December 07, 2007

Cranberry Bog-Down

I'm heading for the store. Apparently there is a cranberry shortage - not enough farmers, too cool a summer, too much demand.

Not enough cranberries!

And according to the buyer I heard on cbc radio - it ain't getting any better soon. He advised everyone to buy and freeze.

So if you're hoping for fresh cranberry sauce in a few weeks - it's time to get strategic.

December 06, 2007

no gain, no pain

I started walking home from work again. Or at least an hour of the way home. For exercise, you understand. I'm no martyr.

I'm almost halfway through chemo now, sitting here with my laptop and mug of tea, and able to tell you, that, apart from getting used to the weirdness of having a head more akin to a billiard ball, than a head, so far so good. I'm working full time, and once I'm through the first few days, after the first few waves of nausea are beaten back by drugs, after the Sunday I spend sleeping on the couch, I'm back on track.

So here's the kicker - the week after chemo I feel like I'm eating for Canada. It's not hard for me to have two breakfasts, two sandwiches for lunch, potato chips on demand, fruit, carrot sticks to balance the front part out, sweets, chocolate, double helpings for dinner...

...and so, until this week I was avoiding the subway in fear of germs, but now...I gotta tell you I'm in more fear of cellulite.

Surprised the hell out of me. Lordy - I'd do a logger proud at the table. Or I'd scare him back to the woods.

So some of my graces - you know I always thought I had three graces in my life, but I've discovered my life is full of graces - got together on Tuesday night and we drank wine, we ate dinner, and they cooked freezable meals for me. I'm going to share their recipes if they let of them you'd already know - Wild Mushroom Soup

I now have piles of macaroni & cheese, shepherd's pie, vegetarian chile, and chicken marbella sitting in the freezer, in individual containers - ready to be thawed, heated and if I could only remember that order while in my ravenous state.

The other kicker is how strong flavours really entice me - none of this bland, wishy washy stuff - give me flavour. Not heat. Flavour. Heat, bad on the mouth and stomach now. Flavour good on the tongue and palate now.

In this state it's not hard to live in cookbooks. I read them, devour them, live through them.

And having indulged in a beautiful cookbook called Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by two Canadians who live to travel, cook, then write about it -

huh...note to self...interesting dream job where the kitchen reno would be a write-off...

I was transfixed by the possibility of learning how to make cold spring rolls - the Vietnamese ones. I remember eating them for the first time in a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal - I was with a group of friends the day after a wedding, the small kitchen restaurant kept rolling these rolls out the door, and I just kept rolling them down my gullet. I was intrigued by the texture of the wrapper, the blend of the vegetables and the fresh kick of the fresh mint. Oh and the dipping sauce.

So when Alford and Duguid wrote that it was entirely within my power to make them in my own small kitchen - I was up at the corner grocer in a flash.

They take some practice. So don't try these as your guests are walking in the door. Unless you're prepared to order pizza.

Rice Paper Roll-Ups with Shrimp and Herbs
- adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet

I think the key to these is to prep everything, have it ready to assemble and then go...the other key is what the authors suggest: do it with friends.

12 medium shrimp - I made these with only vegetables, and I imagine you could use anything you fancy...pork strips? chicken?
3-4 oz dried rice vermicelli, soak in warm water for 20 mins and drain
15 rice papers (about 8" in diameter - I used 5" - Use 8", better)
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 3o seconds and drained
3/4 cup of grated carrot tossed with 1 tbsp of rice vinegar and 1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup of mint leaves
30 chives, or the greens from scallions that you've cut thinly into slivers
1/2 cup coriander leaves, but I substituted parsley, because there is little I don't like in the fine world of herbs, but coriander is it.

Boil water in a large saucepan. Cook the shrimp until firm to the touch, 1-3 minutes. Lift out immediately and cool on a plate. Shell and devein them and split them lengthwise.

Use the same boiling water to cook the vermicelli, just for two minutes until they're soft. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Place a bowl of warm water nearby - large enough to hold the diameter of the rice wrappers. Wet a tea towel and lay it on the counter or workspace you'll be using. Pull all your ingredients in front of you.

Start by putting one rice paper in the bowl of warm water for 30 seconds until soft. Lift it out gently and lay it on the wet tea towel.

The recipe calls for 1 tbsp of the noodles to be laid on the bottom one third of the wrapper, then the same of the bean sprouts.

I then laid the carrot mixture and herbs on that, then the mint, and started rolling, I added slivers of red pepper since I wasn't using shrimp, and the parsley. Once you have it rolled over once or twice, fold over each edge toward the middle and then keep rolling up. Moisten the edge with water.

Place seam side down on a platter which you keep covered with a second moistened tea towel.

You should really serve these immediately, but apparently they'll keep under the towel and plastic wrap for a couple of hours. We didn't give them the chance.

I love how they suggest serving them: "To eat, place a leaf of lettuce in your palm and lay a roll-up on it. Wrap the lettuce leaf round one end of the roll-up as if you were wrapping a cone in a napkin. Use a small spoon to drizzle on the sauce as you eat, mouthful by mouthful."

Speaking of which, I made up their recipe of "Vietnamese Must-Have Table Sauce" which is wicked easy and delicious. It's a combo of lime juice, fish sauce, water, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and bird chile...

I'm anxious to dig into some more of these recipes - in fact we're starting to plan our new year's eve annual tasting dinner and this book is a great contender as the anchor of that dinner...upon which our transition into a new year, with new hope, rests...No pressure.

December 03, 2007

standing up for your fruitcake

It's December and the smells of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg start drifting through me by habit. I think it's what coils around my DNA actually. Maybe it's a seasonal chromosome, maybe red and green, flaring once a year like a beacon to my nose - triggering a longing for mincemeat tarts, Christmas pudding, and yes...believe it...fruitcake.
No one I know likes fruitcake. I feel alone.

Laurie Colwin in Home Cooking quoted Abe Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

And that sums up the very clearly delineated world of fruitcake.

But that world has its own cracks. And to the left here is where I think fruitcake world cleaves itself. Where it goes terribly, terribly wrong. This is the fruitcake that lives up to the Johnny Carson joke: that there really is only one fruitcake in the world and it's just regifted year after year.

Candied peel. Piled and glistening and drowning the cake underneath. Wrong.

I'm not alone, as it turns out. Since I first posted this, fruitcakers have crept forward to declare their fruitcakeness. It started when a friend came up to me last week to talk about Christmas pudding - she talked wistfully about how her mother-in-law made it when she was well and able. She hasn't had it in years. She also loves mincemeat tarts - which means she loves that combo of deep spice and sweetness, that is distinctly British. And fruitcake. A kindred spirit.

Last year I brought you a recipe for homemade mincemeat. As I look forward to my first tarts of the season - and to Mum's Christmas puddings, which she made and doused in brandy long ago...(hmmm for which I have no recipe yet, and I'm not sure if she's ever written down after decades of puds and brandy) - I bring you this time, for those who will admit to needing one, a fantastic recipe for...The Fruitcake.

What I love about this family recipe below is that it's full of what I do love: raisins, sultanas, currants...and while it calls for some candied peel, we replace it with dried cranberries, or dried cherries.

This recipe comes from my aunt and an ancient magazine recipe from deep inside her recipe box. Years ago I transcribed it to paper. Mum tried to read it to me last night on the phone. The paper is frayed and broken and smudged and stained.

It isn't just for Christmas at Auntie Mag's, fruitcake, complete with royal icing, is everyone's birthday cake - and Mum made me one for my wedding, also dressed in royal icing and flowers - which I'm happy to say I ate all myself since Steve would prefer to have nothing to do with the fruitcake chromosome. So birthdays, weddings, family holidays - a celebration of life -

Serve yourself a chunk with a big mug of tea - turn your back to the naysayers and be smug about it. And it'll last six months in a proper cake tin wrapped up, so you can indulge.

Our family fruitcake

14 oz (400g) sultanas
9 oz (250g) raisins
9 oz (250g) currants
4 oz (100g) stoned prunes, chopped
5 oz (125g) mixed chopped peel (substitute dried cherries or cranberries if you prefer, and I do)
4 oz (115 ml) sherry
1 orange, both rind and juice
1 lemon, both rind and juice
5 oz (125g) glaced cherries, quartered
12 oz (350g) softened butter
10 oz (275g) dark, soft brown sugar
14 oz (400g) plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice - distinctly British - it's a combo of 1 small cinnamon stick and 1 tablespoon each cloves, mace, ground nutmeg, coriander seeds, and allspice berries
1/4 tsp nutmeg, grated
6 medium eggs
2 tbsp apricot jam
2 tbsp black treacle, aka molasses

Wash and dry dried fruit and put in large pan with prunes and peel. Add sherry rind and juice of lemon and orange stir fruit mixture over moderate heat until steaming for five minutes. Turn into a bowl and make sure no juice is wasted. Cool, cover and leave overnight.

The next day, add cherries and nuts to mixture.

The first time I tried this in a standing mixture, I thought I'd gone to heaven. You can do it without the machine, and you'll earn enough muscles to grant yourself an extra slice of cake when it's done.
Preheat your oven to 275 degrees F.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
Sieve all dry ingredients together and add 4 tbsp to creamed mixture. Beat eggs. Gradually add to creamed mixture, beating well, add a little from measured quantity if it curdles.
Beat in jam and treacle, fold in remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Mix in fruits with wooden spoon or spatula (or standing mixer, with a strong motor).
Turn cake mixture into greased and lined tin and smooth top.
Bake for 4 ½ hours – in the lower half of the oven.
Test cake by inserting skewer.
Remove cake from oven, cool in the tin. Leaving 24 hours.
To store: remove from tin, wrap in greaseproof paper and then foil. Keep in a round cake tin.
And enjoy with much glee as people make jokes about how criminal it is to propagate the one fruitcake in the world, yadda, yadda, yadda.