May 19, 2014

A Story About Friendship and Food

Things have been a little quiet on the blogfront lately and I apologize for that. But I have a good excuse. I'm awaiting the arrival of a baby.

No, it's not my baby. But it's a baby who will be very dear to my heart. To explain, I need to take you back to eighteen years ago, when I just out of high school and totally confused about what I wanted to do with my life. Hungry to learn about the world, I signed-up for a cross-cultural exchange program called Canada World Youth. It was a 7-month exchange between Tunisia and Quebec, and it changed my life.

After a first week of orientation camp (where a few dozen earnest young Canadians and Tunisians were thrown together and given their first introduction to cross-cultural communication and open-mindedness), we finally came to the eagerly anticipated day when we found out who we would be were paired with. When they called out the name of the most sparkling-eyed and mischievous-looking young Tunisian woman in the room, I began to realize how lucky I was. Synda and I spent the next several months getting to know each other's countries, living together in host families and doing volunteer work projects in the communities where we were placed. 

Back in our Canada World Youth heyday

In some ways, we were the bad-asses of our group, always up for mischief and adventure. I laughed more than I had ever laughed, learned new ways of seeing the world, and became more comfortable with myself. Despite our many differences (different religions, different languages, altogether different cultures), Synda and I fundamentally "got"and adored each other. We became inseparable! 

Over the years following our program, we kept in touch by phone and letters, and later on, through Skype and facebook. I went back to Tunisia several times to visit her and her husband and their adorable twins.

Last fall, Synda announced that she was pregnant again, 11 years after giving birth to her twins. She threw out the idea of coming to Canada, all by herself, for the birth of the baby. It would mean that her baby would receive dual citizenship of the country she loved so much, and it would be a chance for us to have a very special visit together. Though I felt honoured that I might get to help her welcome her little one into the world, it did seem like too wild of an idea at first, even for our adventurous ways. For me, it would mean delaying going to Maine for the summer, and for her, it meant overcoming a lot of logistical hurdles back home, along with the difficulty of temporarily leaving her family. But as we discussed it some more and made the necessary phone calls to the customs and immigration offices and local hospitals, we began to hatch a plan that looked more and more feasible and took a life of its own. Before I knew it, my small library had exploded with books on how to become a good birth partner and I was finally meeting her at the airport, all teary-eyed, and welcoming her back to Canada for the first time in 18 years.

Synda is one of the bravest and most determined people I know for getting on that plane and travelling halfway across the planet with such a pregnant belly. Words can't really quite describe how much I adore and admire this woman.

The day that she arrived, we lifted her very heavy suitcase onto the dining room table and opened it to reveal every imaginable Tunisian delicacy including dried octopus, home-ground spices, fresh dates, and harissa paste she had carefully prepared before her long journey here. There was even a bag filled with a rare kind of black pine nut that is used for a special custard recipe. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and was instantly transported back to Tunisia. This is our shared passion: cooking together and she came well-prepared for us to get right to work.

Synda's knowledge of traditional Tunisian cuisine is mind-blowing. She makes recipes that her mother and grandmothers have passed down to her, recipes that she says young urbanites such as herself simply don't make anymore nowadays. As the pace of life makes fast food a more appealing choice for many modern Tunisian families, Synda has always remained a staunch defender of traditional foods and the pleasures of cooking from scratch. She is the one who unlocked the culinary secrets of Tunisia for me, in my opinion one of the world's most delicious, yet most under-appreciated cuisines. During her time here, we have pretty much been cooking non-stop, and I have filmed a few of her recipes which I will try to share with you very soon in some upcoming posts. 

In the meantime, there's this simple spring radish salad that she showed me how to make, which tastes as fresh and flavourful as can be!

You can find the recipe on my recent post for PBS Food.

And now I must sign off… The spring breeze is blowing strong and our hospital bags are almost fully packed. As I write this, Synda is baking traditional Tunisian pastries for her birthing team and I should really get downstairs and give her a hand. Her due date is tomorrow!!! I'm feeling so incredibly grateful to be reunited with my beloved friend on such an occasion. Wish us luck as we welcome this new little Tunisian-Canadian  into the world!

(Update: read the story of Alex's birth here!!)

Synda was positively glowing during our 'woodsy Canadian' photo shoot

May 07, 2014

A Night at The James Beard Awards

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the James Beard Book, Broadcast, and Journalism Awards because Kitchen Vignettes was one of three nominees in the Video Webcast, on Location category. What an honour that was! Especially being a finalist alongside two of my favourite fellow foodie video producers, Dark Rye and Perennial Plate! And finally getting to meet the PBS Food team in person!

The evening got off to a wobbly start as we discovered how utterly impossible it can be to find a taxi on a busy Friday evening in Manhattan. After some frantic waiving and whistling and everything in between, we finally found a free cab and scrambled in, only to be promptly booted back onto the street and told he was headed a different direction from where we were going. Feeling very much like two lost farmers in the city, we managed to  jump on the nearest subway and then proceeded to undertake a rather frantic, un-elegant 'walk-run' all the way to the venue. We made it to our table just in time for dinner and the beginning of the awards announcements, phew! 

The soirĂ©e was a blast, with a Southern-themed dinner and all the excitement of the awards announcement. It was a thrill to be sitting in a room filled with so many foodie personalities... even Martha Stewart was there to receive the award for Best Television Program. The Video Webcast on Location award went to the amazing world-travelling duo at Perennial Plate and my only disappointment was that they weren't there to congratulate in person (because every single one of their videos makes me want to hide in their suitcase and be their travel buddy on their next trip). If you haven't already seen their work, you've got to check them out… though it's hard to choose just one, this is probably my all-time favourite:

The awards dinner was followed up by the Lucky Peach after-party at Momofuku's which was a blast. Three floors of all you can eat and drink madness. My favourite was the seafood-covered table decked out with jars of mysterious tiny pickled fish, mountains of crawfish (maybe one day someone will teach me how to actually eat those buggers, though I did my best with my limited skills…). And then there were crab legs. Muchos crab legs. I ate a lot of those crab legs. They made my night. This photo captures a bit of the glistening seafood raunchiness. It was really a rather crazy scene.

My adventurous date dared to venture into the equally crazy sheep-inspired cocktails being whipped up. I'm not sure I'll ever have another chance to taste a sheep yoghurt cocktail. We had fun. But possibly the best part about New York was seeing leaves and flowers on the trees.

Fancy that! Up here in the north pole, we barely have daffodils yet. So a little taste of actual spring was a most delightful break from the endless days of rain and cold we've had here. Oh New York, you're always such a charmer. Thank you for the memories and until next time, fair city.

May 01, 2014

Emile Henry Dutch Oven Giveaway!

Happy May, friends! I have a special spring giveaway for you today. Emile Henry is generously giving away one of their gorgeous 7-quart figue-colored (I like to call it aubergine) ceramic Dutch Ovens to a lucky Kitchen Vignettes reader. 
Made of a special heatproof ceramic, Emile Henry Dutch Ovens can be used directly on a gas or electrical stovetop or right in the oven. These beautiful Dutch Ovens are basically indestructible, you can heat them up to 930F and they're resistant to thermal shock, which means you could take one out of the freezer and place it directly in a hot oven. 

Emile Henry Dutch Ovens are made in Marcigny, France, from high-fired burgundy clay. I love this video showing how the Dutch Ovens are made:

Please note, this giveaway is only eligible to residents of the United States. To enter, please use the Rafflecopter form below. I'll draw a winner on May 15th. Bonne chance mes amis!!

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