September 04, 2015

Ultimate flank manoeuvre


Summer has pitched a fit in this last week before Labour Day. It's so hot and muggy here in Toronto that we broke the temperature record for the hottest day all year...and also the hottest nights.

We live without air conditioning in our 1-bedroom apartment. We live with two ceiling fans. And this week we live with them rotating full time, all the windows closed, the door shut. It could be the middle of winter out there for all I know. Amazing how at a certain temperature, at opposite extremes of the thermometer, you're trapped in your house the same way the drifting, blowing, wind-chilled air keeps us huddled inside, warming ourselves on the glow of the tv.

The dog, who hails from the state of Alabama, and looks a bit shocked that the dog days of summer are so dog dang hot up here, has surrendered to the comfort of the bed under the ceiling fan and looks both scruffy and pathetic.

So...anyway, under the heading of eking out a little more summer grilling time, (we've grilled twice this week to avoid the heat of the oven - and waiting for the heat to dissipate has meant grilling in the dark) I have to share this gem of a recipe for the best marinade for flank steak. I love flank steak.

I discovered this early in the spring by googling 'best flank steak marinade'. I came up with Kelly Senyei's post on her justataste.com blog from a couple of years ago, appropriately titled "The Ultimate Asian Flank Steak Marinade".

So, looking at the ingredients list, and looking in the pantry I said, right...that looks like the ultimate flank steak marinade. I've now made it so many times and it has turned out beautifully each time. The mark of an ultimate recipe.

My only revision of the recipe is the time she gives for marinating. She recommends marinating overnight or at least 10 hours. I don't marinate meat for more than 90 minutes since a marinade especially made with acid (as this is) will break the protein bonds in the meat making it mushy rather than tender. But the flavours are beautiful in this, and in 90 minutes the meat does take on that lovely aroma of the marinade...so...get out your big ass ziplock bag.

Best Flank Steak Marinade

1 flank steak (1-2 lb)
1/4 cup soy sauce (I use gluten free soy sauce for Steve)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (Kelly calls this her secret ingredient)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp honey
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
3 spring onions thinly sliced


Start by placing the open ziplock bag in a bowl. Fold down the top. It will stand better in the bowl as you put the ingredients in. Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, vegetable oil and whisk in the honey, garlic, ginger and spring onions. Put the meat in the marinade and close the bag. Mush it around to make sure all the surfaces of the meat are covered in marinade. Now put it in the fridge for 90 minutes.

Preheat your grill and pull the meat from the fridge. Take the steak out of the marinade. Throw away the marinade. Cook the steak to your liking. Let it rest and slice til your heart's content - try not to eat it all before it gets on the plate.

I noticed that Kelly also sprinkled some toasted sesame seeds and freshly sliced spring onions (not the ones from the marinade!) on top of the slices when serving, which looks beautiful.

Here's to the last long weekend of the summer of 2015.



September 02, 2015

Smoke On, Now.

The Snowbirds - earlier this year in BC - courtesy DND/CAF
"Sign it," he said, throwing a blank form on my lap. I was busy looking down, writing notes, trying to keep track of what was going on. But frankly, I had lost track of what Mike was saying because it didn't matter. I wasn't going.

I looked up at him - his eyes were sparkling, and he was grinning a little. "Sign it," he said again pointing at the form and then moving on to hand out waiver forms to the other seven or so people in the room. I gulped. I was being offered a ride with the Snowbirds, the Canadian air force's aerobatic team. And Mike Lenahan, the communications officer, was in the middle of the safety briefing.

Here's the thing: I'm a terrible flyer - especially if it involves detailed safety briefings - which if you remember I wasn't listening to. I'd rather not, thanks. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself pulling my spine into the back of the seat hoping it and the wall behind me would give way and I could back flip out to the parking lot.

I know, what the hell was I doing there then? Well, in my not-so-infinite wisdom, I had pitched a story on the Snowbirds and their first female technician, Corporal Marlene Shillingford. I was doing research. And that's what I told Mike, who had invited me down to watch the process. "I'm just here to watch and do research," I said, and the sentence disappeared into meekness. "Sign it," he said. I looked at the form and my ears opened up just in time to hear Mike say, "when, not if, you regain consciousness..." My head started spinning..."Wait, did you just say 'ejector seat'?"

It was 22 years ago. And I can still feel it. It was exhilarating, nauseating, nerve wracking. This week those beautiful birds will be flying over Toronto again for the Canadian International Air Show. And I'll be jumping out of my skin and out onto the deck every single time I hear their unmistakable engines. And remembering.

Suddenly I was putting on the navy blue flight suit, the helmet with the mirrored visor, the oxygen mask dangling off to the side. Very. Top. Gun. Then I was climbing into the cockpit of plane #7, to the left of Capt. Frank Bergnach, the pilot. Marlene strapped my shoulders down, hard. I couldn't move. The oxygen came on. Frank explained how the radio works and how to talk to him - and that if I threw up in the mask, it would be up to me to clean it up later. The canopy started closing over our heads as the engines geared up. My mouth was dry. And when I looked down, my knees were knocking together. Literally. I tried holding them with my hands so Frank wouldn't notice.

Frank noticed. The brakes were released and we were gliding out with 8 other planes to the runway. All at once. Doesn't that seem dangerous? Shouldn't we go up one at a time? Why am I here? What was I thinking? As we taxied I could hear Frank through my headset telling me about his vast experience flying: a bazillion hours in the Tutor jet, a bazillion hours in F-18s, a bazillion hours landing on aircraft carriers with the US Air Force...and I felt myself finally breathing in. Which was good. This was an experience, and I - was - not - going - to - miss - it.

All nine planes lined up on the runway in a diamond pattern. The radio squawked to life as we heard the Major in plane #1 just ahead of us, give the command to start rolling. Damn, I was holding my breath again. As we picked up speed on the tarmac, suddenly the Major was off the ground, then us, then the rest, and we unzipped ourselves into a three-dimensional diamond. These planes were flying close together - we were on the far left side of the formation and Frank spent practically 100% of the time looking to the right and watching our neighbour's left wing which was unnaturally close. The plane above us didn't look more that 20 feet away - every rivet, every panel, every detail, visible.

Some perspective
from a shot this year by DND/CAF
The turbulence pushed and pulled us. While Frank looked to the right, he maneuvered the plane, fighting to stay in formation. I could hear him through his mask, grunting, and gasping and holding his breath and then letting it go. All adrenaline, all cardio. All the time.

We were doing banking turns in unison, this way, that way and then heading vertically into the sky. The G-forces bent my head into the shape of a football. At various points the Major's voice would break through and I'd hear him say in his slow drawl (which I still imitate), "Snowbirds. Smoke onnnnn....Noooow" and from underneath the planes a stream of smoke would bleed out behind us into ribbons of white - and then, "Smoke off. Nowwww."

At one point all the planes broke away from formation into their own part of the sky. Frank asked if I was okay and I told him, "Totally. Totally okay."

"Want to go upside down?" Well of course. I'd come that far, and I wasn't even aware I had knees anymore. He told me he was going to throw the stick to the right a little and then all the way to the left. Was I ready? "Just do it," I said.

And he did. And I kept my eyes looking up and through the clear canopy over my head, the world spun around like it does when you're passing out. When he righted the plane, I was whooping. Like a kid. No seriously, whooping, hollering, giggling all at once. And then I topped it off by slapping my legs (since I couldn't jump up and down) and saying, "Again, again, again!"

I had just turned 30 by the way. Three days earlier I had been in Belize on a research trip for another documentary and we had had a "wrap party" which involved celebrating my big birthday - and getting me (for the first time in my life) totally drunk. Drunkety drunk drunk, as one of my friends likes to say. Many shots of tequila, followed by a couple of hours sleep, then a boat ride, then 2 planes to get home. Ugh. But there I was, in the plane, acting like a four year old. And he spun us around again.

Just when I thought it was over, Frank asked me if I'd like to fly it. "Fly what," I asked, trying in vain to turn my helmet towards him. "The plane. Wanna try it?" What? Why hells bells. Yes. So I did. Sort of. I took the stick that was in front of me and starting moving it around. Do you know what it's like to ride a horse that knows you ain't the master of this situation? The horse that either just munches on the grass or heads straight for the barn? That's what the Tutor felt like. It responded. And it was thrilling. But when Frank broke in about a minute later and sped us up and away from the earth, I was relieved.

We all came back into formation and headed back to the airport. The wind had picked up so the order was for the planes to land in formations of three instead of all at once. I was so high I have no idea how Frank held the plane to the ground. We got back to our parking spots, the canopy opened and Marlene was there to unstrap, peel, and extract me from the seat. My feet hit the tarmac and I started jumping up and down like a lunatic. I hugged Marlene, I hugged Frank. What a spectacle. I do not know how people keep their shit together when life offers you an opportunity like that. They do keep their shit together...but I am not one of them.

It was a two-hour drive home. But I think I did it in about an hour. The car's wheels barely touched the highway. I was high for about a week. I dreamt about it. I couldn't stop grinning.

And to think I could have missed that by being too scared. I can make myself crazy with this stuff. I'm so grateful that voice in my head told me to remember that life is an experience, so live it. As I get older that voice diminishes. Among the top experiences I've had so far the snowbirds flight is right up there - along with hiking in the Himalayas, diving with a whaleshark, and my wedding day. Our adventures have tamed out a bit. Life has kicked us about a little and I find myself looking back at the last few years and sensing how gun-shy I've been.

My adventures have been more internal than external. And I think it's just been time for that. I'm grateful - despite all the pollution I've dug up from my depths. It's exhaust - and exhausting. But it's getting done.

And I find myself looking out again at the moment. And the experience. Bring it on.

~

Addendum, Marlene is still in the air force and, in fact, went back to the Snowbirds a few years back to do a stint as their crew chief, the first woman again to have that job. She flew with the team lead. That was unthinkable when we did that story. Bring it on.


Photos from the CAF image gallery and as per the terms of use -  they are official works (IS2009-0352 and FA03-2015-0001-15) published by DND/CAF and they have not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of, DND/CAF. 

August 31, 2015

Canning hope

Every once in a while I get to spend the day cooking. I live in wonder of those days - they come along only a few times a year. Last week I had two in a row. For the first time in my life, I spent the better part of Thursday and Friday canning. The sun came in through the bay window, I turned on my 'fun' playlist, and I canned. And I canned. And I canned. And I got more and more tired...And happier and happier.

st. jacobs market haul
For a couple of days, sitting on my floor were huge plastic bags of loot - the haul we brought back from St. Jacobs Farmers' Market...carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets, leeks, peppers, plums, blueberries, pickling cucumbers, garlic, dill, and of course peaches and tomatoes. A half bushel of peaches. A bushel of tomatoes. And not just any tomatoes. San Marzanos.

I felt the urgency of getting going - before the rot set in, and on my floor. For the first time in a long time I fell into a planning frenzy. I bought a canner, a jar lifter, a funnel, and a dozen jars. A whole dozen. Yes, they were wide mouthed (you only buy the others once - unless you're making jam). I bought 12. And right now my kitchen table, counter, pastry worktop are covered with 23 jars - and that's just the tomatoes. So while I was up to my elbows in tomato skins, Steve made a midday run to the store for two dozen more.


Starting Thursday with my Mum, and continuing Friday on my own, I washed, blanched, peeled, stuffed, and processed 23 quarts of tomatoes. Nine litres of peaches. Five litres of dill pickles.

There is something about preserving food at its best. There's an optimism, a resilience, a sense of self preservation, a sense of being capable, a sense of independence, of worth, a sense of capturing something at its peak of life and suspending it there - a sense of magic.

Yes. Sometimes a tomato is just a tomato. But I wouldn't have a blog if I couldn't find meaning in it all, would I?

I have wanted to put up tomatoes on the shelf for years. And I've always let the chance slip by.

Even this many days later I can't actually move them downstairs. The jars are sitting on the kitchen counter because I am marvelling at the beauty of them.

Maybe I'm asking too much of the preserves but they feel like they're filled with hope. The art of the possible.

Here are some of the things I learned that I didn't expect:
I have a lot of dishtowels - and I'm glad.
I am glad I have a big roll of plastic and cut a piece to cover our dining table.
I am glad to have had my big cutting boards out to let the hot jars rest on.


I used more pots than I expected - the canner, the stock pot to blanch the fruit, another pot to sterilize the seals and rings, and another with spare water kept on the simmer in case the canner didn't have enough water once I put the jars in.
I also filled the electric kettle and boiled that.
I LOVE my dishwasher's sanitize setting. It meant sterilizing a pile of jars all together. And once they were done, I just left them closed in the dishwasher until I needed them. 

This was also about grit. I took a personality test once that determined your grit score - and I didn't do very well...and yes I think I'm fairly gritty...and yes, I think we can fade in and out of our gritness - and perhaps that was a low point. But looking at the bags on the floor I knew I had to follow through. They hadn't been alive and grown and blossomed and matured, only to rot on my kitchen floor. True grit. And I paid homage to buddhism too - When I peeled the tomatoes, I just peeled the tomatoes. When I stuffed the jars, I just stuffed the jars. I was in the moment. I did it with joy. And I hope that comes through whenever we start opening those jars. 

August 24, 2015

Pomodoro, you make me 10 again

I am ten years old again. You know why? Tomatoes. The poisonous red fruit, the golden apple, the edible wolf's peach...I don't care what they thought of you in centuries gone by, I can now eat tomato sandwiches 'til they come out my ears. Because it's time. It's August.

I went through a phase when I was a kid when all I wanted for lunch was a sliced tomato on white bread. A little butter, okay...although I freaked out if the butter was hard and tore at the bread. Freaking freaked out. And okay to a little salt and pepper. That was my lunch. Day in. Day out. With a glass of milk.

And that's what I had yesterday. And today. And will do until the basket of tomatoes in the kitchen is gone. 

That said, we're off on a family adventure tomorrow to St. Jacobs Farmers' Market to buy a bushel of tomatoes. Because I'm tired of the canned thing and would rather can my own, thank you very much. 
I had the dust kicked off my canning butt a few weeks ago thanks to my friend Cheryl who had us up to her farm to make her mother's recipe for dill pickles. My jars are so pretty I can't actually put them away, so they're sitting on my kitchen counter...waiting...until Thanksgiving to be opened!

But Cheryl inspired me to get a canner, a jar lifter, a funnel and a dozen one litre jars. Tomatoes it is. Not sauce...tomatoes. Tomatoes that I can turn into anything through the long winter. Soup, pasta sauce, chili...whatever. We tend to make something out of a 28-oz. can every week, sometimes more. And frankly, I'm a bit irked by the concept of BPA lining our cans of food - and the more acidic the food, aka tomatoes, the likelier the BPA liner. In a world (say that with the movie trailer voice) where I'm trying to minimize the estrogen that enters my body for no reason, BPA is a persona non grata in my life.

I know most of you will already have your jams and preserves well under way and on the shelf. I don't praise myself as a planner, although I do praise myself as a late bloomer - because in the words of Sandra Shamas, at least I bloom. So this is new for me. Credit please. Thank you.

So on Saturday I was digging back into Genius Recipes, by Kristen Miglore - a fabulous cookbook from the fabulous Executive Editor of the even more fabulous Food52. And I stumbled on this, tucked in a corner on page 68. 

A tomato recipe that was so simple, so elegant, it brought out the poetry of the gorgeous tomatoes we had. Kristen got the recipe from Marcella Hazan and quotes the incomparable Italian icon's facebook page about this recipe: "It has the potential to eclipse every other experience of tomatoes you may have had."

Così vero, Marcella. Così vero.


Garlic-Scented Tomato Salad
adapted by Kristen Miglore, from a recipe of Marcella Hazan's

4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1-2 tsp salt
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 lbs ripe tomatoes
1 doz. torn fresh basil leaves
Olive oil


Steep the garlic in a bowl with the salt and vinegar for at least 20 minutes.
Slice tomatoes and lay out on a platter. Just before serving, sprinkle torn basil leaves over the tomatoes. Holding back the garlic, pour the vinegar over the tomatoes and then drizzle with your best olive oil. You can adjust the flavourings - maybe more salt? Or more vinegar? Should serve 4-6.

I cut up two huge tomatoes (about 1 lb.) and used the proportions above for the steeped vinegar. Two of us gobbled the whole plate down in one go. 

Enjoy. While you can. And this weekend, I will can, while I can can. More to come...

August 18, 2015

Slaw Days of Summer

It’s been kind of a remarkable summer.

Last August, for the first time, we spent some precious dollars renting a cottage for a week, only to have the weather turn into a not-so-impressive impression of October. With no heat source in the cottage, and after a few days of using the oven, and boiling big pots of water on the stove to put on the table, we surrendered on Tuesday night and headed home Wednesday, having made it in the lake once.

The view from my friend Cheryl's farm.
That first row of trees is where the coyotes live. The moon is the setting Blue Moon.

This summer, I’ve been in Ontario’s beautiful lakes far more often than I have the right to expect. Thanks to my generous friends sharing their space with me and letting me breathe – smelling the overwhelming scent of pine needles on the forest floor…hearing coyotes chatter the night of the Blue Moon, then wolves the next, and loons the night after…and tasting summer food – coleslaw, bbq corn, gazpacho, and marinated flank steak on the grill.

I had s’mores for the first time (yes, that took more than 50 years), and got pulled around a lake on a big, fat tube, for the first time; laughing so hard I was pretty sure my bladder and I would part ways. And I laid on a dock one night and watched shooting stars carve their way across the Milky Way.

Sunset at Bitter Lake, which, by the way, is next to Tedious Lake. Seriously.

I noticed last night we turn on our lamps a little earlier. The cicadas are still around but slowing, now crickets have picked up their chorus – they’re a late summer thing, the sunflowers are in full blush, and the corn is piled up at the farmers’ markets. A sense of mild panic is running through me as I face facts – summer is coming to an end. Because, that is what it does.

I thought I’d share some discovered recipes I’ve tested enough this summer to say with confidence, yup…good food. And if you think about where you serve it, like outside preferably, it transforms into good food karma - meals married to setting – amplifying both the taste and the experience.

Even the s’mores. Though, I have to say s'mores have more to do with setting than taste…it’s a mixture I think could be seriously improved. Smore karma needed.

The karma is up to you. Set the table outside. Or make this stuff and take it to a park and set out a blanket and dishes and napkins and wine, and just breathe. Enjoy the moment. Because all good things come to an end…but so do bad things. And living well is the best revenge anyway, right?

This coleslaw recipe is excellent. It comes from Bobby Flay and the Food Network and is called Bobby’s Creamy Coleslaw. I can eat the bowl myself.

1 head of green cabbage, shredded
2 large carrots, shredded
¾ cup of mayonnaise
2 tbsp sour cream, I used thickened yogurt – and when I don’t have time to thicken it, so be it.
2 tbsp grated Spanish onion, I used red onion
2 tbsp sugar, or to taste – so says the recipe…I found 1 tbsp sufficient
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp dry mustard
2 tsp celery salt (go ahead and buy some, it’s brilliant, and some say essential, to potato salad)
Salt and pepper

Mix together the shredded cabbage and carrots in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt, onion, sugar, vinegar, mustard, celery salt, and salt/pepper. Spoon carefully over the vegetables. Mix. Check for your desired dressing-to-vegetable ratio and add more if you like - but remember, less is more. The important thing is to let it sit in the fridge for a bit - the tastes really mature over time - you know, like us.

I usually only shred half a cabbage to make this, so whatever portion of the dressing I don’t use goes in the fridge. I’ve doused salad, other vegetables, leftover chicken with it. It stands up to everything. And remember summer isn’t over yet. It’s not. It's not. It's not. Mature eh?

So here's to summer 2015 - and I send my love out to Karen, Jain, Andy, Carol, Kathilee, Cheryl, for being with us and/or hosting us, and Denise for letting us give Bitter Lake another chance.

June 23, 2014

My Hummus Journey

It turns out, I take hummus pretty seriously. Yes, it does have a funny sounding name and yes, it is alarmingly close to 'humus' which, "refers to any organic matter that has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain as it is for centuries, if not millenia." Thanks Wikipedia.

If you've had bad hummus that might sound familiar. It would definitely remind you of stable organic matter that will break down no further and last for millenia.

I have been on a search for the right hummus recipe for years. It started a few years after the perfect recipe slipped right by me.

Many, many years ago I was on a first name basis with the owners of the Armenian Kitchen in Toronto. One of our many nights there Johnny, the son of the owners, sat down with me and explained how to make hummus. The hummus at the Armenian Kitchen is unparalleled in my admittedly limited experience. It's creamy, tasty, supple, bearing the light pools of olive oil and paprika on top...giving way easily as the pita bread breaks its surface.

But I, being young(er), and totally disinterested in the difference between hummus and humus, so long as the pita was fresh...and really only vaguely interested in cooking at all, let his careful instructions go right over my head - especially after he leaned in and said it's extremely important to skim the scum off the surface.

I'll get back to the scum.

Of course once cooking got into my veins (and onto my hips), I rued the day I failed to take notice of, and notes on, Johnny's hummus lesson. And I was definitely pushing my luck when I got the new owners to give me the recipe (and their blessing to post it) for pickled turnips. I pointed my finger at them and said, 'okay...now the hummus.' They just laughed and shook their heads, and wagged their fingers at me.

I was on my own. Fine.

I decided to start simply. Can o' chick peas, tahini, garlic etc. Simply...yuk. Grainy, flat, boring. How was that possible?

I kept remembering that baking soda and dried chickpeas were involved somehow. Then a few weeks ago, Food52 posted the recipe for the Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's hummus from Jerusalem. Lo and behold, there it was...dried chickpeas and baking soda.

I've made it a few times now and yes, it's excellent. And you can vary the flavorings - some people swear off cumin, others avow its perfection. More garlic? Less? Oil? Water? I encourage you to try different species.

But the key is dried chickpeas that you've soaked overnight. And the baking soda. And...let it sit for 24 hours before you serve it - the flavours are so much better the next day.

The business:

1 1/4 cup of dried chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
6 1/2 cups of water
1 cup of tahini (originally calls for an extra 2 tbsp of tahini - but I don't find it makes a huge difference)
4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (add more if you like it, and at the end, some lemon zest for extra zing)
4 garlic cloves, crushed
6 1/2 tbsp ice water (I am going to start adding more, as I find it needs to be a bit thinned)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Good olive oil (for serving)

Soak the dried chickpeas overnight in double the amount of water. They'll be much larger in the morning - so be sure to give them enough water to absorb.

Drain them. Put them in a saucepan over medium heat and sprinkle the baking soda over them. Stir constantly and cook for about three minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Skim the surface to remove foam and any skins that float to the top. Cook the beans for approximately 30 minutes - always skimming...always skimming. The beans can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to cook - they're ready when they're soft and squishable with your fingers (but not mushy).

Drain the chickpeas. Drag out the food processor and pour the chickpeas in the bowl. Process until you have a paste. Then, with the processor still running, add the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, salt. Slowly drizzle in the ice water. Let it spin about for five minutes - it should get lighter and creamier as it goes.

Put the hummus in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap - and I mean press the plastic wrap right onto the surface of the hummus (otherwise it develops a crusty surface - ugy). Refrigerate. Leave it for the flavours to develop until the next day. Bring it out of the fridge to warm up for about 30 minutes before serving. You can pour a really good olive oil over the surface and sprinkle with smoked paprika and chopped parsley (oooo, a little lemon zest would be good too). It will keep in the fridge for about three days.

You have a couple of options if the hummus is too thick - you could add more ice water or, as I read somewhere, you could keep a little of the water you cooked the chickpeas in (which will have all the starch in it) and add it until you get the consistency you like. And trust me, learn from my mistakes...I forgot the salt last time - ugy...

I don't know where Johnny is now - the Armenian Kitchen is still there - we had a big sendoff dinner there on the weekend for my cousin Joff (he's in the banner photo of Foodnut - that's him as a little boy on the far right) He is riding his penny farthing west to the Rockies on the Adventure Cycling Route, then south to Patagonia...He's already ridden the thing 35,000 kilometres around the world. So we made sure he was well and truly stuffed with hummus that night. So if you see him somewhere on the road in the US - you can't miss him - can you spare a meal for him?

Also...this is extremely useful - 10 common mistakes in hummus recipes - a reader left this as a comment on the pickled turnips blog post and I thank her for it!



February 05, 2014

The Way to Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs


The number of eggs I've ruined over the years just trying to make egg salad sandwiches would shame all chickendom.

Then Chef Ian came to class with this gem of knowledge and said it would never fail.

He was right.The perfect hard boiled egg isn't as hard as I thought. 

So...

It all starts with putting your eggs in a pot of cold water. Just to the top of the eggs.

Add a splash of white vinegar.

Bring the pot to the boil.

Add a dash of salt.

Put the lid on the pot.

Turn off the heat.

Let the eggs sit in the pot for 15 minutes.

Cool off in cold water.

Peel and away you go...

...love simple wisdom...


December 16, 2013

On Holding a Knife

The number one thing that will make you a better cook is learning how to hold your knife properly.

Seems simple. But there's a lot about life that is deceptively simple...as well as a lot about life that seems overly complex.

But slicing through something can be easy. You just need the courage of your convictions. Remember?

And I found just holding the knife properly makes you feel more courageous. I spent most of my chopping life working my way through various hand holding options...like these two, classic mistakes.




Not.








Not.





The key is your index finger and your thumb have to touch the blade. You put your index finger along the ridge where the blade meets the handle.





Close your thumb along the other side of the same ridge. So now you're basically pinching the blade at the heel (where it meets the handle).


Cup your three remaining fingers under the handle. Voilà. That's all there is to it. Centuries of chefs evolved knife skills for you. Now just slide your knife forward through your food. Rock on the front edge of the blade and come forward again. Boom.





October 31, 2013

Lessons, Tips and Facts from Our Chef

It's great to be with a chef as he cooks something you're about to try cooking too. You can watch and listen and ask questions - here are some of the surprises I picked up from Chef Ian in my first 7 weeks of cooking school...you might already know these...but I was surprised by some of them.

Never stir stock.

Add bones to the pot, add cold water just to cover.

Bring it just to the boil, then to a slow simmer, skimming off the scum as it rises to the surface. (sounds like life doesn't it?)

Then add the vegetables and herbs.

For dark stock – use veal and beef bones...and knuckle bones give off a lot of gelatin…you’re looking for a gelatinous stock.

Remove the vegetables and bones when done and continue boiling down until you have a condensed stock – much easier to store in the freezer and then add water when you need to reconstitute. So don't add salt until you're making something with it.

The difference between broth and stock? Broth is made of stock and other things you add…stock is just stock…it’s the foundation of sauces, soups, and ahem, broth.

Cooking times are longer than you think – about 4-6 hours for chicken stock, 12-24 for dark stock – a slow cooker is good for making stock overnight.

Always cool down the stock by putting the pot in the sink and running cold water under it – needs to cool down fast. Then get it in the fridge or freezer.

To create a sachet for some stocks you can split a leek lengthwise, lay the bay leaf and thyme sprigs in the middle and then put the leek together again and tie with string. 

Tie sachets to the handle on the pot to make them simple to remove later.

Chef only cooks with black pepper. First night he passed around black and white pepper for us to smell - white pepper reminded me of horses or farms or something. Then he said he only uses black pepper because white pepper smells like a barnyard to him. But smell both and see which you prefer.

Use a steel on your knife every time you use it – sharpen it, professionally, once a year. (Unless it's Japanese, then you should check whether you need a special diamond or ceramic steel.)

Hold a chef’s knife with the thumb and forefinger at the front edge of handle…curl the other fingers under the handle.

Your other hand holds the food - like a lemon. Imagine you're holding a lemon with your palm down..see the shape of your fingers? That's how they should rest on top of the food you're cutting. The flat part of your middle finger the most prominent, nails tucked back, your thumb and pinky slightly behind.

Slice away with your food and your knife at opposing 45 degree angles - so you form a triangle - you, your knife arm, and the food held by your other hand…

How to slice vegetables – it's a rocking motion, the knife sliding forward through the food…blade shouldn't have to leave the board.

The food doesn’t move, the knife and your hand do.

Buy a rubber shelf liner at the dollar store to put under your cutting board to prevent it from slipping. Or in a pinch, lay wet paper towel under the board.

Use flat leaf parsley for cooking, use curly parsley for garnish. Curly leaf parsley releases too much chlorophyll turning food green.

Add salt, pepper and any citrus at the end.

Making sauce - either your roux is hot and your liquid is cold...or your liquid is hot and your roux is cold.

Roux: equal parts fat (butter/oil etc) to flour mixed together.

I'll pull together another list as we move along...If you have any to add, please do...let's build up our tipsheet together.

October 28, 2013

A Trout in the House with White Wine Sauce

You know when you are ladling something out of a pot – and it’s dripping and dripping and you can’t get it over to the bowl you need it in…and you stand there as a stream of stuff hangs like a string, then turns into drips then turns into slower drops and you just wait for that break in the dripping to get quickly over to the bowl…and then you rush and slurp stuff all over the place? And then throw the ladle back in the pot and it splurts up the sides…okay…maybe it’s just me…

But I learned last night that if you dip your ladle in the sauce, soup, stock whatever, hold it up, then dip the base again in the surface of the sauce, soup, stock, it will stop the stream, drip, or drop and you can cleanly get whatever over to the bowl you need it in.

Huh!

That is one of the many lessons I’m picking up at cooking school. I’ll write a whole list out for you – stuff I didn’t know – that you probably do – but as home cooks we don’t necessarily run across in our books or online.

The class is very cool. We work in professional kitchens, on stainless steel islands for four people and I have a friendly, collegial group of Lisa, Sheryl and Anna…we get along great and everything is about cooperation – not a whiff of competition.

We’re now six weeks in and more and more comfortable wearing our chefs whites and hats, brandishing our chef knives, and even turning on the stoves. The ranges are big mothers – six burner Garlands. And they growl as you approach them, daring you to try.

We are in the fishbowl – so named for being right at street level, with floor to ceiling glass and we’re encouraged to wave at the people who stop to watch. One reason I grabbed the space at my island – one of the furthest from the edge of the bowl.

At the front is Chef Ian’s demo counter and stove, with cameras and monitors so you don’t miss any manoeuvre. We start the evening standing around watching him demonstrate what we’ll be cooking…taking furious notes…then we scatter like an offensive line coming out of a huddle.

They supply trays of ingredients portioned and to be shared with your teammates.

You know those towels that chefs wear tucked over their apron strings? They’re for using as pot holders – not for wiping your hands…I’ll master that one day…I still can’t bring myself to tear paper towel for every wet hand you have while cooking.

Last week we made fish. And it exercised our knife skills, our sauce skills, and our timing skills. And then as always our cleaning skills.

Ontario trout is quite lovely. These were farmed trout fillets.

We poached the fish and then made a beautiful sauce with the poaching liquid. Thought I’d share.

Poached Filets in White Wine Sauce

4 portions

1 Filet Ontario lake trout
2 oz butter
1 oz shallot, diced
2 oz white wine (recipe calls for reisling, but use a dry white if you have it)
8 oz fish stock (we cut ours in half because Chef thought it was too strong)
If you’ve cut the fish stock, make it up with water
Parchment paper cut into a circle (see video for a great tip on how to shape it easily – this is what the chef taught us too)

Sauce
1 pint fish velouté - or have on hand some more fish stock and wine to bulk up liquid once you've cooked your fish
Whipping cream to taste (although recipe called for 3 ½ oz)
1 oz butter
12 green seedless grapes, sliced in half
4 sprigs flat-leafed parsley chopped
1 stem of fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste (there’s a blog to be done on white pepper)
½ lemon, juice and zest

You can make the fish velouté separately if you like, but why not use the liquid you poached the fish in? Then you dirty only one pot. Makes sense…Oui?

Okay.

The fish. If the skin is on, you’ll have to remove it. Get out your best, sharpest filet or boning knife (mine, a Victorinox, was $30 at a kitchen store and the chefs all recommended it – no, neither they, nor I get anything for that).

Lay the fish skin side down on the edge of your cutting board (make sure your cutting board has either a sheet of wet paper towel under it, or a rubber mat, to prevent slipping – I bought a roll of that rubber stuff at a dollar store and cut it into pieces).

If you’re right handed, have the tail to the left, and if you’re a southpaw, like me, you put the tail to the right.

Starting about half an inch from the tail end, slice down and toward the tail (counter intuitive, I know). Then turn the blade toward the business end of the fish – toward the main body of the fish. Laying the knife firmly and flat against the skin, and with your other hand pulling the tail and skin taut, start carefully slicing between the skin and flesh (you’re actually slicing the membrane between the two).

It’s a slight sawing motion. If your knife is sharp enough, you’ll slide through fairly easily. The trick is to hold that tail taut. As you progress through the filet, fold up the flesh to check you’re not leaving any of the red meat on the skin. Adjust your knife lower if you are.

It should come off in one piece, and you can hold it up to your neck and pretend you have a fish tie. No, seriously…do it. It’s part of the ritual.

If you’ve come through the skin or it tears…and you can’t catch the edge again with your knife, you’re probably going to have to do what I had to do the first time I tried this – flip it over and laboriously pull the skin up with your filet or boning knife until you’ve got it all off. That way takes a good five to ten minutes…the proper way takes a minute. Worth trying.

Once you’re done, you can choose whether to poach the filet whole in your sauté pan, or cut it into portions. I found cutting it into portions much easier to handle…and they fit in the pan better. 

So.

Get out your sauté pan. Do NOT put it on the heat yet.

Take a chunk of your butter and smear it along the bottom and sides of your pan (I used a pan with the vertical sides – not a true sauté pan).

Evenly spread the diced shallot all over the bottom.

Carefully place your filet portions on the shallots. Fold the tail section (the thinnest probably) in half to mimic the thickness of the other portions. Salt and pepper them.

Pour in your wine (dribble it over the fish).

Pour in your fish stock. And if you’re adding water, pour in the water.

The liquid should come halfway up the fish.

Cover the fish with your perfectly-made circle of parchment paper. Remember to cut it a little larger than the pan so it comes up the sides a little. Push the parchment down to touch all the filets.

Now, carefully bring it to a boil on the stove, and then turn it down to a simmer. It should take about 10 minutes. If the fish centres are not cooperating after about 10 minutes, just carefully flip them over and put the parchment back over them for a minute or two. The filets should look done and a little flaky.

While you’re waiting for the filets to be done, you can get a jump on the sauce. Make a beurre manié in a small bowl. Sounds fancy, but it’s just equal parts of butter and flour mixed together. (You can err on the side of more fat to flour) Mix it well. Set aside.

Remove the filets when they’re done and keep them warm.

Now for the sauce.

The rule for making sauces is that the liquid and the beurre manié have to be opposite temperatures.

So as our beurre manié is at room temperature or a little cooler and our pan liquid is hot…we’re good to go. Add more fish stock/wine/water if you need more liquid in the pan, bring it up to a boil, reduce it by about ¼, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Put some of the beurre manié in the pan and whisk. Don’t put all of it in…otherwise you might have too thick a sauce. As it heats and melds with the fish stock and wine and shallots, it will start to thicken. Add more if it's not thick enough.

The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. When you run your finger along the back of the spoon it should leave a gentle trail. Feel free to add more stock or wine if needed.

Add the cream, and add this to your taste, no matter what the recipe says.

Now add the sliced grapes and the chopped thyme and parsley. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.
Season with salt and pepper. Add some lemon juice and zest, if you’re like me I can’t resist the zest – but fair warning, be careful with the lemon, it can get too ‘citrus-y’ quickly.

Plate your fish – and drizzle the wine sauce over it, making sure each person gets a few grape slices.
I was amazed how good the grapes were in this. I didn’t think they’d add much. But I liked it.

In fact, I like this so much I made it again the next night with the spare trout filet they gave us. It’s a quick dinner believe it or not. Great if you’ve got guests coming over on a weeknight, or weekend…

So far, our friends are pretty happy with this whole cooking school thing – mostly because I bring stuff home and need help eating it.

By the way if you replace the grapes with button mushrooms you’ve made a different sauce – something called sauce bonne femme. Just add the mushrooms earlier in the recipe so that they cook.  Use it on sole filets or whatever you like…

Just try it…See where it takes you.

The lovely thing about sauce is that it is pretty generous. It will work with you – too thick? Add liquid. Too thin? Add more beurre manié.

Generosity – that’s what cooking is all about.

Enjoy.

September 09, 2013

Don't Apologize


“When you flip anything you must have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this. Oh…that didn’t go very well...But you can always pick it up. And if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”

Cooking. A metaphor for life. And wisdom from Julia Child.

A perfect source of wisdom for me right now. Because, believe it or not, after months of building up to it - I left chef school. In the first week.

And I learned a lot. But not what I was expecting.

Chef school is exciting. The kitchens are dazzling. The demo labs, the industrial mixers, the massive stoves, the chef whites, the knife kits, the hats, elevating you into the profession. (Although one baking teacher asked why we all wanted to go into the life of a domestic servant…)

These chefs are very passionate, determined and dedicated artists.

Through all of that I discovered something.

I really, really, really don’t want to cook to the standard of a restaurant. It was like hitting my passion for food with a nuclear bomb.

And though no one asked them to, my classmates figured out quickly that if the chef asked us if we understand, they said, in unison, Yes Chef!

I wasn’t sure if it was in me when I wrote about it before I went. And guess what? It isn’t. My neck and shoulders tighten, my lips get pursed. And I suddenly find I’m trying to shake my shoulders loose. Nope. It’s just too much. You know…set to 11.

It was a blow. I spent most of the week on the verge of tears in public and letting them overflow in private. It was shocking. The thoughts started creeping through - the money...the risk...the embarrassment...the naivete, and my age old panicky feeling of doubt followed quickly by paralysis - I can't go forward, can't go back.

The old me would have torn myself to shreds. For a long time. In a voice I wouldn't use on anyone else. I debated pushing through. I've been in these settings before (anyone in a newsroom or tv control room feels it) and wondered why I pushed on. But here no. I knew if I went back, my body would stop myself from going in the classroom. Hmmm. Journalism was what I was meant to study. What I loved. And cooking school was adding a specialty to my life. And one that I can still learn.

I had made a huge mistake.

So this time, I quit.

For me, the “courage of my convictions” was in calling it.

When a goal leads you down a fork in the road and you see another path veering away from you – you get to call quits. And you will never quite know. And that, my friends, must be what growing up feels like.

I’m a home cook. I want to get better. I want to, in fact, be the best I can be. I want to taste well (not good, that’s different). I want to practice up my palate. I want to create. And I want to share.

Cooking is generosity, not competition. Not so much the culinary Olympics. For others maybe, but not for me.

Goal/motivation psychology tells us that if your goal is taking you in the wrong direction, adapt the goal. Find a related goal – one that’ll get you near. In psychology gobbledygook it is called ‘goal disengagement’ and ‘goal reengagement’. And people who can do that apparently also have the added benefit of better physical health.

In other words, flogging yourself to death because you won’t quit what you don’t even want ain’t good for you.

When I told my closest friends, they all had the same reaction – in calls and emails…first complete support and congratulations for knowing so fast...and second, worried that I’d beat myself up…I seem to have a reputation.

The not-much-younger me could hear the muffled voice inside my head trying to break through to scream at me for failing…for quitting…for not following anything through…for thinking I could even do this in the first place. Imposter!

The not-much-older me shored up the walls. And ignored it.

I did some research – discovered a different certification program that is part-time and signed myself up. I start that in less than two weeks. I still get to wear my chef whites, carry my knife kit and learn to be a much better, and happier, cook.

And with that, by the end of Friday, I’d reached the end of my first, and last, week of chef school. I had set a goal. It hadn’t worked. I found another. I moved on.

Julia Child had it down – her philosophy was work hard, take risks and if you make a mistake – don’t apologize.

If you need me, I’ll be on the other fork in the road.

August 09, 2013

The Food Life

Many years ago, just before I turned 40, a friend wanted to go to the driving range. It was one of those muggy summer nights when you can’t really think of sleeping, when the air is soft but thick on your skin - like velvet, and the stadium lights have a glow around them.

I hadn’t hit anything with a golf club in years. We had hacked around at various driving ranges once in a while, the way most of us go bowling or try curling…to say we’d done it, to be bad at it, to laugh our asses off.

But this night meant heading to the driving range with someone who was born to golf - who had put in his 10,000 hours before he turned 20. And so, my competitive spirit and fear of humiliation kicked in. And I wanted to be good at it. In my late 30s…like…sure.

I think most of us want to pursue stuff we’re good at – it makes us feel good - no, competent, when a lot of the world is so competitive that feeling incompetent or unsure is more the norm than not. So I approached the range with a great deal of dread. And excitement.

I had been watching golf tournaments for years. I loved the mental part of the game, the skills, and that the players were playing a game against the course, and themselves. But play? No. And for good reason.

My dad was a golfer which made Mum a golf widow. We moved to a house in the middle of nowhere because it was close to his golf course. Weekends were about waiting for Dad to finish his game and his social time at the club. He took the car…we waited at home. That was the kind of time it was. Mad men…

And one year after we’d moved in, Dad left. He took the car, his clubs, his stuff, and the smell of golf stayed rancid in the house. Golf was never really mentioned as a bad thing…but as a kid I just got the vibe. No. I had no intention of playing.

So that summer night we got our buckets of balls and walked over to the tees, I had no expectations.

My friend handed me his 7-iron. He put a ball on the tee. ‘Hit it,’ he said.

I stepped up. I swung the club back and down and through, and the ball sailed into the night air.

He stood and looked at it. Then he grabbed another ball, put it on the tee, and said, ‘do that again.’

So …I did. And again, it went sailing into the night air.

He jumped up from his chair and hugged me. ‘You’re a natural,’ he said. ‘Who says watching golf doesn’t teach you anything?’

A lot of life is like that – yes, I just said golf is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

I was thinking about this today. I am a late bloomer. I’ve always said that. I think it has to do with learning to be comfortable with risk – which took me a very, very long time. In fact, way into my 30s.

Life really does evolve – in surprising ways. In my rolling rock of life, I found myself learning about things I never, ever thought I was capable of learning – I loved journalism and writing my whole life (but I didn’t jump in until I was 28 and couldn’t find anything else to do), and that, by serendipity, took me into science (which I had dropped in grade 10), which led to international travel to some of the world’s most fascinating spots, which led me into health journalism (and got me through my phobia about medicine and doctors and the word ‘probe’ and any word ending in ‘-oscopy’), and brain science…I used to write on my resume that if my science teachers were dead, they’d be spinning in their graves. And the stress of that life – it ain’t all glamour like you may think – led me to just start running one day. And suddenly I was getting into uber fit mode…and uber eating mode.

So then, my love of food and a need to understand its meaning. I really can’t tell you where that came from. The obsession.

I think it was born when I finally figured out that it’s okay to be true to what you want in life.

It started with finding a nook in a bookstore and leafing through cookbooks. This was before the Food Network. Then with food tv I picked up tons of tips and ways and means of doing things – like rubbing my fingers on the sink after chopping garlic to rid them of the smell, or the virtues of browning meat on the stovetop before popping it in the oven - from Julia to Ina, from Alton to Emeril…I picked up stuff and put it away in my brain. And the food magazines started forming towers in the living room.

But it was more than that – because it was touching an emotional chord in me. I loved cooking and feeding my friends. What was underpinning that? I remember when I started this food blog back in 2006, I actually had to look up what a blog was, then what a food blog was, and suddenly I found tons of people sharing their food lives online. Like an underground community or tribe. That was 7 years ago. I had no idea it would lead me here.

Food is a way to show kindness. Love, I guess. To be generous - even to myself. To get the thrill that comes with the magic. Taking six things, or less, and mixing them – and suddenly the alchemy of say tomato, garlic and fresh basil explodes beyond the individual ingredients.

But if I’m being completely honest, making food was not only a way to show love, but to get love back.

Tasting reminds me of listening. Have you noticed that?

I picked up my chef uniform this week – two tunics, two chef hats, one pair of chef pants and two aprons. And I find it a tad ironic that as I jump into chef school and its complex French cuisine, I find myself trying to cook at home with fewer and fewer ingredients. You know finding a place for each individual ingredient to shine and yet work in concert with others. To enhance and nurture the best out of everything, not diminish it or squelch it into blandness.

Yes, I just said cooking is a metaphor for life. Yes I did.

So the big question is –is it ever too late to start on the next 10,000 hours? It better not be…I'll go have a look at the PGA Championship. Tiger's on the tee.

July 29, 2013

Grocery Philosophy

Grocery shopping takes some philosophy.

Maybe I’m overstating it. Maybe it simply takes planning. Doesn’t really matter.  I find both pretty hard – philosophy and planning.

My grocery method is a non-method…

I fall into the category of ‘oh-look-pretty-shiny’. If it’s gorgeous, or on sale, my cart wheels its way over there…then over there, then over there…and then it gets parked, and I find myself just wandering through the produce. Which drains $100 from my pocket pretty quickly. But it’s good exercise.

I don’t know really what I want to buy. I probably need milk, tea, bread, tea, salad greens, tea…that’s what my shopping list looks like, if I get as far as a list.

My brother in law and his wife came across the country for a visit a few weeks back. And I pulled in all kinds of food for the week. It was a joy – from hummus and tabbouleh from my favourite place, to the fish from my favourite fish place, to the meat and eggs from my favourite place…that was a good day.

My brother in law is a FANTASTIC cook. And the knife doesn’t fall far from…the counter. His son is an executive chef. They’re vegetarian, or his wife is, and Bill’s meals are a delight.

But it was their grocery shopping that had me mouth breathing for a while. When we visited them about eight years ago, we went to the market with them one weekend morning. Before we went, there was a conference to determine the menu…for the whole week. I was in awe. We went. We shopped. Bing, bang, boom. Done.

As Sam explained, they live a ways from the nearest store so it’s a pain if you’ve forgotten the quinoa…We live three blocks from a main street. We can shop every day if we want – and often do. She also said that when she shopped without a list of menus, she threw a lot of food away…um…guilty gulp.

Only yesterday I threw out a box of organic greens that smelled more like organic sewage. And old watermelon chunks. And biggest crime of all - furry Rainier cherries. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

I guess there are personalities for shopping – or philosophies. And they can collide. Right in the aisle.

When Bill and Sam visited us a few years back, we went to a local grocery store to pick up stuff for dinner. I pushed the cart and wandered as I do from aisle to aisle in the produce section.
                                                     
I saw stuff. I stopped. I’d put stuff in the cart. I’d walk over to the other side, around the corner and back…zig, zag…meander…and Sam snapped a gasket. She looked like a mother goose herding goslings. She got the cart back, got me/us focused on what we were doing there and off we went – bing, bang, boom…done.
My eyes were twinkling a bit as they do when I realize I’ve annoyed someone and I find it amusing that we have completely different approaches to something. I laughed…I think she did too…later…

Grocery shopping is something of a pleasure for me – I know it’s part of drudge work for some people and I get why. Even when I rush in for a litre of milk (yes, I’m in Canada, so it’s a litre), my feet brake suddenly as I pass the fruit or vegetables displayed near the door. I pull out my phone to take pictures of the beautiful eggplants or radishes.

And if I'm visiting anywhere, I must, must, must, find my way into a grocery store - foreign food stores are fantastic adventures.

It’s a thing for me. What is it? It’s not a philosophy and it certainly isn’t planning…it’s a visual pleasure – maybe it’s bounty, plenty, health, joy. And it slows me down. That can't be bad. Now all I have to learn is how to honour the best of that food that ends up in my cart before the rot sets in…And that’s veering dangerously near a philosophy… and a plan.

July 24, 2013

Deep Breath

Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris
Deep breath. It’s not as cold as I think. Go on…Dive in.

I’m going to chef school. This September.

It’s a culinary skills course. For a year. For a certificate.

And frankly, as everyone congratulates me on moving in a new direction, I’m terrified. But then, what else is new?

I’m 50 for crissakes. 

I make my own tomato sauce, salad dressing, and turkey stuffing…so what makes me think I can jump to the next level? Really. People think I’m a good cook. I read almost exclusively food books and cook books. But that does not qualify me to be a chef.

The hardest part of switching direction is trying to determine if this is the right path – if I’ll go for a month and then wake up one day saying this isn’t really what I want…or wake up one day and figure it’s too a)hard b)scary c)stupid d)authoritarian e)all of the above.

I don’t know if a chef demands I jump that I can just say how high…I’m not sure it’s in me.
I’m not sure I won’t look silly in the hat – okay…actually I’m excited about that part. And I think the chef whites will help temper my imposter syndrome.

And I’m not sure I want to go to school as the most definitely oldest student in the class. Or more realistically if I want to go to school with a bunch of kids – and yes…they could be my kids.

Out, out damn-ed doubt.

I went to the information night last fall (just back from Italy and still digesting tons of excellent food and even more excellent red wine – by the way, can anyone explain why I don’t get a headache from cheap red wine when I’m in Italy?) and listened to the chefs explain how the courses work, what to expect and how delighted they were they had chosen this line of work and that god probably created humans to become chefs – the chosen tribe. (and on that previous parenthesis thought – I wonder if red wine in France has the same effect?)

I went up to the chef who was giving most of the information to ask about the different types of programs and what I was thinking of doing – he said (with a straight face) that he’s had a lot of people come through the program in their 30s and also a fair number in their 40s who were thinking of changing direction – he’s even (and this was where the straight face thing came into play) had one person in their 50s.

I just looked at him and nodded…but inside I had fled through the door, out into the rainy, cold October night, with that familiar feeling of just not belonging…

What a freak. A flighty, quirky, weird sort…
Oh well…so I’m flighty…

I thought about it through the winter and into the spring – and a couple of weeks before my 50th birthday, one evening, impulsively, I filled out the form – my finger hovered over the ‘Submit’ button…and I pressed down. I felt that metallic cold flush of fear like I’d just made a huge error.
I looked at Steve with my eyes wide and he just said, ‘What?’ – ‘I think I just applied for chef school.’

Steve, being Steve, just smiled. Then he said, ‘good for you’.

How I love that man.

So now the tuition is paid and I’m wrestling with the stupid, self-important educational bureaucracy, and going to orientation in just over a month. Next week I have to register for my courses and the next day have to take a placement test for English (yes, really – two degrees including one in journalism – although any journalist and especially editor will tell you that has no bearing on the quality of my English) and a test in math (just gulped). 

Of course it’s not a totally new direction. And no, I don’t want to be a Chef…no, I don’t want to work in a restaurant or, god forbid, an industrial kitchen…I want to write about food. And I want the cred to do it.

I’ve blogged on and off for a few years, but that ain’t going to cut it with what I think I want to do.
I have a project, or two, in mind for after I’m done. And they’re big.

But for now, baby steps, just drop myself into a place where I feel I know nothing – Just be there to learn…that’s my zen goal for now… how to chop an onion, how to make sauces, how to roast a chicken…and working in those beautiful, new, professional kitchens…hey maybe the excitement could actually douse the fear…maybe…staying tuned.

May 02, 2013

Spaghetti Bolognese - Now or Later

We have entered the parent care years.

Decidedly.

3 parents. In their 80s. 2 of 3 in their right minds, but their bodies starting to show signs of wear. 1 of 3 in her wrong mind and wrong body.

Between the three of them we’re playing hard and fast against the brain, the heart, the lungs…trying drugs, trying bars and chairs, shoring up their lifestyles – keeping at least one well out of institutional care.

There’s a lot of adaptation that has to happen – for those dealing with their aging bodies, and for us – as we try to help as much as we can to keep everyone safe, and comfortable and as happy…well…as can be.

And yes, food is involved. Because life is a lot easier if you don't have to worry about dinner so much - or if someone makes it a tad easier for you...

So I'm going to share some of the recipes I have found that work...won't share the ones that don't...and if you could share some ideas too that would be fantastic.

I found myself holding a 500 gram packet of ground beef – grass fed, organic…and there was no way that was going to wait around in the fridge until I finally chucked it in frustration with myself. Yes…that happens.

I needed a recipe that would work now and later – something that could go in the freezer for my Mum to do a quick thaw and chomp. I asked her about shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, chili con carne…but when I said spaghetti Bolognese…her eyes lit up.

So I looked up a bunch of recipes…because you know how you think you know how to make something, but really you find the group brain core dumping ground a much better place for ideas? And the web didn’t disappoint…

Except in one sense – why do the British need to call spaghetti Bolognese ‘spag bol’? 

Uh…no.

I found this recipe on the BBC Good Food site. And it was interesting.

So, here is my interpretation of the recipe.

4 slices bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
(the recipe also calls for a chili pepper, diced, but I didn’t have one)
1 lb ground beef, I used extra lean
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 – 28 oz can plum tomatoes
6 or so fresh cherry tomatoes
Fresh or 1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 glass red wine
Beef stock (as much as necessary for liquid)
2 bay leaves
Fresh basil leaves, some for cooking, reserve some for serving

Put a glug of olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan, heat to medium and fry the bacon until brown and crispy. Lower the heat a little and add the onions, garlic – let them soften a little (but not brown) and then add the celery, carrots. Add the rosemary and stir the mixture letting it soften for 8-10 minutes. Add the ground beef and break apart in the pan. Let it brown thoroughly. Stir in the tomato paste for a couple of minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and the wine. Stir in the oregano and basil, salt and pepper. Slice the cherry tomatoes and toss in. Stir. Bring everything to a simmer – and if you need to, this is when you can add some beef stock. Then lower the heat, cover partially, and let simmer for 1 hour 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
The recipe calls for 75g of grated parmesan to be added once it's cooked – however I didn’t have any – and didn’t miss it. I also did a quick taste test as I do with tomato sauces at the end…and added a teaspoon of sugar to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. Then I chopped up some more fresh basil and added it to the sauce right before serving it – with some as garnish too. Brightens the taste immediately. Serve with spaghetti.
I portioned out the sauce I needed for dinner, then split the remainder among a few food containers, let it cool, then threw it in the freezer. It will easily thaw in the microwave or in a pot on the stove. And it is one of those meals that tastes better the next day…

Mum was happy. And still has some in her freezer for another day.

March 04, 2013

Random Sundown

In the midst of this winter, I was trying to remember twilight...in my childhood. In the summer. The heat dissipates. Air is thick. My body stills. The window open, the sky slips off the edge from violet blue heading to black. The air soft, velvety, tired from the day’s sharp and heavy humidity. I can smell grass that’s just been cut by someone’s dad after dinner. I hear a sprinkler. A mosquito buzzes over my ear, close, its bass hum making me twitch. I can hear people chatting quietly, laughing occasionally, ice cubes clinking against glass in the distance. A gate squeaking open and closed, the latch clicks…porch lights come on.

~

People are drawn to sundown…we gather. Primal. Watching the end of day, watching the source of our life slip over the edge – a collective release of optimism, or is it hope, that we will be fine to wait for its return. We treat sunset reverently. We stand facing the same way – joined, but alone. I’ve seen the sun set into oceans around the world, but had never seen the green flash until last year. We arrived at Anna Maria Island for a week in April. We arrived late afternoon – with plenty of time to walk to the beautiful beach. No haze on the horizon – a clear prospect for the sun to drop cleanly off stage. At its last possible moment, it winked a brilliant green light, like a magnesium flare…and we looked at each other and said at the same time – did you see it? There’s almost no twilight. Sun sets. People turn. Night comes.

~

As the day fades into evening my husband’s mother fades too. Her brain on Alzheimer’s mode, she gets lost. Her instincts tell her she’s not safe, like an animal looking for shelter. This is when she has most of her falls. When her bones crack, and her breathing is short. She is losing this battle. Every day is a new wonder of yesterday’s facts – why she’s in the hospital. What hospital she’s in. Why she can’t move her arm. Why she can’t go home. The experts debate the drugs: they help her brain, they make her fall…which is the lesser of the evils. The specialists call it sundowning – but it's not...it's shadow raising...it should be about shadows…not sunset.

~

The day was just about over when we finally pulled into Agra. A long drive from Jaipur. The dust, the dung, the frenetic, and frankly, suicidal, tendencies of our driver frazzled us. It was the end of day Thursday – and we were there for 24 hours to see the town’s virtue – the Taj Mahal. As we checked in, the hotel owner warned us to get over there pronto as the government had just changed the rules – the building built for love was now closed on Fridays. That, I thought, was pretty much my karma when it came to love. We grabbed a taxi. As the building appeared in the distance beneath the Mughal arch, my breath reflexively drew itself in. The Taj Mahal is spectacular, a tribute to beauty – even swarmed by barefooted tourists, wedding couples, families. Its symmetry gives you some peace, except the sky used that moment to open. We were drowned in torrential rain – not drips, buckets. A second karmic tribute to my love life. We ran for it. Taking shelter in the actual mausoleum, staring back along the gardens as the rain washed the tourists away. And once it faded and moved on, we crept back out and wandered gently back along the gardens. My third karmic signal of love. The sky to the west was a deep metallic grey, with a severe straight edge just hovering above the horizon. And an equally severe and beautiful glow of pink was growing behind it as the sun met the opening before hitting the horizon. We spun around to look at the Taj Mahal. And as we did the sun burst below the cloud line, deep on the edge of the earth, and for the final minutes of that day, it lit the white marble to a stunning pink and peach, warming the sky…and lighting us up. I’ll never forget – it gave me hope that love comes even if it’s before sunset – and it can be spectacular. It did. And it is.

~

Twilight, long and slow. Beautiful in winter. As the northern hemisphere bends itself towards the sun come spring…the colours of the fading daylight bring me the same sense of calm they did as a child. But also a sense of sadness – a profoundly deep sense of time I feel in my cells. Mere moments of time I wish I could lock away somewhere. The sun moves beyond the reach of my window as it creeps further and further over my head. Longer days, sunsets, and the trailing spectrum of blues that lead us through night. It is, and will be, long after me. I close the blinds to the night. I turn the porch light on.

February 02, 2013

Super Wings

Superbowl.
The Harbowl...
I'll be watching. We even bought a hi def antenna for it. There is NOTHING like watching football in hi def...(update...Yay Ravens!!!)

We'd be watching anyway, but our friends' son, Cameron, adores sports. He eat, breathes, sleeps, lives it...and gets paid for it. After working for the Florida Panthers, he scored a gig with...you guessed it...the Baltimore Ravens...and so after a couple of years of working with them, he's spending this weekend dancing in the streets of New Orleans, living at the peak of that particular sports' world...and we couldn't be prouder or happier for him...he's buzzing (and he got tickets for his parents and sister for the game...)

So how to celebrate? Food of course. Food and the Superbowl go together like...well food and the Superbowl. Like our infamous Snipe 'n Munch party. Did you hear that the most popular superbowl food has spiked in price these last couple of weeks? Well...if you're going to invest in chicken wings for the Superbowl...then treat them well. They deserve your respect...And so...by regulation...here is a Canadian twist on a Superbowl super food: Maple Garlic Ginger Chicken Wings

These are courtesy of a food blog called She Cooks and He Eats.

I've made these at least half a dozen times...and they're delicious every time.

So go...fast to the recipe for Maple Garlic Ginger Chicken Wings
They need a few hours to marinate - I've done them after an hour in the sauce and I've waited three hours...whatever works for you...

I do have to share the video she posted on how to eat chicken wings...it's kind of brilliant.

Oh...and Go RAVENS!


January 18, 2013

A Home of My Own

Sigh. I hate to admit this.
I have never owned a house.
I really hate that I hate to admit this. Re-Sigh.
What I hate more, is that having never owned a house makes me feel a bit like a loser.
I don’t think I’m alone. Oh god don’t let me be alone.

I know a few other people, mostly artists, who have never scraped enough money together for a down payment – let alone cover a mortgage. Even in this time of unprecedented, unbelievably cheap money. That bastion of adulthood - a mortgage. You've arrived...right?

Contrary to popular belief, house ownership is not an entitlement. Until the late 1940s most people in North America rented. The housing boom made owning possible. And now about 2/3 of Americans own a house – or the bank owns it while they live there. Which means a significant number of people still rent...

I went through the numbers with my husband when he came into my life. He’s owned before. He knows this whole ‘budget’ thing. He watches real estate like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse. He hasn’t seen the market making any sense for the last number of years. So we’ve put money away…paid all our bills…and we sit patiently - okay I’m not so patient - waiting for a ‘market correction’. By the way, the Toronto real estate numbers were recently released, and sales here have dropped a whopping 19.5% over last year at this time…BUT…prices haven’t.

Steve created an excel spreadsheet with every variable and compared owning to renting (and saving/investing the difference). Yes, we save the difference – our shredded sofa is ample evidence. We do have that discipline.

On balance, it kind of balances…but…and yes there is a but…if you buy early in life…and if you pay it off, then the advantage is to owning. And there is a difference once you’ve cashed out as an owner and have to live on the money – you might be better off....

Blah, blah, blah. Money and math and business decisions...

I’m more fascinated by the feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s uneasy. That feeling like you’re being left behind at the train station while everyone heads off to vacation/beach/funland. Or there’s a party somewhere…you can hear it…somewhere…Friends have urged us to buy – saying the same thing I’ve heard over decades – jump in, or you’ll never get in – always said when things are in a frenzy.

Part of my problem is that I forgot. I mean time flew by…and sort of like having children…I forgot there might be a deadline. And here is what I hate even more. It might actually be too late. There is an encroaching deadline on this…why buy something that I have to commit too many years to paying off…years that would now take me wayyyyy beyond retirement (assuming I were to live a fantasy life and actually retire)?

Buying now just doesn’t make sense to me…it doesn’t make sense. And I shake my head loose, and my shoulders and my arms…as if I’m starting afresh – pushing away the propaganda that says my life is not successful without a house in my name. And trying to live in the spirit that works hard not to follow the herd…

I know. I know… renting…

…the house isn’t ours, the things we’d improve aren’t really in our power to improve. We share the basement laundry with our landlady (as lovely as she is)…so she has to come briefly through our apartment to get to the basement. The century-old place is nowhere near sound proof or insulated. Personal conversations have to be whispered, no one is dumb enough to come over without a sweater – unless we’ve had the oven on for a couple of hours.

And yet, my life is actually better without a house right now. My quality of life is quite high compared to previous years – I can travel…I can sit here and write and don’t have to worry about next month's rent. We put a lot of money into the food we buy. We have a stove, a fridge, and a counter…and our overhead isn’t that high. We live close to the subway system, in a fantastic neighbourhood. And if we lost an income, as we did late last year, we’d be okay. Because we didn’t buy. It bought us some freedom. On balance…not a bad deal.

And when I look at it that way – I haven’t been left out of the party – in fact, I can host the party.

Which brings me in a long, roundabout path to New Year's Eve. We had 8 people at our dining room table. We’ve ritualized the many-course dinner over the years. It started with homemade paté, thanks to Andy, and prosecco. When we gathered around the table, we started with lobster and shrimp rolls. Then a salad – simply green, scattered with toasted walnuts and pomegranate seeds with a lemon dressing. In between various friends kindly got up to wash the dishes…and dry them…while Nicole and Jean Paul’s dog Connor (dear Connor) joined in and tried to help by eating the scraps that had gone into the compost bin…and then…on to the next course.

We ate pork loin roast – stuffed with apricots and prunes and smothered in a Madeira wine/molasses glaze served with a mashup of rutabaga and carrot, and steamed green beans with garlic and ginger. Then coq au vin with rosemary roasted potatoes. Then flourless chocolate cake, thanks to Nicole. And the cheese plate? We never got there. But the dishes were all clean.

We barely got to the champagne at midnight. Some of us just had cups of tea and were lolling on the furniture wobbling our way into a standing position to wish everyone a happy new year. Oh my god we laughed and talked and yammered and yawed…we laughed so hard. What a great way to bring in 2013. I love my friends. Feeding them ‘til they hurt was my way of showing that.

No, we weren't in our house...but we were definitely home.