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Romesco Sauce

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Life in Cape Breton is so busy compared to my past year in Ireland! I’m feeling a bit like a single mom, even though I have lots of (appreciated) help from my parents and extended family. I miss how Pat used to let me sleep in on Saturdays while he got up with Maeve.

I miss Ireland, a bit, too. I didn’t think I would. Not that I don’t love living there, I just never thought it would live up to Cape Breton. It seems to, though, in a completely different way. The summers are better (and more fun; relaxing) here. My parents and aunties are here and I am perpetually missing them while in Ireland. But the winters in Ireland are better; the spring arrives sooner. I have big family of in-laws who I love dearly. I can travel across several different countries by air in Europe in the same amount of time as it would take to fly from one end of Canada to the other. Ireland has its perks; and it seems like home to me now.

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Cape Breton will always be home, too. I hope my kids feel at home here. But this is probably the last time I come for months on end without my husband. It’s not as fun without him anyway.

BUT he arrives in five days! And even though we’ll both be working it will feel like a proper summer holiday. I am thrilled to be hanging out with some of the lovely folks from Tourism Cape Breton as I rediscover my island home and do lots of research for future articles. I am loving taking care of the baking at the Baddeck Lobster Suppers a few mornings a week, and of course I’m so excited to be able to spend the next few weekends at the beach with my whole family. That’s right, my brothers will be here with their families. We will host a party of epic proportions. With lots of delicious Nova Scotian beer.

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Though I haven’t had much time to cook or bake outside of work, I did whip up this delicious romesco sauce the other day. Romesco sauce isn’t just a condiment, it is a lesson in classic Spanish technique and flavour. It’s practical, using up stale bread and blending bits of fresh, roasted veggies with almonds and sherry vinegar, but it’s also multi-purpose. The flavour profile will brighten up nearly any fish or meat (including my dad’s famous egg-battered haddock) and also works well tossed with pastas or cooked veggies.

A dollop added at the beginning of a paella (although most likely considered blasphemous in Spain) will add an extra bit of zest to the classic dish. And now that most of my meals end up being eaten by an almost-one-year-old, I can attest to the fact that it is absolutely delicious in grilled cheese sandwiches. Maeve agrees.

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Romesco Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded & cut in half lengthwise
  • 1 entire head of garlic with the top cut off (use a serrated knife)
  • 4 medium sized vine tomatoes, cored
  • 1/2 cup blanched, whole almonds, lightly toasted
  • 1 red chili pepper, seeded and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1-2 heels of stale bread, ripped into chunks
  • 1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 heaping tsp paprika
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (190 Celsius, no fan). Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
  • Prepare all of your vegetables – core the tomatoes, seed and slice the peppers and cut the head off the garlic (you can save the little bits of garlic in the head for the minced garlic needed later).
  • Throw the garlic, peppers and tomatoes on the baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Roast the veggies for about 1.5 hours. They will be really, really well roasted when done.
  • Toast the almonds on the stove top (I just put them in a dry cast iron pan and tossed them occasionally until they were evenly toasted). Set aside.
  • In a blender or food processor, add the olive oil, almonds, bread, minced garlic, vinegar, and paprika. Pulse a few times to start breaking things down.
  • Add the roasted garlic, tomatoes and peppers. Pulse until smooth. The consistency should still have texture to it, though, like a pesto.
  • Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature with all kinds of meat, white fish, grilled veggies or even just some nice, crusty bread, warmed olives and manchego cheese.

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Nectarine Amaretto Crumble Cake

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I actually made this cake several weeks ago, while I was still in Ireland. It was silage time and my kitchen had gone from “fully stocked” to “running on empty” in a matter of days. When you consider how long the silage took to complete (about three days) and how many farmers it took to complete the job (about 6-8), I’m not sure why I thought I’d have enough food to feed the guys for tea, lunch and supper every day. Next year I’ll be better prepared.

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This cake was one of the final, desperate attempts to make my larder stretch a bit further. The cake part is cheap and uncomplicated to prepare – it’s stuff you have in your cupboard and fridge all the time – the nectarines were in season at the time (in Ireland) and I had just gotten a bowlful from Peter’s in Templemore. And I had bags and bags of ground almond in my cupboard that I, with my baby brain, kept purchasing at the grocery store thinking I was all out.

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Nectarines and amaretto (or just almonds) go together like blueberries and maple syrup (that is, perfectly). The flavours just complement each other. If you have a bit of amaretto to splash in the cake batter, awesome. If not, good ol’ vanilla will suffice. It’s a great coffee cake and makes a fab summer dessert with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

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Nectarine Amaretto Crumble Cake 

Ingredients

For the cake:

2 eggs, room temperature if possible

1 cup granulated sugar

A splash of amaretto, or 2 tsp vanilla essence

1 cup cake flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 cup milk

3 Tbsp butter

3-4 ripe peaches, peeled and roughly chopped

For the crumble:

1/4 cup cold butter

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (190 degrees Celsius, no fan). Line a spring form pan with parchment or butter and flour generously. Set aside.
  • In your stand mixer or using a hand mixer, beat the eggs, sugar and amaretto or vanilla until you reach the ribbon stage (very pale yellow in colour; doubled in volume). Sift the dry ingredients into the egg mixture and mix until just barely combined.
  • Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan until the milk boils. Immediately take it off the heat, add it into the batter and mix on high for 20 seconds until everything is nicely combined. Use a spatula to scrape down the side and fold the batter a few times to make sure everything is incorporated.
  • Fold the chopped peaches into the batter and pour the batter into the prepared pan.
  • In a separate bowl, use your hands to combine and crumble the butter, ground almonds and sugar. When the mixture is coarse and crumbly, sprinkle over the top of the cake.
  • Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes (it may take longer so keep an eye on it!).
  • Cool in the pan for 15 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. It will keep for 3-4 days if covered.

* For extra crunch, add some chopped or slivered almonds into the crumble – I didn’t have any this time but will add them the next time for sure. 

* Make this cake gluten-free by substituting the hot milk sponge with an almond sponge (recipe here).
 
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Where We Swim

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The winters in Cape Breton are long, bitterly cold and full of snow. Some years, the snow is still here in May. Some years, we don’t get much of a spring. Like this year. There was snow on the ground only several short weeks ago and now it’s incredibly hot – summer has been in full swing since late June.

There isn’t much air conditioning in Cape Breton. It doesn’t get as hot here as it does in Toronto, for example, where air con is a must-have during the summer months. But we have something that many other areas don’t, something that cools you down completely and leaves you feeling comfortable for the rest of the day: a gorgeous river to swim in.

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Growing up, my brothers and I lived for summer swims in the river. My parents would faithfully take us every day and we’d splash and swim and dive to our hearts’ content. This river is special. It’s not murky or dark. It’s cold and refreshing. The pools we frequent are deep enough to swim and dive, but the water is clear enough to see all the way to the bottom.

There are a few different parts of the river that are good for swimming – Chuck’s, Danny Neil’s and The Yankee Line are the three most popular.

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I don’t know what it is about this river. In all my travels I haven’t come across another that compares to it. I’ve seen some great rivers – The Han in Korea, The Mekong in Laos, The Shannon in Ireland – and charming smaller rivers. I’ve enjoyed them all and appreciated their beauty. But I haven’t found a river as cold, refreshing, clear or as relatively isolated as the river running through my tiny community.

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For the record, Maeve has been enjoying her time in the river, too!

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*These pictures were taken at Danny Neil’s, near my house, in Middle River, Cape Breton.The deepest spot is about 8 feet and the slope is gradual, making this an ideal place to bring your kids. I won’t give more info than this because we don’t want the place overrun with visitors – but if you can find it, I hope you enjoy a well-deserved swim!

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A Cape Breton-Style Lobster Dinner (Also: How to Eat Whole Lobster)

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Does the title of this post sound a bit condescending? I hope not.

The thing is, so many visitors come to this part of the world to take in the natural beauty and to indulge in some amazing seafood. Many aren’t that familiar with the way we serve lobster – that is, steamed or boiled, whole, and served with drawn (melted) butter for dipping the meat. Plain and simple, in every Cape Bretoner’s opinion, is the best way to enjoy it.

I remember the “lobster class” I had in culinary school in Toronto. We made vanilla butter poached lobster and used the shell to make a bisque. I was blown away. I can’t say, up until that point, that I had ever eaten fancy lobster. In my chowder? Sure. In a roll with crushed potato chips sprinkled over? Absolutely. But vanilla butter poached? My brain exploded; I just couldn’t handle it.

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And it tasted amazing. But I have to say, there’s nothing more satisfying than being in charge of your own fate, especially where lobster is concerned. I love digging into the shell with my hands and fork and a nutcracker to see what I’ll find – how sweet the meat is, how well cooked it’s been, how chunky the knuckles (my favourite joint) are. Every lobster is different.

My cousin’s husband has been lobster fishing since May and today was the last day of the season – no more lobster fishing in Cape Breton for the rest of the year (sniffff). As I hadn’t yet had a proper feed, we asked him to bring a few home for us. He caught us some absolute beauties (thanks, Cecil)! My mother boiled them to perfection and served them with a summery potato salad and drawn butter.

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How’s the best way to attack a lobster? Well, as a great chef once told me, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” You have to find a way that works for you.

Just so you know, lobsters retain a bit of liquid when they’re cooked and things might get a little messy. If you’re the queasy type, you might not like the look of tomalley (green lobster liver), but keep in mind that it tastes divine. To eat the tomalley is not only OK; it’s highly recommended.

People tend to differ about what part of the lobster is tastiest. Some swear the tail-meat is nicest, while others prefer the claw (the meat is less stringy in the claw, but it’s also a piece of rubber if the lobster’s been overcooked). If you ask me, and I already mentioned this, the knuckle meat is the sweetest, tastiest (and most hard fought) part of the lobster. It takes a bit of elbow grease to get it, but I think it’s worth it.

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When you get a whole lobster, the first thing you should do is break it in half. This separates the tail from the body. Then I like to remove the tail meat from the shell. To break the lobster in half, just keep one hand around the tail and the other around the body, then give it a good twist. Keep some napkins close by in case you get squirted.

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To remove the meat from the tail, take the tail in your hand and squeeze the ends of the shell toward each other. You should feel a crack. Then I break the tip of the tail off (the part that fans – just the very tip). Once the tip is off, you can work the meat away from the shell with your fingers.

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Once the tail is eaten, go for the claws. Twist the knuckles from the large claws and crack the claw with a nutcracker until it breaks in half. The meat should come right out. For the knuckles, use your knife or a special lobster fork to fish out the meat.

You can scoop everything out of the body cavity and eat that, too. It’s delicious, though many leave this part alone because the green bits make them queasy!

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The correct accompaniments for a steamed or boiled lobster in Cape Breton are potato salad and coleslaw, as well as freshly baked biscuits and rolls, and beer or cider (try Big Spruce Kitchen Party Pale Ale or Bulwark Craft Cider). Some of the best places in Cape Breton for a boiled lobster dinner include The Baddeck Lobster Suppers, The Lobster Galley and The Rusty Anchor. There are lots of other great places, but these ones have been tried and tested by moi.

Although the season is now over, I’m sending wishes for many lobster dinners in your future. Life with lobster is just better!

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My Favourite Places #5: Charlene’s Bayside, Whycocomagh, NS

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Now that I’m home in Cape Breton it’s great to be able to share a few of my favourite local places with you!

If you’re from the East Coast of Canada, chances are you enjoy eating seafood by the bucket-load (not exaggerating; we literally eat buckets of seafood here). Scallops, mussels, haddock, crab, salmon and, perhaps the most sacred crustacean of all, the Atlantic lobster are found in abundance in Cape Breton and, while the weather is at it’s finest in the summer, so is the seafood.

Lobster season in Cape Breton runs from May til about mid-July. That’s not very long in lobster-eating time. We like to get a lot of it while we can, especially because it’s more expensive and not as good for the rest of the year.

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I go to Charlene’s a lot. I was just there yesterday for lunch. If you’re looking for a truly phenomenal seafood chowder, Charlene’s wins out every time. It is hands-down the best chowder in Cape Breton. That is not an easy statement to make, but it is true. There’s a lot of good chowder on this island, but they all play second fiddle to Charlene’s.

So what makes Charlene’s chowder so freaking amazing? Well. Aside from being perfectly seasoned and a true Cape Breton chowder-consistency (that is, more soupy than thick), Charlene does. not. add. any. potato. to. her. chowder. None.

Some may enjoy the odd potato in their chowder, but if you really love seafood you’ll be delighted by the omission.

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Instead of potato, Charlene just adds a lot more seafood. I’m talkin’ massive chunks of lobster (never chewy, always tender), whole scallops, shelled mussels and big pieces of fish. Paired with one of her homemade rolls or biscuits, this chowder skyrockets you into Cape Breton seafood heaven.

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I’m going on and on about the chowder, but the other reason I like to go to Charlene’s Bayside is for the FISHCAKES. Best fishcakes, not just in Cape Breton, but ever. Just ever.

Potato, cod and seasonings combine to create a homey, comforting meal. Charlene serves two big fishcakes with homemade baked beans, green tomato chow (a type of relish), cottage cheese and a roll or biscuit. It’s a massive plate, and I have been known to devour one in less than ten minutes. I just love those fishcakes.

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*If you’re cheeky like me, you can ask for a cup of chowder instead of the baked beans. That way I get all of my favourite things on one plate! The beans are really good, though, and pair well with the fishcakes. It’s always a tough call.

If you’re planning a visit to Cape Breton and want to eat here, you’ll find Charlene’s Bayside in the village of Whycocomagh, about 30 minutes before you reach Baddeck on the Trans-Canada highway. Order the fishcakes, some chowder, a homemade dessert and tell Charlene I say hey.

You can like Charlene’s Bayside on Facebook.

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A Happy Belated Canada Day (Among Other Things)

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Hi all!

Time here in Cape Breton is flying. As I re-read my last post I can’t believe the difference a week makes.

It’s been hot. Hellishly, devilishly hot. Low-mid 30’s every day with high humidity. My dad and I have been spending a lot of time swimming in the river and Maeve has been living in the bathtub and kiddie pool – the heat has been a lot for that little Irish lass to take. She’s uncomfortable and hot going to sleep and wakes up in the night, suddenly freezing! Needless to say I’ve had a few restless nights (and ungodly early mornings).

Maeve's been enjoying her time with my family and friends.

Maeve’s been enjoying her time with my family and friends.

Early mornings are my new thing, it would seem, because I’ve taken a part time job at a local business in town (about a 20 minute drive from my parents’ house). Yes, folks, I’m back in the kitchen and loving it – even in this incredible heat. I’ve been taking care of their baking and desserts and getting up very early in the morning to do so.

I’ve always cherished those quiet early hours in restaurant kitchens – before the other cooks arrive, before the hectic lunch service – and I’m loving being the first one in this kitchen three days a week. It’s been a great job for easing me back in the industry (for when I get back to Ireland) and, also, I’m cooking my favourite kinds of food here – homey, delicious breads and desserts using lots of local fruits and berries. Low-fuss and humble, just like us Cape Bretoners (right?!).

Wild Strawberries devoured by little hands.

Wild Strawberries devoured by little hands.

I’ve been working my way through a lot of my favourite home-foods but haven’t really gotten around everywhere – especially not with my camera. So those posts will have to wait. But I have been eating lots of delicious BBQ dishes with my mom and dad, and tonight we had my father’s famous fried haddock. I could eat 100 lbs of it in one sitting.

On Canada Day Maeve and I were invited onto my employer’s float for the annual parade in Baddeck. I really think this was the best way for Maeve to experience the parade – I mean, she didn’t get freaked out by all the strange, noisy floats slowing going down the street; instead she got to ride shotgun in a pickup truck and wave to all the smiling people on the side of the road (if you’ve ever met my baby, you’ll know she loves waving to strangers). After the parade we enjoyed a BBQ with family.

My dad's weird sense of humour. He's missing an antler...

My dad’s weird sense of humour. He’s missing an antler…

That said, I miss my husband. I left him in Ireland and he’s not going to be here until August. It really hits home how much he does to help with the baby when he’s not here, so we’re counting down the days til he arrives. I think he’s secretly enjoying his lie-ins and uninterrupted soccer matches, personally (do I sound bitter? I don’t mean to.).

Bunchberry blossoms replaced by berries within a week.

Bunchberry blossoms replaced by berries within a week.

Wild strawberries - much smaller and sweeter than cultivated!

Wild strawberries – much smaller and sweeter than cultivated!

Rhubarb ready for baking.

Rhubarb ready for baking.

Our garden continues to grow, our chipmunks are growing fatter and I’m keeping an eye on all the wild berries that will soon be ready for the picking (the strawberries and bunchberries are nearly there – the blueberries, blackberries and raspberries will be coming up in late July-early August).

Our little friend wants to escape the black flies as much as the humans...

Our little friend wants to escape the black flies as much as the humans…

I promise to post a recipe soon. This is supposed to be a food blog, after all. In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures taken around my backyard. Yeah, there’s a pond.

The backyard. Great fishin' spot!

The backyard. Great fishin’ spot!

The trail from the pond to the house.

The trail from the pond to the house.

Loving Cape Breton.

Loving Cape Breton.

Cheers! And Happy Belated Canada Day!

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