I’ve decided that this should be my birthday dinner every year: fresh-caught crab, steamed and lay down next to a bowl of warm pastured butter, roasted local potatoes with melted cheese that has crusted around the crags, brussels sprouts and kale salad with pecans and pecorino, plus fresh mozzarella with flaky salt.
All of it prepared in the beach house of our friends Julie and Mike, the doors to the back deck open, the Beatles playing, cool air wafting off the water, the kids laughing, and an entire evening together stretching before us.
Turning 47 was quite the joy.
We just returned from a week on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, one of my favorite places in the world. We’re lucky, so lucky, to travel for our work. But this week was pure pleasure, no readings or signings or classes to teach. We crossed from the mainland to Vancouver Island with our friends, Laura and Daniel, on a bright-blue-sky day. Lu danced on the white deck as we watched small islands populated almost entirely of green trees glide by us. We ate in Victoria that night, at a Jamaican restaurant that served us plantain chips and jerk chicken without a stitch of gluten. Without warning, the sky outside exploded into booms. Fireworks over the harbor. We five ran outside to see them, Lu wide-eyed and wowing the entire time. Thanks for the welcome, Victoria.
The next day, after a five-hour drive through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen (as well as a stop at a place in Coombs called Goats on the Roof, because there are literally goats on the roof of the place), we arrived in Tofino.
Within a few moments, we never wanted to leave.
In the days proceeding our visit, when we told people we were off to visit Tofino, people all had the same amazed, dewy-eyed expression on their faces. “Ah, Tofino.” (The server at our breakfast place in Victoria signed our bill: “Have a great time in Tofino! I’m jealous, actually.”) And now that we have been, and stood on this deck, watching Lu and her friend W blowing bubbles in the morning after the fog has lifted, and looked out at this water, I understand.
Tofino, where we kayaked on clear water every day, paddling out to small islands and watching seals surface feet from our boats, bald eagles flying overhead, and pulled into the rocky shore with sore arms and grinning clear minds.
Tofino, where we ran into the ocean singing.
Tofino, where Lucy clambered after her friend on tall rocks on the beach in bare feet, or stood on top triumphant with her Dada, or climbed again the next day to survey the sea before her.
Of course, there was food. Tofino is famous for its good food. It’s a tiny beach town on the coast of British Columbia, where surfers stick out their thumbs on the side of the road hoping for a ride to the taco stand after all morning of riding the waves. And this taco stand! Tacofino, I love you.
How is it possible that the best tacos I have ever eaten were made in a truck in British Columbia? I’m still thinking about the seared albacore tuna taco with wasabi mayo, shredded cabbage, salsa fresca, seaweed salad, and pickled ginger. Goodness gracious. And, everyone in the truck understood how to make that taco truly gluten-free. I would go there every day, if I could.
There was Tofino Coffee Company, which Julie wrote about a couple of years ago. It’s a damned fine cup of coffee, roasted by a mellow surfer dude, with a refreshing menu of four coffee drinks. That’s it. Just amazing coffee. Danny loved walking in every morning, just to talk with Michael.
And there was a lovely long meal at SOBO (Sophisticated Bohemian), where they serve as many local ingredients as they can find, like cheese from the Cowichan Valley and wild prawns pulled out of the ocean that day. Julie and Mike and Danny and I sat outside at a long table until well into the gloaming, talking and sharing seared scallops and wild salmon chowder, while Lu and W played in the purple bus on the patio, bringing us new dishes occasionally. (Lu would really like a play food truck on our back deck now.)
But most of the time, when we ate, we sat right here, in this lovely light, at the table in Julie’s home. Do you know Julie? You should. She’s a talented cook, recipe developer, writer, tv host, creator, and mum. She has a great cookbook called Spilling the Beans, along with others, and she’s coming out with a new one soon. I’d say that Lucy will lose her mind when she first sees Alice Eats: A Wonderland Cookbook. I can’t wait for September.
Julie and Mike work together, creating food and books and websites and articles for magazines and making a good life for a kind, creative kid. It was nothing but joy to be with them that time in Tofino. It’s not just that we have only a handful of people who understand the wacky nature of our lives. It’s also that they made us feel so welcome.
As is always true when we’re with good people, most of the conversations happened around the dining room table.
Other than what I listed, I can’t tell you about places to eat in Tofino. We ate here, at the kitchen island in Julie’s beach home. There were kale and carrots, radishes with butter and salt, pecans, fresh eggs, garlic, and a whole lot more. After we picked up their weekly CSA box, there were gorgeous fingerling potatoes and tiny orange carrots so sweet we didn’t need dessert. We stood around this island often, talking and chopping.
There were breakfasts like this at the white table, the light pouring in through the windows.
There was my birthday cake, made with a special secret batter. Get this it’s mashed potatoes and almond flour. The recipe was from the BBC and the cake was one of the best I’ve had. It’s moist without being cloying. I’ll be playing with this combination soon.
There were crabs pulled out of the sea and still wriggling as I took photographs.
There were purple carrots and hummus, healthy snacks out on the table and the island so the kids could run by on their way to the beach and grab something to eat for the energy.
(And I love how Julie dealt with the possible gluten contamination of her wooden cutting board. She put down a fresh piece of parchment paper every time she started to cook. She’s good, that one, I tell you. She’s good.)
The last morning we were there, after days of kayaking then eating then wandering to a new beach then eating then sitting up late talking then sleeping long and well, we gathered in the kitchen one more time. Julie made this gorgeous peach and blueberry tart, adapted from a recipe from the beautiful Sprouted Kitchen website. She blended pecans and dates for the crisp nutty crust, then layered it with mascarpone cheese and honey, blueberries and peaches. It was so simple, like the long days of light and talking, swimming and paddling, eating and laughing we had spent with Julie, Mike, and W. It was naturally sweet, like the friendship we had felt together that grew enormously those days in Tofino. It was healthy and summery and gone too soon.
Just like our time in Tofino.
No one wanted to leave. We have a busy fall in front of us, a full summer behind us. We so rarely have the time to simply float our way through days with good friends. There isn’t enough kayaking in our lives.
We did have to leave. We waved goodbye to the ocean, the trees, the fresh-roasted coffee, the tacos, the rocks to climb, the open sky, and most reluctantly to our friends. We’re going back next August. I might just have to spend my birthday in Tofino every year.
Date-Hazelnut Balls with Chocolate-Coconut Ganache
After eating the peach tart with a nut-date crust that Julie made for us in Tofino, I needed to play in the kitchen. I’ve been looking for a snack for Lucy after her afternoon swim, something with protein, something slightly sweet without refined sugars, and something portable. The crust on that tart took so little time to make that I thought about rolling it into balls.
The balls themselves are easy to make and plenty good. Those are Lucy’s favorites. But Danny? He wanted chocolate ganache. Ganache sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Did you know that all you need to do to make chocolate ganache is combine chopped chocolate and hot coconut milk and stir? Ay goodness.
We used dark chocolate, the only kind I eat, with an 80% cocoa content. When Lucy took a bite, she immediately said, “You might want to add a little sugar to that.” Me? I like the bitterness, the darkness of these, and the tiny amount of added sugar. But if you want to give these to your kids, you might want to use a slightly less-dark chocolate. These would also make great bars. And a tart crust.
- Making the balls: Add the dates, almond flour, hazelnuts, walnuts, coconut oil, honey, and salt to the bowl of a food processor. Run the food processor until everything is mixed into a fine crumble. (But don’t mix it so far you make nut butter.) The mixture should stick together between your fingers but it should not gather into one ball. If the mixture feels too dry, add a teaspoon of water at a time. (If you are avoiding the honey, replace it with more coconut oil or water.)
- Grab a tablespoon’s worth of the nut mixture. Roll it into a ball between your hands. Put it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat until you have formed all the balls.
- Freeze the balls until they are solid.
- Making the ganache: Put the chopped chocolate in a large bowl. Set a small pot over medium-high heat. Add the coconut milk to the pot. When the milk has come to a boil, turn off the heat. Pour the hot coconut milk over the chopped chocolate and stir it all up until you have a smooth chocolate ganache.
- Let the ganache cool enough to touch it. Twirl each date-hazelnut ball in the ganache, then set it on a cooling rack set over a parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Eat at room temperature for a soft ball that melts in the mouth. Refrigerate before eating for a more candy-like eating experience.
- Makes about 18 balls.