’t think of a better place to watch cooking videos, find recipes or simply remember that food is supposed to be fun. Also good for silly quizzes, if nothing else grabs you.
  3. Cook in advance on the weekend. Truth time – I absolutely detest cooking from scratch on a weeknight when I work in an office. I’m often tired and cranky when I get home from my commute, so my cooking mojo is always at its lowest ebb. A recipe that may have sounded amazing on Saturday afternoon will probably be too much work for me by the time Tuesday evening rolls around. Thanks to this prized piece of self-knowledge, I do most of my cooking on the weekend – usually big pots of soup, chili or stew for portioning and freezing, roasting a large chicken for lots of leftovers, and roasting trays of vegetables to use throughout the week. And low-key weekends are also ideal for trying new recipes.
  4. Fall back in love with your kitchen. Go through your pantry staples, organise your spice rack, de-clutter your cupboards. Clean out the fridge and freezer. You may rediscover ingredients you bought with the best of intentions. If they are non-perishable, use them as a jumping off point for a future recipe. If they have gone bad, chuck them out and remember to go easy on yourself. This decluttering task can be a bigger job than you think – definitely order pizza that night.
  5. Get some new gear. Once your kitchen is feeling organised and calm, consider rewarding yourself with a new piece of equipment – anything that you’ve always meant to get to make things easier. A mortar & pestle? A new blender? It could be as simple and cheap as replacing a cookie sheet, or as luxurious as a top-of-the-line food processor. Celebrate your new purchase with that recipe you’ve been meaning to make for ages.