August 31, 2006

The Essential Intangibles

I fell in love with food when I learned more about love.

That’s not to say I was in love, I was just learning quickly what love was and more specifically, what love wasn’t.

Which, if you’re counting, means I came to cooking late – because if I know anything about myself, it’s this: I’m a late bloomer, in cooking and love.

I remember seeing the film Like Water for Chocolate – many years ago. One line has come to my mind on an almost daily basis since. I’m paraphrasing, but it drives how I cook: Cook with love, it will show up in the food.

It’s no secret that food is so often equated with love – in healthy and unhealthy ways. In the truest sense both nourish us; both affect all our senses. To share those senses with others, stops the world from turning so fast – connects us and pauses us.

Mum was happy to let me cook if I wanted to. She worked full time, when most Mums didn’t. I remember how tired she was – bus into downtown Montreal at 7am, bus out that got her home at 6pm.

But on weekends, after we’d been shopping, she’d let me shake the chicken in the shake ‘n bake plastic bag, or make the spaghetti sauce, or blend the milk into the tomato soup, or bake a cake (from a box), and ice it (from a can) or my favourite – get the mixer out and whip up a batch of whip ‘n chill - Strawberry rocked, for anyone who remembers.

(By the way it’s food like that that occasionally makes me feel eating organic is a waste of time for anyone that grew up in the age of plastics. I figure eating processed foods “just like the astronauts”, altered our body chemistry for good, but not for the better…however even if it’s too late, organic still tastes better)…

Anyway, while we were having tea and biscuits at the kitchen table, Mum would try to teach me how to jitterbug, hand in hand, jiggling and jumping like fools.

In case you get the wrong idea, we also ate lots and lots of fruit and veggies, because my Mum instilled a love of them – I still haven’t met a vegetable I don’t like.

I’ve had an incredible ride so far (along with some big bumps) – fulfilling my dreams when I was young to travel and get paid for it. I managed to work my way into work that took me round the world and home again.

It opened my eyes to incredible beauty and incredible suffering – which, along with experience, built the framework for what love means to me.

Now whenever I try something – I’m notorious for trying out recipes I’ve never made on my unsuspecting friends - I hear that voice in my head – cook with love…And I'm not kidding, not once…not even once, has that injunction failed the meal.

"I do not think that good food can come from a bad kitchen," wrote MFK Fisher in Serve it Forth. I'm a believer.

Of her first kitchen in France (which measured 3x5 feet) the venerable food writer said, “All the noises flowed in and out of the window of the tiny kitchen, gay and sombre and mysterious and always real, and I may be too sentimental in thinking that they helped me cook some good dishes – but I doubt it.”

It got me thinking about the intangibles of cooking. How I like to cook. I like to have time. I love cooking in the afternoon as the sun nuzzles its way briefly between our houses through the bay window, I love having music playing (I’m a jazz fan, Steve is not), I love having the door open, the neighbours checking in, the birds singing, and I still dance on occasion – it all adds up to putting joy in the pot.

And it makes me think about food and what it means. And that’s what I want. That’s what this journey is about for me. I care about how we feed ourselves, and hopefully, feed how we care for each other.

I'd love to know your favourite music whilst you cook - or your favourite setting - your favourite intangibles, so to speak...Image of MFK Fisher cooking in her kitchen at Bareacres.

August 30, 2006

Simple Spice of Life - it's in the rub

Or: how to keep thin making wayyyy-too-much-trouble potato chips

I can feel summer waning here, the warmth I'm capturing is from the patches of sun on the back deck, but the air is astringent and belies the truth. The geese are starting to sound off as they fly by, the monarch butterflies have fluttered into town on their impossible journey to Mexico. It's reminding me that comfort foods are soon to insulate my stomach (and frankly other parts too). So I thought I'd share Steve's spicy rub - how you use it is up to you - set your own limits. And if you follow it up with Steve's chip recipe, you'll discover true slow food that's truly incredible.

Steve's Rub

1 part chili powder
1 part brown sugar
1 part black pepper
2 parts kosher salt
Healthy dose of paprika

Feel free to make up a whole whack of this and keep it in a container in the cupboard.

Way-too-much-trouble, Guilt Diminisher Potato Chips

Preheat oven to 275 degrees fahrenheit. Here's the best good sized potato will make you the equivalent of one bag of potato chips (how bad can that be?). Steve slices a russet potato very thin on a mandolin (you really need a mandolin to do this). He rinses the slices to get as much starch off as he can, dries them with a clean towel and then gives them a thin coat of olive oil.

  • Out comes the famous (or soon to be) spice rub. He lays the potato slices on a cookie tray, sprinkles just one side and not too heavily with the rub.
  • Then he pops them in the oven preheated to 275 degrees...any higher than that and they burn too quickly.
  • After about 10-15 mins he flips them over and over to keep them from burning. As he's flipping, he pulls out the ones that are done. And I eat them - it isn't pretty.
  • I promise they taste unlike any potato chip you'll ever buy. We promised ourselves (har har) we'll never buy potato chips, so if we only eat Steve's when Steve has an evening free to carefully coax these things through the oven, then we're guilt free as we munch.

    By the way, if you play with the proportions, like ease up the salt, this makes an unbelievable rub for chicken (especially beercan chicken) and for pork I said, the spice of life for the free spirit. Chips a'Joy.

    August 24, 2006

    Five Foods to Eat Before You Die

    Playa Avellana, Costa Rica, it'll make sense at the end.

    Fine. The oven mitt is thrown.

    Melissa Kronenthal, aka The Traveller's Lunchbox, set the challenge: create a list of food bloggers' top picks for things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die.

    I was amazed by my answers. I thought I'd get all sophisticated and snotty - truffle omelettes, souffle this, lobster that - but my body trampled my ego shut and hurried on its way to simpler foods.

    It's true.

    I mean, who, or should it be what, makes better fries than a chip truck? I remember being on a shoot out on Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula. We were heading home on a two-laned highway that spread off one way into rocky, undulating farmland, the other to a grassy crest that hinted at the light that comes only from the open sea. The road was more crowded with roadkill than cars. Yet every mile or so was an isolated chip truck. It was very weird. I was beginning to wonder if they were mirages.

    I almost squared the wheels of the rental car as I slammed the brakes and the car onto the shoulder as the next one came into view. And we nearly peed our pants laughing when we discovered our team in the car behind us had been honking, flashing their lights, trying to get us to stop at a chip truck, any chip truck. Just arretez-vous, s'il vous plait.

    Best not to think of the pure lard the chips must have been doused in. But a large, hairy, masculine arm handed them through the window, covered in grease and salt, oozing through the paper bag - chips from paradise...on a grassy hill, the wind blowing off the ocean, playing the grass like an instrument, the sky clear blue through to space, the clouds bleached and fluffed - how could I resist them?

    Taste and setting - good food karma...

    Okay. The five foods...

    1. Fig bruschetta, unbelievable layers of flavour. Toasted bruschetta rubbed with garlic, spread with a mixture of blue cheese (I use stilton), marscapone, and chopped parsley. On top, a quarter of a fresh fig braised in balsamic vinegar and sugar in a pan, which is then thrown under the grill to get the cheese going. If you try this, get them out of the oven and stand back - beware of stampede. Hats off to the creator: Donna Hay and eternal thanks to my friends Lauren and Mark who discovered this gem and are among my favourite cooks.

    2. In keeping with the stilton theme: fresh mussels in a white wine, shallots, cream, garlic, stilton cheese concoction - this was born at a local pub up the street from me. I asked the owner how to make it. The freshest of bread for dipping is essential. Throw the cheese in right at the end in chunks and just let it barely start melting before serving. Again, stand back. Fair warning.

    3. Linguine with tomatoes and basil. Ingredients nature intended to blend. This one is also courtesy of the above-mentioned Lauren, via the Silver Palate Cookbook. The pasta is cooked and doused with a bowl of chopped, beautiful tomatoes, shredded basil leaves, chopped garlic, and a pound of brie (without the rind and ripped with your hands into small pieces) all of which has been marinating for a few hours in very good olive oil. The heat from the pasta oozes the cheese into its most fragrant self - you can just imagine.

    4. Any fruit that comes right off the tree. My husband remembers eating pomegranates off a tree in California and I remember grabbing oranges off trees in Portugal. Nothing in the world like that. The fruit bursts in the mouth, the juice explodes in multiples of flavours getting more intense, then settling as it goes down your throat.

    5. A tuna sandwich? Not just any tuna sandwich. This is also one of those good foods where setting adds to the flavour - we discovered this at a beach restaurant in Costa Rica, which I hesitate to recommend, but I'm sure you'd respect. Playa Avellana is an undiscovered, unspoilt beach south of the touristy, overstimulated, teenaged, party-animal-filled town of Tamarindo. Avellana is known mostly to surfers (duuude) and those who have invested in property nearby. And sitting like a jewel in a nation of uninspired food and few inspired restaurants, is Lola's. They only serve lunch, the menu is all excellent, but the ahi sandwich is how all self-respecting tuna want to go. It's a lightly-grilled ahi steak, laid out on a ciabatta bun layered with mixed greens, olive and sundried tomato tapenade, and garlic aioli. When we returned to the region a week later, we walked 14kilometres along the shoreline to get another sandwich.

    ...and on the side? What else? Chips...The fries came standing in a beautiful white cup, with small dishes of ketchup and mayonnaise on the side for dipping. No chip truck in sight, but plenty of ocean, wind, and clear skies. Now that's good food karma, not bikini karma, but food karma.

    Come share your thoughts...

    Go nuts.

    August 22, 2006

    A Foodnut Nut Recipe

    I refer to my friends as the graces - both because of who they are and what they bring to my life. Karen is one of them and all the more so the night she brought these over as an appetizer. She's a wonderful cook, instinctive and imaginative and modest about it.

    When these magic nuts hit the table, they disappeared. The cayenne gives it a kick that's just perfect against the sugar. Keep an eye on them in the oven - I've incinerated almonds into carbon samples - fascinating but dangerous.

    Magic Nuts

    2 egg whites
    4 cups nuts (you choose, I love almonds)
    1/2 cup sugar
    1 tsp cinnamon

    Preheat oven to 325 F. Whisk egg whites until foamy. Stir in nuts until coated. Combine sugar with cinnamon, cayenne and salt. Pour over nuts and toss until coated. Spread evenly on greased cookie sheet and bake 20-25 minutes.

    When they are done they usually stick together. Breaking them apart is the fun part.

    Life Stuff Happens in the Kitchen

    Our kitchen is at the centre of our home. I mean it.

    It’s midway from the front to the back of the house – first living room, then kitchen, then bedroom. Kitchen: biggish. Big enough for a table and in a pinch I’ve sat 12 for dinner. Imagine a subway car at rush hour full of friends - eating.

    I was reading a recent column by David Leite on The Morning News, (a favourite daily indulgence), and he made a great point: kitchens say something about you and your wellbeing, whether itty and bitty or humungous and gargantuan.
    I've noticed MagazineArticleBigBeautifulKitchens have more to say about being well-to-do than wellbeing. Have you noticed the larger the kitchen the fewer meals coming out of it? The photospreads of perfect, pristine kitchens so big the other end is in doubt, the ones you could never imagine grocery bags in. No soul.

    Leite was writing about inviting Justin Spring to his kitchen. That's because Spring's New York kitchen is 45 sq. feet - which makes him the ideal author of The Itty Bitty Kitchen Book and a master at roasting in a toaster oven. Much of the book is about cleanliness, storage, and tidiness. But he also stuffs in an entire section on claustrophobia and how to handle panic attacks (all this in a room that contains knives, glass, and flaming hot appliances). I get the feeling he’s neither kidding nor inexperienced. The ittybittyness is a badge of honor.

    Anyway, while nervously waiting for Mr. Spring to critique his weeny kitchen, Leite went deeper into his own cupboards. He was writing about the kitchen as the place "where the gestalt of a family is dissected and laid bare."

    You know. Life Stuff.
    I’ve been in my little place for just over 4 years. I love it. It has character, charm, length, windows.

    It also has no insulation which makes winter not so charming, a bathroom in the basement, and in the kitchen a huge bay window inexplicably overlooking a brick wall less than four feet away.

    But it has such a good soul. You know what I mean? You must know people who can ping that kind of radar; who feel a place instantly. I’m the daughter of one. My mother loves my apartment and my kitchen. Her karma is never, ever off. And my weird irrational side trusts her instinct.

    For example, she called me one Friday afternoon a few months back to ask how my bestest, oldest friend in the world is doing. I had just talked to b.o.f. a few days before - everything was peachy. But Mum’s karma had pinged that morning she said. “Something is wrong and I thought it was J.,” she said.

    Of course, I called J. aka b.o.f., “No, everything’s fine,” she reported.

    Monday night I was out at the drug store buying painkillers for my husband because his fate had collided with that of a black squirrel, under his bike tire. Steve was on his way to his first day on a gig at a nearby studio, the squirrel presumably on his way to the tree on the other side. They met somewhere in the middle.

    The squirrel got off better than Steve. The xrays showed a clean line break in his right elbow - 6 weeks of work gone before he’d even started.

    While I was out on my mission of mercy, the phone rang. It was J.
    Her father died over the weekend. She had found him that morning. I called her back, I sat at the kitchen table and we talked for a bit. We’ve both had complicated, challenging relationships with the men who sired us. And now he was in the past tense for J.

    So that’s my mother. The one with the third eye, great intuition.

    So you can understand my relief that my mother loves our apartment – despite the bathroom being a long, steep set of stairs down into the basement.

    Our home has goodness in it. My friends are my family. And I like feeding them – so the kitchen is the heart of our home.

    Leite wrote the kitchen is a place, “where relational dramas unfold...ground zero for life's vortex." And my mind flew back over the last tumultuous years that flowed through that room. Big dinners, big food. I had seduced there, been seduced there, and cried 'til I slept, and laughed ‘til I cried there.

    It was the place where I had my first picture taken with both my parents - at my kitchen table - I was 40. That table is a loan from b.o.f. and her husband. Photos of my friends and family grace one wall, my trip of a lifetime around Asia on my own graces another. I’m surrounded by pictures of love and adventure – the spices of life.

    One night, over bread, brie and red wine, the One Who Got Away ripped out my heart and soul – and later that night, and deeper into a bottle of scotch than I have ever been before or since, I was consoled by friends who came and held me while I keened and wailed and raged.

    And then two cautious, fragile years later I fell in love harder than I knew possible over a dinner the Genuine Article (the Steve) served to me in my kitchen.

    It was a dinner of curried shrimp, homemade na'an bread, and raita to honor my love of India and Indian food - which he hates and from which his own kitchen took weeks to recover.

    My kitchen, became our kitchen, the centre of our home, the place with goodness in it. Welcome to my blog on food, love and life, on life, love and food.

    Picture: Me and J circa 1968 - notice the trรจs cool candy cigarettes they sold to children then?