Qualicum Bay, BC, Canada

Qualicum Bay

Illustration by Aileen Torres-Bennett

I haven’t drawn in a while, so I happily got pen and paper out and created the drawing above as a memento of our recent trip to Qualicum Bay, about a half-hour drive from the Nanaimo ferry terminal on Vancouver Island. Qualicum Beach is where most travelers stay, but we found a better cottage rental deal right on the beach in Qualicum Bay, a more residential area.

The cottage was underwhelming from the outside, but opening the door revealed a very tasteful, modern, cozy interior with an open floor plan and walls of windows framing stunning views of the ocean, coastline and mountains across the water. We made ourselves right at home.

There are barely any restaurants in the vicinity, which we didn’t really mind because we brought groceries from home and picked up some more from The Old Country Market, a small complex of shops that houses goats that feed on grass on the roof; very entertaining when you look up and happen to see them.

Our main activities were kayaking along the coast and picking up gigantic oysters during low tide. The weather was perfect almost daily, which made paddling highly enjoyable. It’s such a pleasure to breathe the cool fall air while getting a workout and seeing the the ocean and mountains illuminated in the sun. Denman Island, Hornby Island, Texada Island and Lasqueti Island were in view as we kayaked through the Georgia Strait in the Salish Sea. The water visibility was amazingly clear, so we were able to look down and see the seabed, which is lined with river type rocks. This is coho salmon territory, but we didn’t get to see any swim by. We were, however, successful in catching a few crabs by leaving out crab traps tied to buoys while we kayaked.

The fresh beach oysters were amazing, first for the experience of gathering them ourselves straight from the source, and second for the fresh flavor. I loved that the oysters were massive. We shucked them with an oyster knife and a mallet and had them: fresh with a bit of lime and hot sauce; grilled; scrambled in an omelette with spinach and cheese; and tossed with fresh pasta. The pasta, fettuccine, came from a neighborhood guy who runs a home-based business called Serafina’s Fine Foods. The oyster pasta dish was the culinary culmination of the trip. I stuffed myself silly with it, then retired to the couch, knowing digestion and exercise would take care of the meal’s after-effects in due time, while the memories of the trip would endure.

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The Grouse Grind

Grouse Mountain

The zen of effort. That’s the zone I was in as I hiked up the Grouse Grind, a challenging 2.9-km (1.8-mi.) hike straight up Grouse Mountain with an elevation gain of  853 m (2,800 ft.). From the start, this trail, a very short drive from downtown Vancouver, is an unrelenting stairmaster, and that’s what makes it a worthy challenge. The average experienced hiker can finish in 90 min. We finished in 80 min. I’ve heard it’s possible to finish in half an hour while running.

The key is to find your personal rhythm. I started out going fast, then brought the level down a bit, focusing on a slower pace that I could maintain steadily until the finish.

Any strategy is valid, of course. I saw people ripping up the mountain, huffing and puffing heavily. One guy sounded like he was about to die, so kudos to his tenacity. I saw some people take a lot of breaks. I took a few pauses myself.

Intention is key. I believe that movement can be accomplished with grace; that hard work can be graceful. It’s about the steady application of effort, keeping in mind the goal and working toward it mindfully. My goal was to make it up the mountain at a steady pace with good breath control, maintaining calm breath with each step. Doing this, I was able to pass several people who had passed me earlier toward the top. I didn’t want to burn out; I wanted to manage my energy.

The trick is to pace yourself so that you keep moving while maintaining control, managing the breath and the body. There are the inevitable moments of tiredness and frustration, but you simply keep going.

How did I feel at the summit? Energized, happy and sitting on top of the world.

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Fire Ramen

Fire ramen

Fire ramen, my way.

I loved my own take on fire ramen today. Fire ramen is the popular name for Samyang Ramen, a brand of spicy chicken roasted noodles that comes with a sauce packet that packs powerful heat. The spice is so intense that people have taken to the “fire ramen challenge”, which entails shoveling the noodles into your mouth for the chance at masochistic glee.

Wanting to enjoy my meal instead of crying from a burning sensation, I added ingredients and created a dish with plenty of flavor, taking down the heat several notches and turning up the umami.

I must say I’m very impressed with the quality of the noodle. It comes in a regular cheap instant dry ramen pack, but once the noodles are cooked, they’ve got toothsome texture and built-in flavor from having been pre-“chicken roasted”.

I boiled the noodles for a few minutes, fished them out of the water with tongs, and set them aside in the serving bowl. I kept the water boiling and added splashes of vinegar so I could poach two eggs.

In a skillet, I sauteed the noodles with smoked oysters (including the oil from the can), slices of crimini mushrooms, arugula, sesame seeds–and, of course, the sauce packet. The sauce oozed out like a syrup and was undeniably very spicy on its own, but mixing it with the other ingredients balanced out the heat. After a quick toss of everything in the skillet, I poured the contents into the serving bowl and topped with the poached eggs. Absolutely delicious. I could’ve eaten two bowls.

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Fuggles & Warlock Craftworks

Fuggles and Warlock brewery

You’re probably thinking this post is on something Dungeons and Dragons related, but ’tis not the case. Fuggles & Warlock Craftworks is a brewery. It’s got a silly name, and with the hipster-noble mission of “Keeping Beer Weird” you’d think they’d be in Austin. But they’re well north, in a discreet strip mall off the main drag in Ironwood in Richmond, B.C., Canada.

We stopped by on a Saturday afternoon and walked into a crowded place that was kid-friendly; there was a man with an infant at the bar and a couple with their toddler daughter. We ordered a tasting flight and snagged the edge of a communal table in the corner, with a full view of the brewery floor. You can order snack food, but we weren’t hungry, so it was just beer for us.

My favorite brew was the strawberry wit, which the bartender said is their most popular. It’s quite girlish and summery–it tastes like strawberry-flavored champagne–so it’s not for those who like their beer strong.  We ended up filling the growler with a heavier brew more to hubby’s palate.

Don’t know if we’ll return (it’s out of the way for us), but we did chalk up another good discovery.

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Richmond Night Market, BC, Canada

Richmond Night Market

I didn’t walk away from the Richmond Night Market thinking it was good. I didn’t walk away thinking it was bad. What I do think is: It’s an experience–which means you have to go, if you’re around town.

It bills itself as the biggest night market in North America, and the crowds get crazy because it’s on the radar of locals and tourists alike. The doors open at 7 p.m., and there is a long line to get in well before then. We walked in thinking we’d be entering a wonderland of exotic Asian fare, but the food is primarily Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and the dishes are pretty much what you’d get at Asian stalls in a typical mall food court. In short, the food choices are not exciting. We were on the hunt for Xian cuisine (noodles and lamb) but had to settle for plain old grilled lamb skewers. Other dishes we tried: shredded duck egg rolls, vegetable tempura, steamed pork buns and chicken satay. Nothing jumped out.

So, the food’s not spectacular, but you should go if you’re around Vancouver. The night market is so near the airport that you can see the planes flying just above the Skytrain train tracks. There’s also kitschy carnival stuff apart from the food stalls, such as games and an array of doodads on sale. There was a vendor selling a t-shirt saturated with images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; if you saw it, you’d want it. I, however, restrained myself. It was time to bid adieu to the fair.

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Baked Potato Hash

Potato hash

This is a beautiful side dish that’s very easy to create, and you can pair it with anything you like. For color and presentation, it’s best to use small potatoes in a variety of colors, if you can find them. I recommend the potato medley pack from Trader Joe’s.

Just preheat the oven to 400 deg. F (higher if you want less cooking time), cut the potatoes into small cubes and place in a baking tray, massage olive oil into the potatoes, add salt and pepper to taste, and cook for about 45 min. or until the potatoes soften.

Slice chunks of aged white cheddar cheese and distribute them on top of the potatoes in the last 10 min. of cooking.

For garnish, I added mint leaves. You can crisp them up in the final few minutes of cooking or add them fresh when you’re ready to serve.

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The Fat Badger, Vancouver, Canada

Fat Badger fish and chips

Fish and chips at The Fat Badger.

The Fat Badger gastropub is a favorite of mine. One, because I’m lazy (it’s just up the street). Two, because the food is good. And three, because the mascot is a pudgy badger wearing a three-piece suit with a top hat and monocle and holding what I can only assume is a frosty alcoholic beverage. How could you not like this place?

The restaurant is in an old, red townhouse (an architectural anomaly in the sleek modernity of downtown Vancouver). It doesn’t seem as popular during the summer as during the colder months because this is the time of year when most folks like to enjoy dining al fresco along the waterfront. Its dark interior contrasts with the warm season, but it’s always inviting, and it’s an old standby for when guests come to call, which was the case when an old friend of my husband’s came to town recently.

Fat Badger squid starter

The squid appetizer.

The menu changes daily, but they often have fish and chips, which I tend to order. The appetizers we got for the table are all items to rave about. We had to get poutine because it’s a Canadian phenomenon that we thought our guest had to try; this version came with potato-stick hunks topped with chicken tikka masala, paneer, and curds. We also ordered a squid appetizer that came out with the squid perfectly tender and served with what looked and tasted like couscous discs held together with cheese, hot green peppers, and mushrooms (chanterelles?); all on a bed of Texas toast. We topped off the starters with buttermilk onion rings in a crispy, light crust.

For my main, I had fish and chips again. The generous portion of cod has a wonderfully crunchy batter, which I assume, because of the color and crunch, contains beer, and the chips are the restaurant’s standard big hunks of potato. The dish comes with side sauces of tartar and curry; plus, I saved the mayo that came with the onion rings as a dip.

This meal was even better than the last time we ate here, and I walked away wanting to come back soon.

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