Cherry Season

July 16, 2015

In summer, the pleasures are simple, in abundance and all encompassing.
It's cherry season and these days in my kitchen it is all about these beautiful, red, mouthwatering fruits. One of the reasons they taste so delicious is because their season is short and they are around for a limited time during the year. Unlike apples and oranges that can be kept in cold storage, cherries don't last longer and that's why they quickly disappear even from the store shelves. But, to me, the magic of cherries lies in the pleasure of picking your own fruits from the tree. I grew up with this simple joy available to me for free in my grandparents' bountiful garden. And I always wanted for my son to have summer memories of climbing cherry trees, plucking precious rubies off branches – one for the basket, three for the mouth – until he reaches the saturation point when his stomach hurts, his nose is just about to turn red and his sticky hands are stained with dye as the hands of a most famous painter. 
On Sunday, we headed to Bizjak Farms in Vineland, Niagara region. Is is a family farm in operation since 1973. Using sustainable farming practices, Bizjak Farm specializes in growing chemical-free, tree-ripened fruit and preserving soil integrity with natural fertilizers. I met the farmer at a farmer's market in my neighbourhood in Toronto during the week and when I learned they grow black sweet cherries and white cherries and the fruits are available for picking your own, I promised to go there on the weekend. We do not mind driving 2 hours to buy local products and support organic farming. However, the best part of our trip was to find a remote farm only with lines of cherry trees and fields of raspberries (which weren't ready yet). No petting zoos, corn mazes, playgrounds or jungle gyms. Only fruit trees, baskets, ladders and picnic tables. A simple, honest, true farm to table food experience. Even our teenager, who wasn't very sure it was going to be fun, admitted that it was one absolutely perfect summer day of picking cherries, picnicking with them along cheese, pâté and baguette and of course, visiting a winery, because is is a crime to be in Vineland (Wine Country in Ontario) and to not enjoy the extensive portfolio of premium wines, made by the masters of the craft. 
At home, while I was making jam, summer permeated the room together with sweet childhood memories and idyllic images of my mom and her mom, both working women, canning and pickling every possible summer fruit and veggie that grows not only in their garden, but also in the gardens of friends, neighbours and relatives. They've never stopped doing it; even when my grandma is unable right now, my mom continues to try new recipes and improve old once. Jellies, jams, compotes, relishes, sauces and juices - preserving the elixir of summer for the cold winter days. In a very small scale, I am keeping the tradition of homemade jam alive because there is something very satisfactory about picking fruit with your own hands and creating your own product putting your heart into it. And because jam, I guess, is rich in nostalgia.
Yes, it is the simple things, after all, that give us the most pleasure and help us appreciate all that we are blessed with.        

Cherry Jam

(make about 3 jars of 500ml)


2 kg. cherries, steams and pits removed
1 kg. sugar (could be less, depends on preference for sweetness)
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract


Wash freshly picked cherries and remove the pits. Put the pitted cherries in a pot and add the sugar and the lemon. Stir well, cover the pot and leave for 15-20 minutes in order for the cherries to absorb the sugar and  release their juice.
Add 1/2 cup of water (you can add more or less water, depends on how thick you want your jam to be). Cook the cherries by stirring frequently until they are wilted and completely soft, which may take about 30-40 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and leave to cool slightly.
Pour jam in sterilized glass jars. If you want to keep them in the pantry, you will needs to seal jars by placing in boiling water for 5-6 minutes.

         What is your favourite summertime jam? 

Chipotle's Grow Book

July 11, 2015

Do you like Mexican food? 
There is no right or wrong answer to such question. I would understand if you say "no" because I am not the biggest fan of the fiesta food. I would also understand if you answer "yes' for the same reason that my son loves burritos and enchiladas. You can figure out that a Mexican restaurant as well as homemade tacos and guacamole are frequent choices for family dining. And I have to admit, I have always enjoyed them. Moreover, I recently came across an article in the New York Times regarding my son's favourite spot for burritos, Chipotle Mexican Grill. According to the report, in 2013, Chipotle was the first restaurant chain to label their menu and to indicate which items contained genetically modified organisms. Following the vision of changing the way people think about and eat fast food by committing to sustainable agriculture and serving responsibly raised ingredients with care for the animals, the farmers and the earth, in April 2015, Chipotle became the first-ever large-scale fast food establishment to eliminate GMOs from its menu in the USA. The "food with integrity" mission has led the team to partner with farmers, ranchers, and other suppliers whose practices emphasize quality and responsibility. I found that inspiring, admirable and worthy of support, especially when most of the food establishments and fast-food companies use highly processed, sodium-rich ingredients. Unfortunately, while the vast majority of the ingredients in the food Chipotle serves on the Canadian restaurants are non-GMO, they are still currently seeking alternate, non-GMO sources for a few of the ingredients.
What is more, is the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill organizes and participates in various educational projects through The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation and other means in order to educate children about healthy eating, family farming and animal welfare and the environment. With their simple and very informative Grow Book, Chipotle encourages a conversation among young children about where food comes from. Full of interactive activities, puzzles, kids-friendly recipes, worksheets, and even tomato seeds, the book helps young audiences not only to learn everything about growing - "how food grows, where food grows, how food helps kids to grow, how we all grow a little when we learn more about growing", but also to have fun growing their own food, the most honest way to feed ourselves. But even when we buy our food from the store, it is important for the kids to know that "food doesn't just appear like magic on the table. It takes a special path to go from dirt to dinner."
I am thankful to Chipotle's representative who chose to share this activity book with me. As an educator, I can confirm that the book is an excellent source of learning not only in the family, but can be very useful for elementary school teachers as a resource for activities connected to the Science (Understanding Life System) Curriculum, Grade 1-3. While Chipotle's Grow Books are not available in stores, they are part of Chipotle's educational program, and can be made available to small groups, schools and community organizations upon request. 
I highly recommend the book because, as the creator put it at the end, it is just that simple:

"PLANTING THE SEED, we hope this book helped your brain grow a little. (Yes, brains grow too.) 
And maybe, just maybe, you will want to learn more about GROWING. And maybe, just maybe, you will plant an herb GARDEN. And maybe, just maybe, you will start a COMMUNITY garden, And maybe, just maybe, you will go to college to learn about FARMING. And maybe, just maybe, you will become a GENUIS FARMER. And maybe, just maybe, you will change the way the whole WORLD EATS. Maybe. What can we say? We like to DREAM BIG."

And before I passed the Grow Book down to a little future farmer (maybe, just maybe), together with my son I made the best guacamole ever.

                Have you visited Chipotle Mexican Grill and what was your experience like? 

Istanbul through my lens

July 2, 2015

This trip to Istanbul last summer was a special one. A gift to my son for his sixteen birthday from my family, he, my sister, and I had four unforgettable days in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Spread over two continents, home to more than 14 million people, Istanbul is a vibrant city, offering a wealth of history, interesting scenery and distinguished cuisine. Colours, colours, lots of colours, sounds, fragrances and flavours will instantly set you in a hubbub of locals, tourists, vendors, shoppers, restaurant owners, retailers, fishermen, drivers, street dogs and hungry cats. Mosques, churches, palaces, markets, bridges, towers, boats and water, water, lots of water will surround you just to prove to you that you are walking in one of the world's great places - a crossroad of civilizations, religions and cultures. So, we had a lot to do and a lot to see here... and we did it, walking the streets of Istanbul from early morning to late at night. From the Sultanahmet district (our hotel was located there) with the open-air, Roman-era Hippodrome, the iconic magnificent Hagia Sophia and the impressive Blue Mosque, through the Grand Bazar (I didn't really enjoy it), Galata Bridge and the fantastic 17th century Spice Market (Egyptian Bazaar) to a pleasant cruise trip through the famous Bosphorus Strait, we immersed ourselves in every possible sight of this place. We visited the kitschy, in my opinion, Dolmanbahce Palace with its fantastic garden and my personal favourite the beautiful Topkapi Palace. We literally ate our way through the city - simit, gozleme, baklava, kunefe, watermelon, white cheese, roasted chestnuts, rice pudding, turkish delight, the famous dondurma (ice cream cone on a stick, sold from a street vendor who teased us performing awesome tricks with the ice cream before finally giving it to us). We ate kebaps and pilaf at a wonderful roof terrace with a spectacular view, but nothing could compete with the freshly caught fish sandwich on freshly baked bread with pepper and tomato straight from the grill of a man and his wife who skilfully prepared this delicious dish on the waterfront promenade right in front of the arriving boats. We drank tea, turkish coffee, ayran and boza. We experienced the most warm pouring rain and the most magnificent sun set over the beautiful skyline. But most of all, we enjoyed the extraordinary cultural experience that lies around every corner of the city. I felt Istanbul foreign and at the same time so very humanly close - unpretentious, hospitable and beautiful in its unique way.  

What are your plans for this summer, dear friends?

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