Tag Archives: christmas

Camont Christmas: A Wine Tour of France

Wine revelation of the evening

Wine may not seem an obvious topic for a blog called “SmarterFitter”, especially when this time of year many people banish alcohol completely after weeks of holiday excess. But alcohol – be it wine, beer, cocktails, or home-brew cider – needn’t be the enemy of all things good, especially if you drink as you should eat: mindfully, with care and attention to flavor and provenance. In fact, I assert that alcohol can be a companion to a healthy (and happy) lifestyle, a topic which I’d like to give more attention to here at SmarterFitter. So I’m very grateful to have my friend Mr. Neil help me kick things off with a tale of our Christmas “vin tour de France”.

I mentioned in a previous post that I spent the holidays in France with my friend Kate Hill of Kitchen at Camont. Christmas itself saw a much anticipated reunion with our dear friend Mardi of eat live travel write who Kate and I both first met in August 2012 (see My Food Story from Gascony). This year, I finally met Neil, Mardi’s husband, and a true wine enthusiast of the best kind. Neil’s attention to wine parallels his attention to the things that are served with it: the food, the place, the people. As such, Neil was a natural choice to take on the responsibility of picking the Christmas wines. Neil took on this task with an enthusiasm that pleasantly caught me off guard. He not only picked outstanding wine matches for each course of our challenging hodgepodge menu, but he also took us on a tour of France. I learned so much, and was reminded of how much better wine can be when given just a little thought and attention, both as you choose it, and as you drink it. Some of the picks had me flabbergasted (there will be a separate post in tribute to the Cotes du Jura and giardiniera match). But I will let Neil tell this tale of Christmas past in this guest post.

Neil Phillips: Food and wine matching extraordinaire

Many write about pairing wine with a specific dish. There are several different methodologies to pairings, but I put them into five main groups: regionality, weight, acid/tannins, flavours (sauces, seasonings & spices) – and personality.

The first three are fairly self-explanatory. Especially when dealing with the Old World (areas with winemaking traditions stretching back more than a century), wines have often evolved to match the local cuisine. With weight, a light dish likely won’t pair well with a heavy wine, or vice-versa. Acid (whites) and tannins (reds) are similar to weight, but have a bearing on foods as well, in a more complex way.

Wine flavours can complement or contrast with food. Both offer differing approaches in pairing. While complementary flavours are more traditional, some daring contrasts work remarkably well. Have fun experimenting!

The elusive fifth aspect is what I call personality: it’s the creative element that dances above all the rest. It could include history of food & wine, past wine encounters that trigger memories with the meal…a plethora of possibilities where you can have fun. (A dinner party for a friend? Choose wines that all have labels in her favourite colour.)

This Christmas, I was presented with the opportunity – some would say challenge – of pairing wines for a full Christmas day feast for seven at the wonderful Camont kitchen in the countryside of Gascony. The meal itself was somewhat of a collective, with elements prepared by four different individuals, to be savoured at a leisurely pace over many hours.

Our ambitious Christmas menu

With the above five factors in mind, I set about creating some inspired match-ups.

The first decision was simple: I chose to celebrate France, thereby imposing that all wines would not only be from the country, but that they should cover a wide range of the country geographically, if possible.

On the personality front, I wanted to mix some more established pairings with something a little less expected – something for people to talk about.

On arrival, there was much final activity in the large kitchen, with everyone pitching in to complete an appetizer or contribute to a dish. What better way to get a gathering in a celebratory mood than with some fizz?

Monica and Neil

Champagne is the obvious choice, of course: but France produces quality sparkling in most wine regions. Using local grapes, they are often made in the same traditional method, with secondary fermentation in the bottle. I chose a Crémant de Limoux from the Aude. Domaine de Mouscaillo (NV) was just over two hours away by car, giving us a (relatively) local start to our wines. Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc, it features two of the main grapes in Champagne. Zero dosage, this “brut nature” bubbly is bracingly dry – just the thing to whet the appetite and accompany pre-meal nibbles. This featured a bright nose of green apples and lemon, with a medium-fine bead. On the palate, green apples were most evident, with an undertone of golden delicious providing a second layer, with a hint of freshly baked baguette. Crisp and refreshing, with a citrus finish. A delightful start to the afternoon!

Monica and Mardi

When we finally sat down, our first course was a bit of a mélange, all fresh homemade fun but not entirely coherent on the flavour profiles: latkes, beet latkes, savoury crackers, giardiniera, chili currant jam, vegetables platter, ranch dressing. An absolute matching nightmare!

Homemade ranch and crudites

I had been built up prior by Monica on the secret Chicago family giardiniera recipe, so decided to focus on that as a leaping-off point. Pickled things are difficult at best, as many wines would be lost and overpowered. I opted for something bold, in a vin jaune made from the Savagnin grape. The 2008 Domaine Macle from Château-Chalon, Côtes du Jura (in the far east of the country, bordering Switzerland), is aged a minimum six years, three months in wooden casks prior to bottling. Only partially topped up during this time, a layer of yeast (or voile) forms on the surface. Sherry-like via yeast and oxidation, these unfortified robust wines have a lot of leeway with foods, and I thought would have the strength to battle pickled items, and hold its own. This was a fine example, deep gold with notes of almond, bread dough, and a lingering sweetness. On the palate, the wine is dry, with a creamy mouthfeel while still remaining somewhat light. Tastes of bitter almond, marzipan, and a salty/briny finish. Not as aggressive as Sherry, this was an absolute treat – and managed to pair with the giardiniera quite well.

Wine revelation of the evening

Here at Camont, “free range” or “organic” mean much more than at your local grocer’s. Produce is truly of the land, and nowhere is this more noticeable than with the meats and poultry. A local turkey was roasting, browning and crisping beautifully in the oven, relinquishing sufficient juices for tasty gravy as well. A decidedly easier pairing!

Christmas wine

Here I took the traditional route, and took the diners to Bourgogne. Burgundy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both excellent matches for turkey. The white was a 2011 Château-Fuissé, Pouilly-Fuissé Tête de Cru. This is a blend of grapes from over 20 vineyard sites, vinified separately to make the “top blend”. Light golden in colour, with notes of white flowers, almond, honeysuckle and light caramel. On the palate, luscious in the mouth, with bitter almond, citrus, and a medium-plus finish. The red was a 2008 Propriété Desvignes, Givry 1er Cru “La Grande Berge”. Light red with garnet hues, this had a lovely perfumed nose of tart cherry, slight earth, herbs and a hint of smoke. On the palate, silky tannins are balanced through a long savoury finish, wild strawberries evident. Both these wines were excellent Bourgogne examples, and both worked well. The gathering seemed split over preference for white or red. I think with all the fixings the Chardonnay performed better; with just the (dark) meat, the red.

That Neil sure knows how to pour

At this point in the lunch we had a break…but the entire affair was at a most leisurely pace. No over-stuffed souls here – lots of room for dessert. The star attraction was Mardi‘s chocolate-topped coeur à la crème. As with sparkling, France has a wide range of dessert wines. Desiring something red, I opted for a region lesser-known than Sauternes. We travelled to the far south of Roussillon, near the border with Spain. The 2011 Domaine de La Rectorie, Banyuls, Cuvée Léon Parcé, is a vin doux naturel. Made from 100% Grenache grapes, alcohol is added to the must during fermentation, keeping sugar levels naturally high. At 16% this is not as heavy as a Port, and while the nose is similar it had a much more savoury note of allspice and rosemary along with dried red berries and baked caramel. Smooth on the palate, with red currants and gooseberries adding a tart note; the tannins balance the residual sugar. Long- finishing, this lingered and paired with the dark chocolate nicely without being too heavy.

With that, our own little Christmas vin tour de France was over. All in all, our pairings proved a worthy match to a most delicious meal amongst friends. And really, that last accompaniment is what really matters in any meal.

Mr. Neil
December, 2014


Thank you again to Neil for encapsulating our Christmas journey in food and wine – truly a Christmas to remember and I am forever grateful that I have this write-up so that I can relive the experience whenever I wish. I aspire to be able to taste flavours like “baguette” in my wines. If you, like me, want to get better at this wine tasting stuff, have a read of Neil’s Wine Tasting Tips for Everyone on his website, Vincetera.

And for further reading…

  • eat live travel write – Mardi’s excellent blog on all things food, travel and yes, wine, too
  • Matching Food and Wine – Fiona Beckett’s treasure trove of food and wine pairing tips; an indispensable resource

Joyeux Noël: France Christmas in Pictures

Winter solstice sunrise run

You’ve made this a Christmas to remember
Springtime feelings in the middle of December…

Many thanks to the wonderful people (and animals) who helped make this a Christmas – and Winter Solstice – to remember: Kate, Stephanie, Phyllis, Mardi, Neil, Texas Marty, Penny, Marie-Carroll, Franny, John, Greg, Bosco, Bacon, Echo and Terra. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone! You all are the best Christmas gifts in the world.

I’ve put a few favorite photos from my trip below. You can see all of my pictures – for better or worse! – on Flickr: Camont Christmas 2014.

View all photos from Camont Christmas 2014 on Flickr

Mom’s Pumpkin Pie with Oatmeal Crust

Pumpkin Pie with Oatmeal Crust

One of my all time favorite family recipes is mom’s pumpkin pie. She’s been bringing this dessert to Thanksgiving and Christmas parties for as long as I can remember. My version of the pumpkin pie with oatmeal crust is just a slight tweak on the original, because you really shouldn’t mess around too much with a good thing.

Mom’s method follows a pretty classic pumpkin pie recipe, with all the usual ingredients you’d expect: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, eggs, evaporated milk and if you want to be super American about it, Libby’s tinned pumpkin puree.

Pumpkin Pie with Oatmeal Crust

Of course, you can make your own pumpkin puree, but there is something special about Libby’s – they use a strain of Dickinson Pumpkins, with especially creamy flesh, that the company developed themselves. This variety is actually closer to a butternut squash than the pumpkins we’re used to, so if you are going for DIY pumpkin puree, you could just as easily use butternut squash.

I’ve riffed on the family recipe with the pastry, where I’ve used a pretty standard shortcrust amped up with some rolled oats for amazing texture that works really well with the custardy pumpkin pie innards.

Oatmeal Pie Crust

I’ve also been playing around with drink pairings for pumpkin pie. Sweet oloroso sherry and sweet reisling are amongst the recommended pairings, but I maintain that pumpkin pie, already quite sweet, needs to be balanced by something with a bit more oomph. For this reason, Maker’s Mark bourbon is ideal – the bourbon mellows the pumpkin pie, while the pie brings out the caramel flavours of the bourbon. It’s astounding, and about as American as it gets.

Maker's Mark: Perfect with Pumpkin Pie

Mom’s Pumpkin Pie


  • 16oz pumpkin puree
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 eggs
  • 13oz evaporated milk
  • 1 oatmeal pie pastry (see recipe below) or plain pastry
  • whipping cream
  • icing sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 400F / 200C.
  2. In a large bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, salt and spices. Blend in eggs and evaporated milk.
  3. Pour the mixture into the pie crust. Bake for 45 minutes or until knife inserted into the middle of the pie comes out clean. Let cool.
  4. Just before serving, whip the cream (add a little icing sugar for a touch of sweetness). Slice the pie and serve each slice with a big dollop of whipped cream.

Oatmeal Pie Pastry Crust

Makes 1 crust.


  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1/2 cup jumbo rolled oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into about 8 pieces
  • 3 tablespoons ice water, plus more if necessary


  1. Combine the flour, oats and salt in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and turn on the machine; process for about 10 seconds, until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal.
  2. Put the mixture in a bowl and add the ice water; mix with your hands until you can form the dough into a ball, adding another tablespoon or two of ice water if necessary. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic, and freeze for 10 minutes or refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle a clean countertop with flour, put the dough on it, and sprinkle the top with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll with light pressure from the center out. If the dough is hard, let it rest for a few minutes. If the dough is sticky, add a little flour. Roll, adding flour and rotating and turning the dough as needed.
  4. When the diameter of the dough is about 2 inches greater than that of your pie plate, drape the dough over the rolling pin to transfer it into the pie plate. Press the dough firmly into the plate all over.
  5. Trim the excess dough to about 1/2 inch all around, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the pie plate. Decorate the edges with a fork or your fingers. Freeze the dough for 10 minutes (or refrigerate it for 30 minutes) until you are ready to bake.

Pumpkin Pie with Oatmeal Crust

Chicago 2013-2014 Trip Highlights

Marina Towers

I was in Chicago from December 13th – January 13th (lucky 13!) visiting family and doing the whole Christmas thing. There wasn’t much chill time (even though the temperature was -20 F at times!). Instead, we did as we usually do – as much as possible, to make up for a whole year of absence. Here were the highlights, in rough chronological order.

Meeting my niece

This has to go at the top of the list. My sister Stephanie’s baby Jordan was born on October 22, 2013 and this was the first chance I had to meet her. She is not an ugly baby! In fact, she’s charming… when she’s not suffering internally. The poor little girl (Stephanie and her partner nicked named her “PJ” for “Poor Jordan”) has colic so is not her best self at the moment. But she is a trooper. One of my Jordan highlights was on “Christmas” (see below) – Jordan was crying so I took her to give my sister to sleep. I actually managed to get her to stop crying for a few minutes. Who knows, my maternal instinct may emerge yet!

Christmas time on Harmony Rd

The other bonus of meeting my niece: getting to spend time with my sister and her gorgeous dog, Halo. I am really REALLY looking forward to Jordan being old enough to accompany my sister and I on our famous road trips and camping expeditions.

The Schwinn

Wish I could take this bike home with me

My parents have this amazing old 1963 Schwinn given to them from my grandpa. I’m in love with this bike, and one of the big achievements of my trip was in having it cleaned up, greased, tires changed and ready for action. Thus, this was much ride during my trip – I wish I could have taken it home with me.

I love this Bicycle

Meeting some of my Mom’s crew

My mom is always talking about her awesome friends and this time I got to meet a few of them over a potluck lunch. I brought kale sale (a riff on the family recipe for Mandarin Orange Salad), Turkish style flatbread and no knead bread. Mom made her awesome Middle Eastern red lentil “Shorbat Adas” soup  Her friend Kathy made a stellar Iraqi rice Sweet and Sour Salmon in Almond Prune Sauce from Delights of the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah (the sauce alone was outstanding). I attempted to make Iraqi rice that didn’t exactly have the crispy rice crust (hikaka) I was hoping for but it was good.

Lunch at Kathy Ellingson's

Dessert was pretty special: Kathy made Ginger Ginger Cake using fresh ginger and stem ginger. It was pretty much perfect, and even extra amazing with labna and jasmine tea.

Kathy Ellingson's Ginger Ginger Cake

Father Daughter Day 

Father Daughter Day

Dad and I planned a couple days out together, partially give my mom some well-deserved time for herself, but also, it’s great having some one-on-one time with dad! We deliberated over what to do – museums, movies, bowling… but in the end it was my mom who had the best idea ever: a day out at and around the University of Chicago campus, where my dad got his PhD and a source of many of his stories. This was one of the best days ever!

Brunch. UofC. Robie house. Gargoyles. Carrot cake. Trivia. The awesomest day out in the city ever with @shawtreks.

We started with lunch at one of our favourite Chicago spots, Victory Banner in Roscoe Village. Then we cruised down to Hyde Park, had a romp around the U of C campus (via the book store so I could pick up a souvenir sweatshirt). Then we went on an excellent tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the U of C campus, then finished with coffee at cake at Medici, where my mom says she and my dad “fell in love”.

More photos on Flickr: Father Daughter Day


Winter Solstice

Morning walk - the day after Winter Solstice

I have developed a soft spot for solstice and equinox occasions over the last year (see this post) and I was very grateful that my family was willing to do something special for the occasion. I started the day with tea, a smoothie and some mood padding. This was also the day of my Aunt’s cookie mission (see above), and I can’t think of a better way to spend winter solstice afternoon than in the spirit of creation and collaboration with my family, especially those extended family members I rarely get to see.

Nourishing beetroot, apple & avocado smoothie for winter #solstice breakfast. Score: mom has a juicer.

In the evening, mom made a wonderful wintery meal of veggie chilli (Emeril’s Vegetarian Chilli recipe, and it’s a total keeper – bam!). I made cornbread and glogg. We reflected and talked, then took a post-dinner walk to welcome in the darkness (and practise our carolling). Back home, it was dutch apple pie for dessert (Kate Hill’s Easy French All-Butter Pastry for the win), then an early-ish night in order to wake up for a sunrise walk in the morning: a stroll in the woods, snow falling all around me, and thoughts about what this season means to me.

Winter solstice Rocky

My winter solstice mission: to make this winter a time of nourishment, mentally and physically.

Flickr photoset: Winter Solstice


Christmas Cookie Baking

Cookie Day Output

Every year my Aunt Sue has a day in which she bakes all of her Christmas cookies, and she always invites some helpers along. I’ve been very grateful to have been on the invite list the last couple years, and as I said above, I treasure these days because it’s a great opportunity to hang out with my extended family in a more intimate way than at big family parties. Plus, there’s baking involved! And this year saw a new cookie revelation: rosemary shortbread! I basically followed Chocolate & Zucchini’s Shortbread recipe, and added some chopped from rosemary from my Aunt’s kitchen garden. These were delicious on their own, but even extra special with cheese (particularly Stilton, thank you UK!).

New Ove Glove - Thanks, Sue!

I also got a new Ove Glove – thanks Aunt Sue!

Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014



This is what it’s all about, right? Well, unfortunately my mom and Jordan were both sick, so we decided to postpone Christmas with the immediate family until everyone was better. On the plus side, Dad and I were feeling well and made it to the big family party – and the family keeps getting bigger. I’m hoping to see more Christmas Sweaters next year.

Christmas Collage

Flickr photoset: Christmas 2013


The Ohioans 

Shaw Brothers at The Baked Apple

My dad is from Ohio and has two brothers who live there with their families. I don’t get to see “The Ohioans” very often, so it was pretty cool that they were ALL able to come down for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. We crammed a LOT into those two days. I had an especially good time on the day we tried to go to Brookfield Zoo, only to get on a non-stop train to Chicago. We ended up having a terrific day in the city and the weather was beautiful.

Downtown Chicago

We also had some great outings to Morton Arboretum and my sister’s place, plus some good meals too. There was the Mexican feast: tortilla soup, pan-fried cod with chilli seasons and an amazing apple cobbler, which was extra good because we all pitched in to make it (Aunt Rosella had the genius idea of adding oats).

Dottie, Rosella, Monica and Melissa

The best might have been our final breakfast at the extremely friendly, reasonably priced and quite good “family restaurant”, The Baked Apple  We were all in high spirits following an incredible trip, plus we scored a free baked apple pancake from the charming Angelo.


Consequentially, I also invented the “Monica Frittata” – basically their veggie frittata without the potato, plus jalapeno. I am only writing this so that I remember to order it again next time I go. Delicious! (Though Uncle Ed would argue, not as delicious as their grits and blueberry waffle.)

"Best grits ever."

Flickr photoset: The Shaws Come to Town


New Year’s Eve with Matt & Abby

Cheese board, bread, leftovers, mimosa's - New Year's Day is made!

Matt and Abby are two of my dearest friends and I’ve been very grateful to spend my last couple of New Year’s Eves with them (it’s becoming a tradition!). One of the reasons why we get along so well is that we enjoy the virtues of staying in, which is especially handy when New Year’s Eve coincides with a snow storm and some very cold weather.

Quinoa Salad with Sweet Potatoes and Apples

We did another one of your New Year’s Eve smorgasbords, this time incorporating a few new recipes and a few new people. We ate cheese, played The Bowl Game, drank craft beer and stayed up talking until about 3am. Pretty solid.

Matt & Abby revisit the NYE feast

The menu (more on this in a separate post):

Flickr photoset: New Year’s Eve 2013


Snow Day(s)

Snow Globe -esque

We had some pretty serious cold weather in Chicago this visit, and a lot of snow. I loved it, but it helped that I had nowhere to be. It also gave me, mom and dad the chance to do some hunkering for a few days.

Snow Day

Our outings were constrained to bowling, lunches and movies. We all had a delicious nourishing lunch at Prasino  where I satisfied my craving for fish tacos and mom had some amazing mushroom soup (no problem finding a table that day).


We saw Saving Mr. Banks and Gravity at the cinema. And back at home we watched an epic amount of the Muppets, a theme which carried throughout the whole of the trip (let 2013 forever be known as the year I discovered The Muppets). I also discovered the wonderful thing that is sweet potato fries at Standard Market. The place has a whole ROOM devoted to cheese – amazing! And they also do great pizzas and a pretty mean veggie burger (extra pickles, please).

Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014




The upside to everyone being sick at Christmas meant that we got to extend the holiday merriment a little longer and were even extra prepared when we finally had Christmas together in January. Aside from getting the car stuck in Stephanie’s driveway (did I mention the snow?), everything was perfect, and we all learned something: Christmas is far better when you keep it simple. With the gifts, as well as the food. The menu was basic and came together without stress:


  • Bread and insalata caprese with Mom’s balsamic reduction for appetisers
  • Roast vegetables
  • Blanched green beans with toasted almonds
  • Mashed potatoes (expertly made by dad – learning moment: when out of milk, use sour cream – it may have actually been better than the usual)
  • The requisite veggie loaf with cashew gravy
  • Ginger Ginger Cake for dessert

Balsamic Reduction

We’re thinking that we’ll do more “alternative Christmases” like these in the future. Since I’m out of the country, anyway, why not have them at a completely different time of year when the world is less crazy with holiday buzz? I’m all for this.

Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014


Raw food lunch at Borrowed Earth Cafe

Raw Raspberry cheesecake

My parents’ town is home to one of the few raw food restaurants in Chicago, Borrowed Earth Cafe  and it’s a pretty good one at that. Mom and I met with my friend Jim for lunch and had a pretty inspiring meal. Raw gyros, lasagne, pierogis, tortilla soup and an impressive raw raspberry cheesecake that I’m hoping they’ll share the recipe for!

Raw pierogis

"Gimme a Gyro" Cross Section

Raw Lasagna

Photoset: Borrowed Earth Cafe


Kate Hill tribute dinner


Inspired by the enviable cassole that Kate Hill gave to me to give to my mom last summer, Mom and I put it to use in a mushroom and eggplant cassoulet. We DEVOURED this.


For dessert, we made Kate’s recipe for prune clafoutis. We devoured that too. My mom was in ecstasy eating this meal, and Dad gave it a “10 plus”. Camont in Chicago – it was the best!

Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014


Lunch at Topolobampo

Following my dad’s and my outing to Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill last year, we decided then and there to take mom to his “fancy” restaurant, Topolobampo this year.


I had to book a table two months ahead! But we went and it was DELICIOUS. Interestingly, the appetisers blew the main dishes away, especially the “Modern Mexican Winter Salad” and the “Nutty Stuffed Pasilla Chilli”. I think mom was especially blown away by the flavour bomb, and she seemed to have a mushroom a-hah moment. The pasilla chilli and the “Griddle Baked   Huitlacoche Quesedillas” both included wild mushrooms and both dishes seemed to cause my mom to enter another plane of existence (that and the coconut horchata).

Modern Mexican Winter Salad at Topolobampo

We were all impressed with the dessert, too. Super rich brownie type cakes with vanilla bean ice cream, corn masa crisps, sweet puffed rice and some kind of jellied thing. I mean, look at it:

Amazing dessert at Topolobampo

Flickr photoset: Topolobampo, Chicago


Dinner party and sleepover at Dawid’s

Geeking out with @dawidlp. Just like Room Ten.

I’m so glad I made the time to have an overnight in the city at my friend Dawid’s, one of my dearest friends from University (jeez, he’s known me for over a decade!).On Friday, Dawid hosted a wonderful dinner party with me and three of his friends. I arrived early to help and it was so much fun cooking together, just like old times but with far better taste in food. I learned that hosting a good dinner needn’t take an excessive amount of time or turn the kitchen upside down. Not everything needs to make from scratch, especially when there are quality producers out there (and there are many in Chicago).

a collage for you

Flickr photoset: Dinner Party Sleepover at Dawid’s


Shaw Family Breakfast Buffet

Cinnamon rolls

A new family tradition? We decided to theme our last get together around a breakfast buffet. I resisted my urge to set up an “omelet station”, but I did do poached eggs, cinnamon rolls, no knead bread and granola. Stephanie made an awesome baked apple pancake and mom did roast potatoes on the weird (but effective) Pizza Pizzazz.


Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014


Game Day

One last roll before I return to the land of an entirely different kind of #bowling. #GameDay #latergram

So I’m getting into games, and mom and dad treated me to a day of gaming and food, including bowling, lunch at Standard Market, and a dinner, Yahtzee and craft beer evening and the nearby Ballydoyle. The super great bonus was having Matt, Abby and Sam along for the Yahtzee bit, and sunshine cake after!


Flickr photoset: Game Day aka Monica Day


Sunshine Cake

Yes, sunshine cake. It’s a family recipe from my Auntie Jo (RIP) and I’m pretty sure it’s the best cake ever. It is so simple and easy to make (flour, sugar and eggs!) and is THE perfect delivery device for strawberry shortcake. Recipe to follow in a future post.

Sunshine cake



My family has been going to Sher-A-Punjab (or just “Shera” as we call it) for decades. It’s an Indian buffet. No big deal. But it’s special to us. My dad (a former priest) says their food is the closest he’s ever been to heaven. My parents still go at least once a week. And this visit we learned they were BYOB, too. Bonus!

Consequentially, Shera is the place where I had the buffet binge nightmare that resulted in my slow eating mission (you can read about it here: In Praise of Slow Eating). The experience jarred me to the core, and changed my life forever.

Dinner at our family favourite Indian restaurant.

I’ve shied away from going to Shera ever since, but I knew how much it meant to my parents – especially dad – to have me go with them again after so many years. So I decided to go for it, but with a different approach. We decided to enjoy the buffet in “courses”. No piling on of plates. No going back for seconds. And it worked SO well. I started with soup and a samosa, then moved on to some of the curries, and finally a bit of dessert. I was very tempted to heap my plate high, and very VERY tempted to go back for seconds (their food really IS great). But I kept it real and saw it as a real achievement. I now think every trip home will involve a visit to Shera – instead of a thorn in my side, let this place be a reminder of how I’ve learned to CONTROL MYSELF. From now on, let Shera be a symbol of SUCCESS! (Yes, I’ve been practising my positive thinking.)

And, also, who can deny the delight of fresh tandoori-baked naan. Shera’s is the best!

The best naan


I made a point to taste a lot of local-ish beers while at home (and a local craft Root Beer, too!). This one was my favourite: New Belgium Brewing’s seasonal winter “Accumulation Ale”.

Happy Christmassy things




My last hours in the USA were spent having sushi with my parents. We meant to go to our local favourite, Yokohama  but – gasp! – it was closed. We were hell-bent on sushi so decided to try Nabuki in nearby Hinsdale. Where Yokohama is very traditional (why we like it), Nabuki is a much more elaborate affair. Fancy sushi for Americans! But guess what – it was REALLY good and I think it may have opened dad’s eyes to the idea of sushi (even the raw fish part).

Last family selfie taken after sushi lunch at Nabuki

I like the whole pre-flight lunch idea. It forces me to pack up early and puts us all in a place where can just relax and enjoy our last couple hours together without distraction.


It’s always bittersweet leaving home. I always think a lot about the things we didn’t get to do. But on this visit, even though there were a lot of hitches (illness, plan-cancelling snow storms, pulled butt muscles), I had a great time and I can only focus on all the great things we did together. I am very grateful to have a family that I LIKE and who likes spending time together. I think when we’re young, it’s easy to blame our parents for all of our shortcomings. True, I often lament that I’m “turning into dad” (partly when it comes to mannerisms and inability to get a haircut) but these days I’m seeing all the ways my family make me a better person. Perhaps having everyone sick or busy or stressed gave me a chance to “take care of them” for a change. I am the Toast Fairy, after all.

In Search of the Perfect Veggie Roast

Thanksgiving veggie loaf experiments

Thanksgiving is upon us, a holiday which means very little to most people in the UK, unless you’re one of us American expats for whom the holiday seems to take on even greater meaning than it ever did when we were Stateside. Maybe it’s the ol’ ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ thing: because we can’t be home for Thanksgiving, we compensate, busting out every traditional recipe with can think of – from green bean casserole to pumpkin pie. And for lack of a central “family unit” to centralise the festivities, multiple people play host to Thanksgiving dinners, resulting in a multitude of Thanksgiving feasts, any one of which would probably put the family party back home to shame.

I am attending two Thanksgiving dinners this year, one of which I’m hosting here at the cottage. It will be a vegetarian feast, which naturally leads guests to the following question: “Will there be a nut roast!?”

To nut roast or not to nut roast? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

Impromptu veggie loaf

The search for the perfect vegetarian holiday main dish seems to be a constant quest for me and my veggie mom and sister. Every year we scheme and plan. There have been lentil loaves, stuffed butternut squash and, one of our most successful attempts, a glorious vegetarian moussakka.

But what I’m after is something vegetarian that works with two of my favourite Thanksgiving hallmarks: gravy (cashew gravy in my case) and cranberry chutney.

Cranberry Chutney

So a veggie roast is in order, but what to make? Here in Britain, the classic veggie roast is a “nut roast”, for which numerous recipes exist. The problem I have with all of these recipes is, well, the nuts. I just really don’t want to eat a slice of nuts for Thanksgiving dinner, especially when there’s cashew gravy on the line.

Christmas Eve Nut Roast

Other options include a loaf based on lentils or grains, but the challenge continues… many of these veggie roast recipes take some of the key elements of the meal – namely roast vegetables and stuffing – and mush them up into one loaf – it’s like bubble and squeek on overdrive. Great for leftovers, but not the main event. So I’m seeking a loaf that really stands on its own, that works with side dishes like roast carrots and parsnips, mashed potatoes and stuffing, without being redundant.

Aside from all of this, the veggie roast should have great texture while still being sliceable. I’ve made my share of veggie loaves that crumble apart when you slice them. Not the best presentation!

Thanksgiving veggie loaf experiments

To that end, I’ve been researching recipes and practising and I think I’ve settle on something that does the trick. But I don’t want to give anything away before the big day. Instead, I’ll share with you a few of the more promising recipes I’ve stumbled upon.

I’m sure there are more out there but frankly I’m a little bit burnt out on veggie loaf research. So you tell me: what’s the ultimate veggie roast? Or is there no such thing? In which case, what’s the ultimate vegetarian Thanksgiving main?

Making Christmas Presents

Making Christmas

I’m writing this from the plane to Chicago, heading “home” for four weeks with my family and far-flung friends over Christmas and New Year’s.

This year, I’ve been making lots of my Christmas presents, and have been especially inspired by all of the goings-on around the #letsmakechristmas meme started by the forever-crafty-in-the-kitchen Vanessa Kimbell.

I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say that I had a few challenges meeting my baggage weight restrictions this trip (also unaided by the 1.4 kilos of cheese I’m lugging home to my Swaledale- and cheddar-loving sister… ok, and a sneaky wedge of Stilton, plus a bottle of port, though I’m not quite sure if my family is quite ready to add port-and-stilton to their after-dinner repertoire, but why not try?).

Although I intend to keep most of my homemade gift adventures a secret until the big day, I can divulge details of the homemade Christmas presents that I’ve already delivered: biscuits for my colleagues, friends and neighbours in the UK.

When it comes to homemade gifts, I think it’s always a good idea to make something you’ve made before and know is good. So I went with the always-reliable gingersnaps recipe from David Lebovitz. I love these gingersnaps because they’re a cinch to throw together and you can keep rounds of dough in the freezer to slice up into delicious biscuits whenever you need them. Oh, and they taste dreamy, too.


I also wanted to make something a little grown-up, so went for biscotti, something I’ve made before and have knowledge of their easiness. I used Mark Bittman’s basic biscotti recipe, and thought I ruined the first batch when I added 1 tsp almond essence, which is NOT the same as almond extract, as the recipe called for. (Almond essence is much much stronger than extract.) So I put this dough aside and started over, making an almond and chocolate biscotti. Curious, I cooked the super almondy biscotti anyway and they’re actually quite good. So bonus: everyone’s getting two types of biscotti.


The lebkuchen was more of an indulgence to myself because I’ve always wanted to make them. The recipe includes lots of citrus notes like lemon zest and candied peel, plus loads of Christmassy spices like ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Lebkuchen also doesn’t include butter – how curious! The result is a very crispy, punchy ginger biscuit that I both enjoy and am mystified by – mystified because I don’t know whether they taste like traditional lebkuchen. I’m hoping my friends / colleagues will tell me, particularly the German folk!


I’m itching to share a few other things I’ve made that I’m especially excited about, but like I said – no Christmas spoilers! Are those of you who’ve been posting your beautiful pictures and recipes just living with the consequences of revealing your Christmas presents early? Or are your gift-receivers simply not aware of your prolific online presences?

Whatever your reasons, I totally appreciate it. In fact, your photos have been particularly inspiring on the labelling and packaging front. There are tons of great ideas on Vanessa’s blog: The Ultimate Guide to Making Your Own Christmas Presents