I'm making Chicken Parmesan.  The smells wafting their way about my kitchen are enough to make me want to renounce my Canadian citizenship and head straight for some more exotic land.  First, I work on the Tomato Sauce which cries out to be christened in some glamorously melodic language.  Plebian, mundane, sadly English 'Tomato Sauce' doesn't capture the sultry beauty of it.  I've splurged and bought my first can of really wonderful tomatoes.  They hail from Italy.   Look at how pretty they are.  I like the cans so much, I could see myself lining a part of my cabinet with them were not my cabinets lined already with other things I think are pretty.
When I opened these tomatoes, I felt a bit like an eager child.  I'd always wondered about these lovely, mysterious cans, but they always seemed like tomatoes for another, more prosperous day.  Tomatoes for another girl.  But today they belong to me and as I gaze into the can's rich redness, I see with my own eyes that these are indeed special tomatoes.  They are small and pear-ish and hold their shape beautifully.  A subtle bouquet of basil rises up to greet me in all its sublime freshness.  They are the farthest thing from the pulverized President's Choice mash that normally features so prominently in my cooking.  I didn't know canned tomatoes could be so lovely.

And then, as though these otherworldly globes were not enough for the procurement of culinary ecstasy, I follow the instructions to learn that I must then add these:
And this. 

And other lovely things.  I feel nearly fulfilled just sitting here in my kitchen, smelling it all melding, slowly, simmeringly.  I almost don't need to eat it, the aroma is so captivating.  I smell the licoricey basil, perhaps first and foremost.  If the ingredients have layered themselves, basil reigns, heady at the top.  I love basil and I never wash my hands after cutting it into its thin, pungent strips because I know I can then carry that smell with me as I live out the next portion of my day, cupping my hands against my face, breathing in deeply as I wait in my near-perpetual perch in the driver's seat of my car for various schools to dismiss various children.  Yes, I always err on the side of adding more basil.  I smell the tangy balsamic vinegar and the fresh parsley and the garlic.  I close my eyes briefly and believe in my heart that I am bellisima and that I live here:
Surely this rain and this Canadian persona are just a figment of my imagination.
I've loved it for as long as I can remember.  I've drunk it in an official capacity since my reluctant Mom finally said yes.  Before that, I surreptitiously sneaked cups of it from her omnipresent brew.  There are few physical sensations I relish more than sticking my nose into a freshly opened bag of heady, dark roast Starbucks beans. 

I very reluctantly weaned myself off it for each of my pregnancies, which for this and countless other reasons seemed to last eons.  About once each year I gradually change my caffinated/decaffinated ratio so that I'm 'off the stuff' just to see that I can.  I hate the idea that I'm held captive to a substance and so I do my little experiment every now and then to prove my supposed dominance over coffee. 

It's one of those things that brings me a disproportionate amount of pleasure.  What's yours?

JoyBoy made all my Christmas dreams come true in a gift sense this year.  When my sisters and I spent part of November in Maui, our ziplining escapades were earmarked as my Christmas gift for this year.  In my mind, that helped justify the expense.  However, in a combined annoying/delighting move, JoyBoy countermanded my strict injunctions to meander no farther into the Land of Gifts.  As is his way, he promptly ignored me and came home a few days before Christmas, heavily laden with something I've coveted for years and years. 

For very close to a decade, I've wanted a Kitchen Aid mixer, but could never justify getting one for myself.  There were many more pressing financial priorities obscuring my view of the Land of Unlimited Kitchen Glory.  Things like braces for cute kids with gnarled teeth.  Disability insurance:  the most decidedly unsexy financial priority I've yet paid hand over fist for.  This type of thing.   So when that guy walked in, lugging in the monstrously heavy and tangible fulfillment of all my kitchen fantasies, I very nearly swooned.  And then I made this.  I highly recommend that you do, too.  It's even better the second day, chilly and freshly liberated from it's refrigerated confines.

Old Fashioned Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Recipe courtesy of Barefoot Contessa’s How Easy Is That

3 very ripe bananas, mashed (I used four)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)
Walnut halves, for decorating

PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 2-inch round cake pan.

MIX bananas, granulated sugar and brown sugar in bowl with an electric mixer on low speed until combined. Add oil, eggs, sour cream. vanilla and orange zest. Mix until smooth.

STIR together flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl. With mixer on low, add dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Stir in chopped walnuts. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes, turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely.

SPREAD frosting thickly on top of cake and decorate with walnut halves. Slice and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar (1/2 pound)

MIX cream cheese, butter and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment on low speed until just combined. Don’t whip. Add sugar and mix until smooth.

We had - as we most often do - my husband's extended family over for Christmas dinner.  Even though the two-days' work of it beforehand sometimes feels a bit prohibitive, once they all arrive - noisy, laughing masses of them - it all feels well worth it. 

The kids have all grown up to an age where they're almost entirely independent and so we adults are freed up to selfishly pursue our own less infantile (or so we tell ourselves) interests.  Long moments of huddling over toddler -sized plates, painstakingly cutting up bits of turkey so they  no longer pose choking hazards, characterize these times together no longer.  The youngest in the group is my very own Oliver, who is a great, big, self-sufficient seven and who runs around frantically, shirt-tail sweatily untucked, with the very best of them.

There were 22 of us gathered together and to say that we were loud is a ludicrous understatement.  We aggressively clamored for conversational preeminence.  Once achieved, that heady position was almost instantly again stolen by the next extrovert.

The kids played pool, ping-pong and fooseball.  They chased one another around and basked in the delicious warm of spending long chunks of unscheduled time with not-oft-seen cousins.  It made me feel a stab of happy watching them enjoy themselves so much.  They didn't even seem to need the atrocious culinary excess to fulfill all their Christmas dreams in the way we adults most markedly did.  We ate till we felt sick and asked one another in a turkey-induced daze, "why would I do that to myself?"  And then we had dessert.

We had a white elephant gift exchange, which was the brain-child of my very clever sister-in-law.  We were allowed three steals per gift and it was a lot of fun.  I also loved that it didn't contribute to yet more excess, and in fact, allowed us to do some intentional regifting to those whom we felt would be more suitable recipients of the 'goods' we had on hand.

In a fit of Christmas generosity, I want to share a new-to-me recipe that a friend passed along this year.  Though to call this a vegetable requires a great deal of eye squinting and even some intentional misleading., we ate and loved this trashy little number this year.  It is the o-so-lofty and elegant sounding:

Sweet Potato Souffle

2 cups cooked, mashed sweet potato
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup evaporated milk
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. cinnamon

Beat together.  Bake 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees Celcius until set in a shallow, buttered casserole dish.  Sprinkle with topping and return to oven for 10-15 minutes longer before serving. 

Topping (mix together in a small bowl):

1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts
3/4 cup rice krispies

In no particular order or quantity (just always remember to go heavy on the vinegar, feta and capers!), mix together the following and be ready to collapse from the sheer joy of it all:

cooked wheatberries (I like the unsoaked version - I love the bitey texture)
chopped purple onion
kalamata olives
chopped tomatoes
feta cheese
red wine vinegar (or white)
liberal quantities of sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
a splash of olive oil
My sisters are two of the very most beautiful women I know.  Have a gander:
I'm the lucky girl who got to spend ten consecutive days with these vibrant beauties.  My goodness did we laugh.  We laughed till we felt a bit sick.  And then we laughed some more.  I'd forgotten how alive they are.  I haven't seen them on a regular basis since I moved out to go to university when I was 17, but they, on the other hand, have very literally grown up together.  They are similar to one another in most ways.   

I share most (if not all) of their food tastes.  Having married a very meat-and-potatoes kind of man, it's very exciting to me to be able to meander up and down grocery aisles with them, picking out favorites and then coming home to prepare it to find that they love it all too!  We glutted ourselves on poke, something I'd never heard of before, but what is now indisputably one of my all-time favorite foods.  It's a raw fish - most often ahi tuna.  It's cut into cubes and marinated in various concoctions.  I salivate as I type this description.  My favorite is a spicy one sprinkled with fresh roe, but let's face it, I've yet to meet a poke I didn't love, and love passionately. 

We carefully pored through cookbooks and chose exotic salads to prepare.  We ate a phenomenal wheat-berry one that nearly found me swooning.  We ate grilled eggplant stacks with goat cheese and a balsamic/red wine reduction.  We inhaled some amazing tabouleh.  We ate a miso/edamame/soba noodle salad.  And then there was the melon and prosciutto one that was all the more beautiful because we ate it on the beach while watching Jody twirl with the setting sun behind her (Despite the whimsical image this description evokes, it was really just downright hilarious and I nearly peed myself watching it all unfold.  Let's just say that there was some falling involved!).  We feasted on exotic cheeses and the girls introduced me to truffle for the first time (I'm sad to report that despite my very desperate wanting to love it, alas! I didn't.).  We found a favorite new white wine  called Cupcake that we originally bought solely for the beauty of it's label. 

We ziplined, which was a first for me and most definitively a trip highlight.  It wasn't as adrenalin-y as I'd hoped, but it was still so, so fun.  It was, in fact, my Christmas present from JoyBoy this year and it's a gift that I suspect will always rank high as an all-time fave.

We glutted ourselves on sunshine, golf-cart joyrides through places we weren't supposed to be and shopping.  We ran along the beach boardwalk and we did a new exercise class - zumba - which was also a  trip highlight.  I felt like a groovin' latina for a second there.  For the girl who can rarely make her body do what she wants it to do in the realm of The Dance, this was a novel sensation.  For one brief moment, I actually had my torso and my shoulders doing two separate things!

It was wonderful and I don't think I'll ever forget it.
Lucy had her birthday party today.   To celebrate her Purpleness, Anabel and I made these.  We learned how to from Bakerella, whom I cannot recommend  highly enough.  Check out her website at bakerella.com; you'll be happy you did.
I post this, even if only for my sisters.  They will love it and so might you.  The recipe serves four and is the equivalent of 3 weight watchers points per serving.  It rocks my socks, though I add lots of extra hot sauce to mine just before serving.  I could see cilantro enhancing things too.

2 cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 T soy sauce
1/8 t red pepper flakes (I added much more)
8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
4 t rice vinegar
2 T cornstarch
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 package firm low-fat tofu, cut into small cubes and drained well
2 T finely grated ginger
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 t toasted sesame oil

In a large pot, combine the broth, soy sauce, red pepper flakes and 2 cups water.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Add the mushrooms; reduce the heat, and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. 

In a small bowl, whisk together 3 T of the vinegar and the cornstarch.  Add to the pot; simmer, stirring, until the soup is thickened, about 1 minute.

Add the egg through a slotted spoon, and stir to form ribbons.  Stir in the tofu.  remove from the heat; let stand, covered, for 1 minute.  Add the ginger and the sesame oil.  Taste and add the remaining tablespoon of vinegar, if desired.  Serve sprinkled with the scallions.
I've chatted with several of my real-life friends, and I want to share another favorite new thing with my cyber buddies as well.  Go quick from here and google these words (if you're a lucky British Columbian, that is):  LadyBug Organics. 

These people have changed my life in a beautiful way.  Every Friday, they deliver - right to my doorstep - a big box full of a variety of organic fruits and vegetables.  It's a surprise everytime and we've never eaten more healthfully in our lives.  I'm also known as El-Cheapo and so it kills me to have anything rot and go to waste, which in this case, is a real advantage to me and to us.  I spend an inordinate amount of time prepping it all that first day it arrives and we proceed to spend the week eating all manner of interesting, often unusual, organic vegetables. 

We've never before eaten more swiss chard.  We've discovered that we love it!  When it's sauteed with a splash of olive oil, some feta cheese and some dried cranberries, it takes on a beautiful earthly flavor that only needs a bit of salt and pepper to make it spectacular.  Who knew?!

When you call to sign up (and I highly recommend that you do), mention my name.  It's not like this blog is so well known that I can procure for you a discount, but you will be getting me a $5 credit, which I will appreciate so very much.  Happy late Summer.
I'm obsessed with things anti-cancer.  My kids mock me for it, yelling out "Cancer Fighter!" as they hold up a spear of broccoli at the dinner table.  In one of Anabel's poems at school describing me, one of the adjectives she used to explain me to the world was, indeed, anti-cancer.  And so here's my infamous smoothie, just in case you're as oddly obsessive about these things as I.  This makes 4-6 servings.  Just blend it all together in a blender.  The colors will dazzle you.

1 cup water
1 banana
2-3 big handfuls spinach
1/2 tsp. matcha green tea powder
2 tbsp. ground flax
1 cup frozen blueberries
1/8 of a lemon, unpeeled
1 " chunk of ginger, peeled