Sunday, 24 March 2013

Fearless in the Kitchen

Back in my 20's I met a gal who admitted she literally didn't know how to boil water. She was 23, going to move into her own apartment but was going to take a cooking course before hand. Her mother had done all of the cooking, laundry and cleaning for her, she knew nothing on how to cope on her own. At that moment I silently thanked my mother for letting me loose in her kitchen, regardless of how much extra work it made for her.

I think the first thing I made at home was chocolate chip cookies, not sure what I did wrong but they melted into a paper thin, chocolate globbed mess, the first of many cooking fails in my life. I learned to make french toast at guide camp and we probably had french toast for many Sunday breakfasts after that. Later, in Home Ec class, I learned to make a cheese souffle that turned into a frequent Sunday brunch dish. Occasionally, in my early teens I was left at home on a Sunday, on those days my friend Karen and I made a meal of buttered minute rice. My current Food Network addiction has encouraged many Sunday afternoon experiments in the kitchen, some complete failures, others becoming part of our regular meal repertoire. It's not always pretty or ladylike (just ask B what he's heard coming from the kitchen) but always a learning experience.

If I remember correctly I think my first cookbook came from my Aunt Eileen as a graduation present, The Joy of Cooking. I still have that well worn volume and learned many of the basics from it. When Aunt Eileen's children were young, I would go over and help with the baking.  She had an old recipe for molasses cookies in which you added baking soda to molasses in a pan on the burner (don't try this at home). We had a great laugh when the whole thing bubbled up over the pan and over the stove top. 

Then my Aunt Betty turned me on to the Best of Bridge series of cook books. I used many of those recipes for dinner parties and pot lucks. And then, in the eighties, my Aunt Lorraine was my mentor in the kitchen and introduced me to Martha Stewart's cook books. Aunt Lorraine always made me whip cream with a hand beater and she always gave the job to me because I "was so good at it", til I finally caught on and whipped it into butter. Don't think she asked after that. Of course Aunt Kitty was always good for some ooey gooey squares recipes.

The men in my family are no strangers to the kitchen either. Dad was the chief cook for Sunday breakfast, preparing the eggs and crispy bacon. Once when my mom was away, he made hamburgers and apple pie for dinner for us kids. He had followed a recipe for each but put a tablespoon of salt in the hamburgers rather then a tablespoon which made them rather inedible but the apple pie was great! Uncles Donnie & Paul each created seafood chowder to die for and Uncle Bob did lamb on the rotisserie grill that was beyond anything I had ever tasted before.

My mother was very resourceful, it couldn't have been easy feeding a family of five on a budget but I always remember eating well. It was amazing what she could do with a can of tuna or pound of ground beef. I remember lots of casseroles and one pot dishes, most of them containing a can of Campbell's soup, either tomato or cream of mushroom. There was my brother “Rob's Favourite Casserole”, that's actually what I remember calling it, layers of sliced potatoes, carrots, peas and ground beef with a can of tomato soup poured over it. I recall having “American Chili” quite a bit, again using tomato soup and macaroni noodles instead of kidney beans. Lasagna made from the recipe on the box of Catelli noodles. A box of Dainty Chinese Fried Rice with hamburger was something I looked forward to, especially with a piece of buttered home made bread.

One of the favourite comfort foods of my youth is what mom called Swiss Steak. It's a mushroom sauce that can be used with steak, pork or chicken. I still frequently make this quick and simple dinner. I always make enough sauce so that I can have just the sauce and rice for lunch the next day.

So parents, though it may be messier and more time consuming, please let your children into the kitchen to help with meal preparation. Let them experiment and fail and try again. You may just be nurturing the next top chef.

Pork Chops in Mushroom Sauce

  • One can Cream of Mushroom soup
  • One medium pepper sliced in sticks
  • One medium onion sliced thick
  • 12 button mushrooms sliced thick

  • ¼ cup flour
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 2 pork chops or meat of your choice (beef, pork or chicken)

  1. Mix salt & pepper into flour.
  2. Coat the meat in flour (You can use whole steaks, pork chops or chicken breasts or chop up into smaller pieces before coating).
  3. In a large fry pan over medium heat add oil & brown meat.
  4. Put meat aside add more oil and sautes pepper, onion & mushroom til soft.
  5. Add ½ cup water to pan.
  6. Stir in contents of one can cream of mushroom soup.
  7. Add meat back into pan.
  8. Simmer 10 – 15 minutes til sauce is reduced and meat is fully cooked.
  9. Serve over rice.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Best Value For Your Vacation $$

Playing the last minute travel game is a delicate balance; don't wait long enough and you pay more then you could, wait too long and the best places get booked up. If you have your heart set on a particular place or are travelling with a group then you are best to book well in advance. Most companies will offer discounts and incentives for early booking or large groups.

With just the two of us, we are relatively flexible with where and when we travel. I do have some requirements, we tend to stick with 4 star resorts and like to travel in February. I check online sites daily, and are my go to sites. The last few years we've booked an Air Canada Vacations package. We have found some good deals with ACV and feel confident flying with Air Canada, so far we have had excellent experiences with them. Once I find a package at a price I am happy with, I contact our neighbour who also happens to be a TPI travel agent, Debbie Ford, I like the security of having someone to rely on if things go wrong while travelling and generally TA's can match any deal you find online.

The key is to book a place you are happy with, at a price you are willing to pay. If you are not sure about a particular resort, has thousands of reviews on pretty well any resort around the world. The trick to reading and understanding reviews is to read multiple, look to see how the majority of reviewers have rated the resort and take those as the most likely reality. Keep in mind, what you are looking for in a vacation may be the opposite of what someone else is looking for, that's why all reviews, good and bad have some value. The forums are also great for asking questions of experienced travellers. I use it extensively, whether I'm booking a hotel in DT Halifax or and AI in the Caribbean.  A little research can help with meeting expectations and avoiding disappointment. 

From the East Coast Canada you are going to get your better deals just about anytime other than the first three weeks of March, schools in NS, NB and PEI all have breaks in March. I tend to find good deals a couple weeks out but if you're not fussy about where you stay and flexible on when you can leave, you can find smokin' last minute deals two or three days before departure. Right now you can get in to some 5 star resorts departing in the next few days from Halifax for under $1500 for two people taxes in. Warning, once you've booked at a price you are happy with, don't keep looking, that occasionally leads to buyer's remorse.

In my experience, if you can book an All Inclusive vacation at a good price, it's about the best value vacation you can get, anywhere.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Blau Costa Verde, Cuba

More about the Blau Costa Verde Beach Resort....

The grounds are beautiful with lovely gardens throughout. I love the layout of the place, as it is now, it is such that you are never more then a few minutes walk from anything, including the beach.

The main building houses reception, lobby bar, shops, internet room, a small stage used for the evening shows during inclement weather, the main buffet restaurant, as well as guest rooms. There are 6 blocks of rooms in the old part of the resort, these are connected by covered pedways so you can travel to the main areas under cover, great during inclement weather.

View from our room 5314
This trip we were in Building 5 on the third floor just above the main buffet. The room was refurbished within the last couple years. The bathroom had not been renovated and could probably use one. There was occasional noise from the 24 hour snack bar and pool area but after midnight it's generally pretty quiet. We liked the room location, easy access to all areas of the resort. The room is high enough that you do get a small view of the ocean but it's not something I would bother paying extra for. Absolutely no complaints about housekeeping, A/C, water availability or pressure. The water did sometimes run hot and cold but this was usually right before dinner when the showers are probably used the most. Never saw a bug of any kind in our room.

There is plenty of closet and drawer space for two people. The beds, two twin beds pushed together, were hard but I never had a problem getting a good night’s sleep. There were new bed covers and pillows this year, a nice improvement. There is a fridge stocked with soft drinks, beer and bottled water daily. There is a safe in the closet, TV with couple Canadian channels,HBO, CNN and a few other channels including Spanish, German and Chinese, and a hair dryer in the bathroom. The bathtub/shower is quite deep so it may be a chore for some with restricted mobility to get in and out of. That being said, there were handles on the tub and wall to assist with getting in and out.

There are lots of organized activities up around the pool and down on the beach. There is a listing of activities outside the main buffet. Announcements were made at the stage when an activity was about to begin. There are games and contests throughout the day and before the show in the evening certificates are presented to those who participated. We don't participate in the organized activities but there seems plenty to do if you wanted to be active. 

We couldn't have ordered better weather, over 30 degrees Celsius and sunny every day. It's not always that way, we have experienced rain and cool temps on other visits, sad but true. My best advice, don’t stress about the weather. If you get bad weather, there’s no one to blame. It’s not the resort’s fault, or the country’s fault or your tour company, nobody can guarantee good weather, you pay your money you take your chances. You have two choices, you can sit around, moan and be miserable or make the best of the situation. Participate in the activities, get to know some of your fellow guests, your server, housekeeper or bartender. There’s a bit of a library down at the beach if you want to find something to read. The gym, pool table and ping pong table are all under cover so there’s no excuse!

Every day there are crafts people that set up in the hall between the lobby and the buffet. I usually just pick up the few souvenirs I want from them but this year we took a trip in to Guardalavaca on the double decker bus. During the week we were there it left the Blau at 9:15, 10:15 and 11:15, the cost is 5 CUC per person for the return ticket. We took the 10:15 bus in and we met it at 1:30 p.m. to return. There are many crafts people in the market so there's a bit more variety and the prices a little more competitive.

We spend most of our time at the beach as opposed to the pool. We usually go snorkelling a couple times a day. We brought our own masks & snorkels and if you plan on doing much snorkelling, I would suggest doing the same. We brought a couple of air mattresses which we put on the hard plastic loungers, made for a more comfortable seat if you were there any length of time. We also took advantage of a sail on the catamaran but ran out of time to use the pedal boats.

The Cuban Day party on the beach Friday is great fun. They had a pig roasting all day down by the beach. Later in the day they set up on the beach and serve up the pork on a bun. There were also a couple bands on the beach, one wandering around and the other one playing near the beach bar had an old calliope. There are a few demos set up on pressing sugar cane, making coffee the Cuban way and of course making mojitos.

We didn't see all the evening shows but what we did see we enjoyed. The local talent is amazing, musicians, singers, dancers, they were very entertaining. There are usually bands playing in the restaurants in the evening.

Lobby bar, the calm before the chaos
There are two bars in the central area of the resort, the 24 hour snack bar and the lobby bar. We generally would have our pre-dinner drink in the lobby bar and after dinner cappuccino and drinks in the snack bar. Be sure to get Rosa in the Lobby bar to make you a mojito, they are amazing. We had some pretty nice Spanish coffees there as well. They have a drink menu with quite a variety of cocktails available, something for everyone. There is a bar at the beach, drinks there are served in small 8 oz plastic glasses, even the beer. Most Canadians will tell you, it's recommended you take a thermal mug for use on the beach. It's easier to transport your drink to your chair and it keeps your drink colder longer. I generally got a lemon slushie when I hit the beach in the morning and there was still ice in it by afternoon.

Things are changing at the Blau. I think there will be plenty of trial and error going on so things we experienced may be different on any given day as construction progresses and new areas open up.

I am including here the recipe for a mojito, my favourite drink while in Cuba and with a potted mint plant on my back deck it is now my favourite summer drink at home.


Put 1 tsp sugar (or as much as you like) along with a couple sprigs of fresh mint in a high sided glass. Muddle these together (you have to get yourself a muddler!)

Add ice to the glass, 1.5 ounces of rum, juice of half a lime and top up with soda water. Give it a quick stir and voila, a refreshing summer drink!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Hola Cuba!

I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post. Time flies when you’re having fun and yes, we were having fun…in Cuba. And since our return, well, I was just in a post vacation funk trying to catch up with real life.

Back when I was single I “travelled” some. Every day I was on vacation was filled with some new adventure, a tour, mixing with the locals, discovering some hidden gem. A friend kept trying to convince me to all inclusive resort. At first I scoffed at the idea but slowly came around to it and joined a colleague and her group of friends going to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I returned from that trip only to join my travel agent on a trip to an all inclusive in Varadero, Cuba three weeks later. Six months after that I took my first Caribbean cruise. And now I am an AI and Caribbean convert.

Our recent trip was to the Blau Costa Verde. To get to this resort one flies into Holguin and then it's about an hour's drive to the resort on the coast. This was my third time at this resort, Brian's second. I had travelled there solo in 2007 and last year we went for a belated honeymoon. We hadn't planned on heading south this winter but Air Canada Vacations came out with a deal we couldn't resist after a pretty miserable few weeks of winter.

What we love most about the resort is the beach and the excellent snorkelling.  Just a short walk into the water will bring you to a large reef with lots of variety of fish & coral. The resort have snorkelling equipment to use but we prefer to bring our own. Last year I purchased a Liquid Image camera snorkelling mask which proved to be a great buy, we have hundreds of pictures from our snorkelling at the Blau. Our recent week we had perfect weather and green flags on the beach every day. We got lots of snorkelling in as well as a sail on one of the resorts Hobie Cats. There are also pedal boats and kayaks for use by the resort guests.

Throughout the day one of the animation team will be wandering around getting guests to engage in activities. On the beach they have volleyball, archery and bocce ball. Also saw exercise classes in the water (as well as in the pool) and yoga classes on the beach. Up in the main area of the resort they have salsa and Spanish Lessons, games and contests. There are lots of different activities to take part in if that's your thing or if you are like us, don't take part in any of it and do your own thing. 

The staff at the resort are another reason to keep coming back. Hard working, always with a smile and they do remember you. The resort was booked up the week we were there so the staff were working full out all the time but continued to smile and put up with some of the shenanigans and complaints of some of the guests. Our room was kept clean by a nearly invisible housekeeping staff.

Another thing I like about this resort is the food. Yes, hard to believe as usually most people will tell you not to go to Cuba for the food. At the Blau they really do make an effort to provide a variety of good food. They serve yummy thin crust pizzas and calzones in the Italian restaurant for lunch, super fries in the 24 hour snack bar and fresh grilled fish, chicken, pork & beef and occasionally burgers and hot dogs in the main buffet for lunch & dinner as well as the beach buffet at lunch. My go to meal on the buffet was usually the braised chicken or pork and the rice, always tasty.

What first endeared me to the resort was that it was small, only about 230 rooms. For the last few years the resort has been going through a major expansion of 400 extra rooms. I fear the Blau will lose it's appeal for me and many other guests who return year after year. Four blocks of 16 rooms each had recently opened before our arrival this year. The main buffet had a complete renovation and a new, large restaurant had opened to replace the smaller restaurant down by the beach. A huge new pool was undergoing testing while we were there in preparation for opening.

I won't lie, the place was booked solid the week we were there and quite crowded. This did cause some issues. Occasionally they ran out of dishes and cutlery in the main buffet during peak meal times. Serving staff were trying to keep up with serving, clearing and resetting tables in a timely manner and bartenders were constantly moving trying to keep up with the endless line of thirsty guests. Getting a lounger around the pool required one to get up with the crows to save a couple chairs. Loungers and space on the beach was no problems but, again, if you wanted some of the prime real estate near the front of the beach it was hoarded by the early risers.

As the week progressed we did see some improvements in the buffet, they seemed to have some extra staff dedicated to clearing and resetting tables, still a shortage of dishes but not quite as bad as the first of the week. There are issues still to be worked out. Once the new pool opens, that should resolve the over crowding at the old pool. Rumour has it they are going to be constructing a new beach area which should help as well. But like anything, rumour, conjecture and outright myth run rampant. From the looks of the status of construction and the rate of speed with which things happen in Cuba, I see it being a few more years before everything is opened and working according to plan. We will likely return to the Blau Costa Verde at least once more if we get it a a price we feel acceptable. But if it loses the charm which attracted us in the first place, there are plenty of other places to try.

The slide show below shows some of the expansion construction, new areas and a few assorted pics from our week for those going or returning to the Blau in the near future. I 'll continue with more information in my next post.