Taking my joy from… 9

Neolithic stone circle on flat plain surrounded by hills in the Lake District.
Castlerigg Stone Circle

Someone once said you can tell just as much from a writer’s quiet periods as you can from when they write a lot. For me, it usually means I’ve been busy or haven’t had much to say. I do try to follow this wonderful advice when engaging my inner editor, whether during a conversation, social media update or in my writing:

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does this need to be said by me?
  • Does this need to be said by me, right now?

I don’t always manage, but when I do follow it, I find my interactions much more satisfying and real, somehow.

Time for what is bringing me joy right now:

  • I am excited about a new series of blog posts I’m writing, all about my favourite places in Leeds and Yorkshire. It started as one blog post, but quickly got out of control in the draft stage. I’ve broken the content into several posts, including wonderful things to do in Leeds, as well as easy day-trips from Leeds to beautiful countryside walks, market towns, other nearby cities like York, and my favourite places to eat. Stay tuned!
  • Pop culture has been super nerdtastic lately, with Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame. I needed a little escape, especially from British politics. Perfect.
  • Recently watched Knock Down The House on Netflix. Wow! All.The.Feels.
  • My boy Tom at Hive Hair Salon has been taking care of my new-ish platinum hair, and I love it so much!
  • While in the Lake District, we visited Castlerigg Stone Circle and I was thrilled to read that Coleridge and Wordsworth had visited a mere 220 years earlier. This Canadian English Lit major never gets tired of how much history (over so many centuries!) I stumble across over here.
  • Finally, check out Street Food on Netflix. First, make sure you have lots of food in the house or you’ve ordered something delicious.

Taking my joy from… 8

It’s Saturday! Make that Caturday!

I’m supposed to be gathering up my information for my UK tax return. Instead, I’m writing a blog post.

How was everyone’s first proper week back in normal? I had a great break, but normal feels nice too. All that holiday pressure has vanished. Leeds swiftly put its Christmas decorations away so it’s like the holiday never happened.

Roll on winter. It’s time to read those books people gave you as gifts, pour a glass of something nice, grab your favourite blanket, optional cuddly pet, and stay home.

To that end, everything bringing me joy right now has a cosy, hibernating quality. There are no trips on the horizon, and for once I’m ok with that.

  • I don’t often come across a novel that I completely fall in love with, but when I do I simultaneously want to share it with everyone I know, while not wanting it to ever leave my shelf of treasured books. Happily, I can tell you to buy it yourself or suggest borrowing it from your local library. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is so very, very good. It almost doesn’t matter what it’s about – the writing is that beautiful. If you are having trouble understanding how to ‘show, don’t tell’ in your own writing, read this book.
  • Outlander has had some uneven episodes/seasons, but the last few episodes have been knocking it out of the park and remind me why I love this show.
  • A co-worker suggested the game Bananagrams as it’s nice and compact for travelling. Although we bought it as a Christmas gift, we’re totally going to buy it again for ourselves. It’s an anagram game, so this word nerd was all over it. Plus the tiles have a lovely feel – I couldn’t stop touching them.
  • Finally, I am so freakin’ glad that Catastrophe is back, but so sad that it’s the final season.

Resolutions for 2019

Light purple 2019 numbers in front of fireworks on a dark blue background

Happy New Year! I hope 2019 is a good one for you.

I’m not going to focus on my perennial resolutions – the ones that have been with me since university – all having to do with healthy lifestyle choices. I’ve made inroads in them over the years, but I don’t see January 1st as the day to resolve anew. It’s more like a big helping of broccoli seems like an absolute lifeline, and shortbread becomes as sickly sweet and inappropriate as a Christmas carol in January.

My favourite and most successful resolutions have been creative and fun. There was the year that I decided to try foods from as many countries as possible – easily done in super multicultural Toronto. Ended up loving most of them (sorry Ethiopian). What’s more, I felt like I’d finally unshackled myself from being a less than confident eater thanks to my childhood meals of meat, potatoes and green beans. We take our earliest cues about food from our parents, and I still struggle with many fish dishes as a result.

One January I enrolled in a food writing class – who knew it would become the beginning of my certificate in editing and a huge shift in career opportunities? I originally decided to take the course just to make sure I was attributing other people’s recipes properly on my then-fledgling blog. I didn’t expect to ignite a fierce desire to write, no matter how much the feedback on my assignments stung.

So in that spirit, what should my resolutions for 2019 be?

For that I need to look at the dreams I had about life in Yorkshire before we even arrived. I saw myself carrying my camera around. I saw myself lacing up my hiking boots. I saw myself reading books in cosy pubs. I carried those images of myself throughout lengthy Toronto commutes and weekly errands along utilitarian Dufferin Street. It’s time I did those sort of things more often. They seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle of making a new life here.

And maybe it’s time to give fish another whirl.

Just breathe.

beach at bamburgh

I went to a restorative yoga class for the first time last night, while simultaneously playing host to a slowly ebbing migraine that nonetheless pulsed behind my right eye and refused to go gently into that good night.

I get tired of migraines sidelining me and I was determined to go to this class anyway. Besides – I knew that it certainly wouldn’t make my head feel worse.

And while it would have been nice to arrive to this class pain-free, I simply didn’t have the energy to care. And that turned out to be for the best. I didn’t bother with my usual anxiety, perfectionism and gracelessness – usually on hand to psyche me out like my grade-school gym teacher any time I try anything more physical than walking.

Instead, I gave myself permission to do a really bad job of following the instructions and gratefully accepted all the help from the instructor and the helper (there were a lot of blankets, bolsters and blocks involved in this class). The kicker was realising that I couldn’t wear my glasses, making the entire room as blurry as a Monet. Even more reason to do a ‘bad job’ of the poses.

The other thing I didn’t really have energy for was breathing properly, and focusing on the breath, and all that. Not at first, anyway. And that was ok with me. I was doing the poses, I was in a warm, dim room with several like-minded souls who were all craving the same calm and peace. I let my mind chatter away and breathed automatically and just didn’t care if I was counting to four or not. And of course, that’s when I calmed down. In a non-striving, it’s enough to be here and see what this class is like kind of way.

And then I started to breathe and focus on the breath, and breathed and focused on the breath. And breathed and focused on the breath.

I’m going to peel away the ‘everything is fine!’ facade for a few moments and be real.

It’s been a tough year. I read the news with horrified fascination and then try to take media breaks, only to be dragged back into the fray when the next ridiculous horrible stupendously stupid headline unfurls. Uncertainty is something I am very uncomfortable with, like most people, and I feel like every day I get a double portion of it, from the world at large, and as a freelancer. It’s making me tired and sad. It’s making me not recognise myself. It’s shaking my confidence daily. It’s keeping me from being creative.

So I started to breathe and focus on the breath, and breathed and focused on the breath. And breathed and focused on the breath.

I breathed until it felt like my heart was going to break with all the feelings I’ve been holding in check.

And I heard a little voice. It said:

Write.

 

 

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)

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.

Lisbon

IMG_5910

I’ve just returned from a few sunny days in Lisbon, a city that I’d previously made the mistake of overlooking. Portugal 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:

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 after flipping 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 it is absolutely amazing. I’ll let Time Out explain in their own words:

IMG_5926

Have a look at their Instagram page here to get a sense of the size and scale of the market. We sat outside – it was such a lovely, sunny day and a bit more peaceful to 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 chances 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 my 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 city views of the city.

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.

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 at a sidewalk table 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

IMG_5940.jpg

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.