January 30, 2007

Hope & Optimism

Another flutter from the fridge door -

"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

- Vaclav Havel


Tell me the poet/politician/former president of Czechoslovakia wasn't up to his elbows in pastry when he thought of this.

In the fragile world of hope and optimism, my friend Carol shines a beacon. She is a bulwark against my occasionally cynical, always skeptical mind. If you put out positive stuff, positive stuff happens. And it seems to. For her.

I am not so convinced. I am more convinced that the earth is neutral. That we live. That we die. Fate? Meant to be? Cosmic energy? Reincarnation?

Nope. I doubt it...Let's say I'm open to conversion, because I like the idea of it, the story of it, the potential.

Carol and I usually drown our disagreement in more wine, and get down to eating.

And in this discontent of winter, I can't think of a better recipe to represent hope and optimism and Carol's energy...than her recipe for mac & cheese.

Carol's Mac & Cheese

1 lb. elbow macaroni
1 tbsp butter
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 tbsp coarse-grained mustard
1/2 lb. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (and supermarket varieties tend to be too mild, it might be worth heading to your favourite cheese shop)
1/4 cup, parmesan, grated

Cook the macaroni. Drain well. Return to pot and set aside.
In medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the jalapeno for 1 minute, then add the flour. Cook for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Whisk in the milk and heat to boiling.
Add the mustard and cheeses and stir until smooth.
Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni and toss.

That should serve 6...

Namaste...

January 29, 2007

p.s.

My fate met a vacuum hose this morning.

Not five minutes after I posted my inspiration for the day, I sucked it up to the oblivion of a disposable dust bag inside a Dirt Devil...

Adds new meaning to the adult philosophy of "suck it up"...the worst lesson I've had to learn as an adult...

A quote to get me going this week...

This now lives tucked onto a corner of my fridge door - wedged behind the factory decal - I cut it out of the paper a few years ago and occasionally it flutters to the floor and gets retucked behind a bunch of others. It fluttered just the other day...I think I'll post it here...'cause who knows, it might relate it to food.

Simplicity is not a goal, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, as one approaches the real meaning of things.

- Constantin Brancusi

January 26, 2007

Cumin, Sage and Windchill...

I'm in the mood for risotto.
Because it takes patience.
And because it's January.
And this is the month that tries the nerves.
Worse than that, it's a month that is merely a rehearsal for the interminable one that follows it.
These are the days when I sit staring at the weather network's website for Florida, California, the Caribbean...somewhere, anywhere I can fly direct (because I hate flying, so no extra, unnecessary, even-if-they're-scheduled, especially-if-they're-not, landings, thank you)...
Which leads me to expedia and all the seat sales and last minute deals...
Sigh.
But, no deal.

Steve does the baking - and has mastered the art of the gluten-free chocolate chip cookie - and while I indulge, I have been looking for comfort in savoury dishes. To paraphrase Ms. Reichl, comfort me with squash. I console myself that in payment for my tolerance, in transferring my tension to the kitchen, I am bestowed a steaming plate of this perfumey, lovely risotto.

I have this feeling, like a radar ping, that the food world is tired of risotto...that's it's so yesterday's butternut squashable, it's so pomegranate passe, so over-cilantro'd, but...I still admire its subtle texture and tastes. It's like a blanket. So there.

I searched around for risotto recipes and discovered this - Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto on the Gourmet site. It's from 2001. As you may know, I love b/sq...it's in the great vegetable pantheon (even if just the thought of it makes a dear friend heave) or actually vegetable-like fruit pantheon, one of the Three Sisters.

And in this recipe the squash ups its reputation with roasting and then gets a huge kick in the ass from that wonderful partner cumin and also fresh sage. And it's pretty.

I don't cook enough with cumin...

I made this last year for the first time (in fact the first time I had made risotto at all - at new year's, for 8 people, yikes...must have had lots of champagne by then, because risotto had intimidated the hell out of me). I think I was getting cocky because I'd made my own chicken stock and it was clear. Meaning I was fortified, unstoppable: with enough champagne in me and enough clear stock in the vat, I could accomplish anything.

Here's to making it through January and onward...


Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto

3 lb butternut squash
6 cups chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (9 oz)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
5 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1/2 oz)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
4 oz arugula or baby spinach (6 cups), stems discarded and leaves very coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Halve squash lengthwise and seed, then cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch-wide slices and season with salt. Roast slices, skin side down, in a shallow baking pan in middle of oven until tender and golden, about 50 minutes.
Set aside 6 crescent-shaped squash slices for serving and keep warm. Cut flesh from remaining slices into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding skin.

Start risotto after squash has been roasting 40 minutes...

Bring broth to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer, covered.

Cook onion in butter in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add rice, garlic, and cumin and cook, stirring, 3 minutes.

Stir in 1/2 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring frequently, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering and adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is creamy-looking but still al dente (it should be the consistency of thick soup), about 18 minutes total. (There will be leftover broth.)

Stir in squash pieces, then stir in cheese, salt, sage, and arugula and simmer, stirring, 1 minute. (If necessary, thin risotto with some leftover broth.)

Serve risotto immediately, spooned over reserved squash slices.

January 25, 2007

Birds & Fungus

We were determined to conquer all the hiking trails of the Monteverde Cloudforest in Costa Rica.

It was our second day and we found ourselves running on the trail – with a bunch of young women all well armed with cameras and binoculars. All you could hear was whispering, rustling clothing, pounding feet on the dirt trail, then the incessant buzzing, like an insect, of autodrives as zoom lenses popped in and out frantically finding the focal length to photograph one of the most sought after birds in birdwatching world: The resplendent quetzaland here...which I call the whaleshark of the bird watching world.

Now resplendent…okay seems a little egotistical, a little hi falutin’, a little breathy, a little over the top for just a bird. Until you earn the honor of seeing one.

And then you suck in your breath – and your heart beats - and your eyes pierce through the trees like the predatory land mammal you are, and you pull your eyes away from the lens to catch the eyes of someone near you because of that human need to share the spark of discovery, of wonder, of, well, of resplendence.

Do you have any idea how much work it is to be resplendent…all the time?

Neither do I. I’ll bet the black-faced solitaires hate them – considering the song of the solitaire made me stop still every time it echoed through the trees – think of someone caressing the edge of a crystal glass with their wet finger. Resplendence for the ear, not the eye.

We saw a number of quetzals over two days – including a pair making a nest. We were in awe.

These student birdwatchers, almost all female, were in their early 20s and on their "reading week."

What happened to getting your first credit card, flying to a beach, scoping guys at nightclubs, getting hammered on tequila and puking outside while your best friend holds your hair back? Isn't that reading week?

These girls were serious and giddy at the same time. Bearing backpacks filled with all they could want in life:
  • the official, weighty, 2” thick bird bible of Costa Rica - check
  • another on South America if necessary - check
  • and of course, a guide to Migratory Pathway birds too who might be wintering here from North America - check
  • cameras, lenses, binocs, mononocs, a raincoat and an energy bar…and notebooks and pencils in order to furiously scribble down the count… check, check, check, check, check check, check and check.

This is not a hobby that will get you laid.

I said when I came back that I’m in serious danger of becoming one of them - a birder…and I fit the cartoon profile: I’m white, I’m female, I have Anglo DNA, I find nightclubs annoying, I don’t care about fashion, I listen to public radio…
...and I could have stayed there for days.

I’m doomed to hunting soon for the finer points and best prices of binoculars and buying a Tilley hat…Okay, I already love Tilley hats.

All this burst like a dam through my mind because I was actually looking up mushrooms.

And the entry in wikiland said mushrooming was like birdwatching. It’s that simple. And they’re probably right.

The only mushroomer I’ve met in the flesh was a cameraman I worked with a couple of times in NYC named Jeff. And I liked him very much. Which put mushrooms in good stead with me – not that they weren’t, I’ve always liked mushrooms - but he opened my eyes to what else is out there – the varieties.

Jeff is calm, erudite, well read, a gourmand, and (gasp) a liberal who sent me an email the first time G.W. Bush was elected, apologizing for what Bush was about to do to the world – he was joking, but it wasn’t so funny after a while…

And he told me about heading up to his weekend place with his family – and going into the woods for a good mushroom scavenge. He loved it. He talked about it with the bloodlust of a hunter…and how you have to be careful or the mushroom can get its own back in the potentially lethal game of hunting or hunted?

So about a month ago, on Christmas Eve I had a soup that reminded me of Jeff's passion…We were enjoying our annual dinner with our wonderful friends Nicole and Jean Paul. Who became even dearer when they installed a fireplace in their living room a couple of years ago.

Note to self: cultivate friendships with people who have fireplaces and pools and maybe summer cottages with wild mushrooms in the nearby woods.

The wild mushroom soup was good. No I mean great. Smooth, creamy, and looked gorgeous with speckles of mushrooms throughout. Oh I just can’t do it justice.

I know it was good because I slurped it back in seconds at a table filled with people who were in awe (or fear) of my gullet’s power…

It’s a nasty habit I have.

If I like your food, I’ll absorb it with focus, silently, like a machine, with my ears closed, and my eyes, mouth and nose completely on overdrive. And I eat with a speed that makes people back away from me carefully, making no sudden moves.

My mum laughed out loud watching a holiday video of me once. I was on a dive boat, eating lunch. The chef on the boat was a recent grad from the CIA and he had made a delicious meal – can’t remember what it was, I was probably hypothermic from the morning dives and working on pure animal instinct.

There I am on the video, in a chair, in the corner, plate on my lap, biting into something, staying inside myself and just nodding. And then biting again. And nodding.

Mum told me I do that all the time. She was wiping tears from her eyes. I had no idea. I’m not so sure it’s that funny. I think it pushes me beyond food lover, certainly bypasses any gourmand status I aspire to, and straight down into the glutton territory.

I am embarrassed by it…when I think about it…when I’m finished what’s on my plate.

I try to eat more slowly. I do.

Fortunately the lights were low at Nic and JP’s table that night so no one could see my cheeks and ears burning bright pink (again my Anglo DNA surges forth).

Nic tells me the Wild Mushroom Soup is from, will wonders never cease, The Silver Palate Cookbook – the cookbook that’s garnered me a couple of favourites that I’ve written about, but which often overwhelms me at the research stage with a tsunami of ingredients until, at the risk of drowning, I just put the book back on the shelf.
But there are gems in there.

My friend Nicole – we both call ourselves Nic – is a smart woman with a good heart, and a wonderful cook, another in my pantheon of instinctive cooks, who makes it all look easy…so if you haven’t tried this concoction and you’re feeling Januaryitis kicking in, get out to the corner vegetable market and root through the mushroom section…and give this a try…it will warm your soul…and, possibly, make you feel resplendent.

Enjoy…

Wild Mushroom Soup
From The Silver Palate Cookbook, p.173
6 to 8 portions

2 ounces dried cepes, morels or chanterelles
¾ cup Madeira wine
8 tbsp (1 stick) sweet butter
2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
2 pounds fresh mushrooms
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 cups chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream (it says optional…har har har)

Rinse the dried mushrooms well in a sieve under cold running water and soak them in the Madeira for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the onions and cook, covered, over low heat until they are tender and lightly coloured, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Trim stems from the fresh mushrooms and save for another use. Wipe caps with a damp cloth and slice thin. Add caps to the soup pot, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook over low heat, uncovered, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

Carefully lift mushrooms from bowl with slotted spoon and transfer to soup pot. Let Madeira settle a moment and then pour carefully into the soup pot, leaving sediment behind.

Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until dried mushrooms are very tender.

Strain the soup and transfer the solids to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add 1 cup of the liquid and puree until very smooth.

Return puree to the soup pot along with remaining liquid and set over medium heat. Taste, correct seasoning, and thin the soup slightly with heavy cream if it seems too thick. Heat until steaming and serve immediately.
The Mongolian stamp is from this website: http://www.birdtheme.org/thumbnails/thumbnails.php?coid=193

January 24, 2007

Fascinating Project


I saw a link to this documentary on the 'net - Manny Crisostomo of the Sacramento Bee followed these teenagers for a year through a boarding school for weight loss. If you run your cursor over the photos on the front page, you'll see the before and after...

January 22, 2007

Not all calories are equal


Wisegeek has posted a comparison of foods at 200 calories...kinda interesting...




thanks to al's morning meeting again for this tip...

Portion Distortion

Found this website thanks to Al's Morning Meeting at the Poynter Institute...

If you can't get the birth rate to climb so as to create more consumers, just increase the portion size and get people to eat more...profits up on all sides: mega food corporations, health organizations, drug companies...they all win...food, yum, the opiate of the masses.

My cynical side. Monday morning. January. Canada.

January 19, 2007

Deprivation is good for you.

Few nowadays would understand the word: doing without, holding back from indulgence, earning something. I think we all need a dose of deprivation to make us take our world a little less for granted.

You wouldn’t know it today from people’s grocery carts, restaurant bills, credit cards and mortgages. They keep their smiles plastered on, faithful to the destructive path of owning more with less. You can buy happiness, on credit. Nothing down. Pay later.

Even George Bush exhorted us to keep shopping after 911, so the terrorists wouldn’t win.

I try to hang on to those moments when I was doing without – with no choice in the matter – either because of location, or poverty, or by actual choice.

And of course, now I’ve married into a partnership which considers monthly credit card balances the ultimate sin, well, maybe penultimate. (Okay that’s one of those words that people almost always use incorrectly. Along with factoid.)

Before Steve and I got married we spent days talking about finances and budget, coming clean on everything…including my credit line (known to freelancers as unemployment insurance.)

Anyway, he won’t give the bank a dime. He won’t even use their ATM machine because they charge him. He goes to the bank. He deals with a teller. He refuses to add to their bottom line.

When I look at their bottom line I squirm with discomfort. Partly because my mutual funds are filled with bank stocks, so their good bottom line might do my bottom line some good…anyway…
I try to hang on to that feeling of doing without – because it puts in relief all the little things that are good – life has more colour than normal – I get a little giddy – I find myself smiling in my sleep.

Travelling cheap does it. In spades.

Coming up on almost five years ago, I trekked up to the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. Ten days there and back. You can walk up as far as the base camp for the assaults on Annapurna I, which starts at almost 13,345 feet (4095 m). On the way you stay in hostels, eat local food (and after a certain point you pass a stupa which guards the mountains – and no meat is to be eaten from that point on). So dhal baht…all the way, ad nauseum.

Now the sanctuary trek is also known as the Coca Cola trek…because the soft drink is borne on human and donkey backs all the way to the top to sell to trekkers, at prices that increase with the altitude.

I’m not a coke drinker. I lived for their chai. And learned how to say it, tea with milk please.

Water was at a premium. Hot water even more so. I was too cheap to pay for it and nervous when I looked inside the shower huts, and shuddered at the thought of being in there starkers. And paying extra for the privilege? As if.

I saved my money.

I had to ration it out day to day until I got back to the nearest bank town. And since rationing has never been a strong philosophy, I was particularly alone and particularly particular.

So I did without. No matter how good the Mars bars looked in the cabinet.

I woke up before dawn on the day our guide and I were to head up to the final heights of Annapurna Sanctuary. It had snowed for 12 hours and 18” now blanketed the landscape in the moonlight. It was quieter than any place on Earth. To my left the mountain they call Fishtail was silhouetted against a full moon. To my right was an expansive, smooth, crystalline canopy of snow stretching up into the distance. We wanted to be up there for dawn.

My guide, Ripa, was asleep…and I waited. And waited. I gave my room to one of the mountain dogs who was outside and begging to come in…he got the other bed…I sat on my sleeping bag, on my cot waiting for some signs of human life.

Ripa finally roused himself and knocked on my door.

When I got outside with my flashlight, I thought I was going to kill him. He was wearing a fleece jacket, his baseball cap, cotton (!) shorts down to his knees, gaiters up to his knees. It was -10c (14F) I’m from Canada, I’ve jogged in January…I knew what I was doing. It was starting to occur to me, he didn’t.

We took off into the darkness. I followed his footsteps in the deep snow. Then it became apparent, I was following a circle. Ripa would stop. He’d look. He’d proceed. And he wouldn’t answer my question: Are we lost? And with our flashlights fading, I traipsed behind him. The trail started looking like a rain dance roadmap…I was getting more irritated, so I entertained myself with how long it would be before they discovered his body and if I could get out of the country in time…

He finally admitted he couldn’t find the trail.

Men.

So we both lowered our eye lines to the snow, scanning across it looking for any sign of previous paths. I pointed to the right edge of the small valley we were heading into. It just appeared - a slight indentation that wound its way to the top. We could see the buildings of the base camp in the distance – and while they looked about 15 minutes away…they were about an hour. (tricky not-so-little mountains)

I looked at Ripa with glee. We’d found it. And then I looked at his knees. They were actually knocking.

I had been suspicious about his intentions to go up there since the day before. He had led my new friend Andy up there. They walked up in the snowstorm, to no purpose because there was no visibility. They came back giddy anyway. Like two buds, old pals. And I had a feeling that Ripa didn’t want to get up at dawn, didn’t want to walk up there again, didn't want to walk a woman up there, and certainly not a single woman – and why wasn’t she married? Why didn’t she have children? Why was her hair so short? What kind of woman comes here? Alone?

I had been building this trip in my head for ten years. Not just wanting to see the Himalayas…but to be in the Himalayas. And I’d saved money. And I’d found the time. This was my time.

So I told Ripa to go back to the hostel and wait for me. Have breakfast. I’ll be back in a few hours – and we’ll head back down.

I headed off alone. And then I heard another trekker from the inn behind me. Richard, an Englishman had caught up with us, no surprise. His wife, Fiona, was struggling behind, bundled in winter clothing, and suffering from whatever she ate the night before which was fighting to get out of her, no matter how many layers she was wearing. (I think she wins the day’s hero award.)

Their guide Indra was helping her.

Richard and I plowed on. Well tried. By 13,200 feet I was walking slow, catching my breath every few steps, feeling like we might be close to Everest’s height by now. And the snow was deep. I kept telling Richard to go ahead of me if I was slowing him down. He refused.

We heard Fiona shout something at us from below. She was pointing ahead of us. And as I turned back I saw the sun hitting Annapurna (the shot at the top of this post), then all the other mountains in the Sanctuary in their well ordered and literal hierarchy - Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Annapurna South. The sky was as dark as outer space, the sunlight lit the snowy peaks like a pink beacon, the wind caught some of the snow and majestically, playfully tossed it into the air in long trails of white mist.

Annapurna - I was just reading Frances and Anna Lappe's book, Hope's Edge...early on she writes that the sanskrit word for food is Anna. The Indian goddess of food is Annapurna. Maybe I was drawn here in mystical ways?

The sun was hitting base camp itself when I reached the plateau at the top. I had cut the trail that many would follow that day. It felt wonderful.

Then someone suggested I walk around the low level buildings, ‘cause I was missing the point.

The Sanctuary came at me full force as I rounded the buildings. The peaks surrounded us in a circle. I actually felt my knees go out under me and I fell into the snow. I just wept. Really. I was so surprised at this outburst. I apologized to the woman who had showed me the way round the buildings. She said, “Don’t apologize. I did exactly the same thing yesterday.”

It was more than I had imagined – despite being well trained by guide books, pictures, videos, friends’ accounts…this was even better.

We heard avalanches to the left, ice cracking like thunder, wind trails above, and there was Annapurna in its power ahead of us. An expedition had left the day before to try to conquer its peak. I could see the path they’d taken across the icy field. And I tried to imagine them up on those forbidding walls. And I knew then, that I did not have to climb a mountain. I would never be a mountaineer. I didn’t need it.

I stayed up there for a little while…had chai, of course, with milk…then with a somewhat heavy heart I turned into the sun, which was now blazing in the thin air, and started back down the trail I had cut earlier. People were now starting to appear below in lines along the path, heading toward us. (I kept wondering if they had followed the circles we had plowed.)

I was overwhelmed as I walked down. We rolled in the snowbanks, slid where we could, played like idiots most of the way back to the hostel at Machupuchre Base Camp.

Which means I spent my time at breakfast trying to dry my socks and boots. Then we headed down to catch up with Rachel, Andy and their porter, Pim, who had descended the day before (Rachel had not wanted to go on. She feared she was suffering altitude sickness and wanted to get down as fast as possible. Hence Andy raced up in the snow to the base camp the day before and then returned to go down with her).

We had to cross the valley to the shaded side because we were in avalanche territory. And Ripa raced ahead of me irritated and anxious to get back to his sidekick, so he often left me behind to catch up with him. I decided not to rush.

I was too high, too ecstatic to care about his irritation anymore. I had been up there.

We crossed back to the sunny side of the deep valley, and came across avalanche debris that had blasted through since we’d walked that path a few days before. There was no way around it. We climbed up massive blocks of ice – each one the size of a transport truck…and we didn’t stick around to marvel at them for long. It was disconcerting to look straight up into the sky where it had come from. You’d have no chance.

In fact just two weeks later three trekkers, a woman and her daughter, and a lone man were killed here after they’d gone ahead of their guide. I read about it in the newspaper in Kathmandu, after my bus accident. Another story. Another time.

As we descended, the air became warmer and sweeter and I got the buzz of richer oxygen saturation…you know – like when athletes train at high altitude so they can benefit from the richer air once they come down. So despite having been hiking since about 5am, I was possessed with an energy that was inhuman.

We left the snow behind, the rhododendron trees bloomed for us, the monkeys played in the trees across the valley, I peeled off layers of winter clothing as I descended into spring – into new life.

This was one of those markers – there was life before I did this – and life after.

So we entered the hostel we’d agreed to meet at, burst through the door and our friends cheered as we came in. Others who were on their way up, looked at us in some awe. I could see in their eyes exactly the feeling I had going up. Was it really just a few days ago?

At that point, we kept asking people who were on their way down past us if it was worth it all. Just tell us if it’s worth all this? And they’d stare off, looking like Moses coming down from Sinai. They’d say, “oh yeah…it’s worth it. Keep going.”

And now, that was us. Andy asked me what I’d seen and I couldn’t help gushing. He looked disappointed that he had made it, but hadn’t really experienced it. It didn’t seem fair.

I went and put my pack in the room, grabbed some toiletry stuff (including one of those camp towels…which I renamed damp towel, because that was its main feature…all the time). And I had another look at the hot water shower stall.

You know, it didn’t look so bad. Had they renovated since we passed by here four days ago? Or had I? I went in. It was the most beautiful shower I’ve ever had, the steam poured out between the cracks of the walls, and I reveled in it.

Where this place had been freezing before, it seemed balmy now. I walked around without my jacket. I joked with everyone. I was calm and purely happy - looking forward to my infusion of dhal baht for dinner. Grateful.

And I ordered a Mars bar.

I sat outside and looked around, and I carefully, slowly, ate it.

And I was overwhelmed by how wonderful it tasted, how everything seemed. And I hoped against hope, I would be able to hold onto that feeling. That it would give me compassion, and temper my needs.

I went to bed that night, smiling, without knowing it. I woke up at some point - it was still dark. I didn’t open my eyes, they were still turned inward and upward to the mountains, and I realized I was smiling in my sleep.

I haven’t been the same since.

p.s. Rachel and Andy married the following year and have a little girl named Ruby Georgia…

Photos:
The first is the glimpse we had of Annapurna at sunrise, while still on the trail.
The second is a coca cola empty, nepalese style. The valley in the back is where we'd just been on our way back.
The third is Richard, Fiona and Indra, me at front, with Annapurna I behind us.
The fourth is the view from the base camp back down the trail we'd just come up - if you click on it, you'll see one person way down the trail, which will give you a sense of the context.
The final shot is of our trekking party, me, Rachel, Andy in the back, Ripa, and his colleague, Pim.

January 02, 2007

The courses of life

New Year’s Eve. Not my favourite. I feel forced to reckon – with the year, with my place in the world, with my life. I feel forced to be happy.

And I am happy. Dammit.

I just don’t like being told what to feel, and when, and how, and just because it’s December 31st.

So I think many, if not most of us, plaster a smile on our face – adhered best with champagne I believe - and go forth into the night and into the dawn of a new year.

I’ve spent money on the big blowout parties downtown (and been reimbursed with 5 hours of techno, pounding, crappy music), I’ve been to small bars with live music but with about as much room as carp in an aquarium (okay the dancing was fun), I’ve been blottoed into a new year by a pitcher of killer cosmopolitans by an expert friend who had been a bartender in college.

And I’ve woken up resolving: I will NEVER, EVER drink again…I will exercise more, will never drink again, will be nicer, will never drink ever, will save money, especially by not drinking, and reduce debt, again, not ever drinking ever will help…these are not in any particular order.

Last year my resolution was to use the f word less. Seriously. It’s the television folks, I swear.

This year I’m hoping to defeat my tendencies to live by two ethos(es? ethies?): flying by the seat of my pants at the last minute...and the "that'll do" tendency. They're often related -because that's the best I can do if it's at the last minute...if I'd had more time, I'd have done it better...you see the circle circling eh?

So far so good - wait a minute. I just paid December's phone bill today...

So. Resolutions are f... stupid.

Last new years was the year when my friends Jain and Andy first asked if we could cook together for a table full of their friends. I thought that sounded like fun. So we did…long, slow, small courses, with rests in between – it was so successful, I knew we were in danger of having created an exhausting tradition.

We feasted on: Andy’s lentil/lemon soup with homemade yogourt, I found Donna Hay’s recipe for balsamic lamb, roasted and served on a bed of roasted potatoes with green beans, then I made roasted butternut squash risotto with wild mushrooms and my own chicken stock proudly simmering in a big pot at the back, Andy roasted a pork tenderloin with a wondrous mustard sauce and asparagus roasted in balsamic butter. People were lolling around like they were at a food orgy…it was very satisfying. And exhausting. But satisfying.

I hear time dulls pain and tired feet. It is the great healer.

So, almost 360 days later, just before Christmas, we went over to Andy and Jain’s and Andy’s eyes were positively twinkling in anticipation of our new year's eve dinner – like an 8 yr old who can tell it’s a toboggan under the tree.

So the menu negotiations started by email last week:

Lamb cutlets on spicy rice noodles? Did lamb last year.

Roasted veal tenderloin? Veal? Like No.

Wild mushroom risotto? Ditto, risotto last year. And Jain not so much into the ground fungus.

A winter salad with roasted nuts, goat cheese, pomegranate on greens? I’m saladed out. How does anyone get saladed out?

It all sounded good to me. Well, except for the veal.

Back and fork we went.

On the day, we went over early to start prepping…and Andy plastered a smile on my face with a delicious, crisp glass of sparkling wine. Just to get the creative juices flowing. No forced happiness here. I threw on my apron with √©lan.

We were feeding seven. The table looked like nature had spread itself open in anticipation – Jain has a natural gift for flower arranging and table setting – dried rose petals had settled down the centre, two small bouquets of flowers anchored each end and tea lights flickered here and there.

So my dear Steve and I joined our friends and did what seems to give me great pleasure and comfort and happiness - we ate our way into 2007 – a year that promises change, risk, challenge, and overflowing with potential…

I made a creamy butternut squash and pear soup, pushed a little with fresh ginger and nutmeg.

Steve then prepped pan-seared scallops in herb butter that we served on basmati rice to which I’d added caramelized onion and dried cranberries. We were going to kabob these on the bbq so they'd have that great smoky flavour, but the weather was not cooperating, so we pan fried some red/yellow peppers and some cherry tomatoes to dot over the rice as well.

I got the salads plated after that. Arugula with granny smith apple and fennel slices, bejeweled by pomegranate seeds and finished with curls of parmesan cheese and a drizzle of raspberry vinaigrette.

Then Andy and I thought pasta or something close would be timely. I made a tomato sauce that morning with a slight kick. Then I found a recipe from Jamie Oliver for a ravioli filling - ricotta, roasted pine nuts, generous portions of grated parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Polenta sandwiches...of course.

I took two slices of polenta and sandwiched the ricotta filling on the inside. I baked them for 15 minutes, then ladled some tomato sauce over it, and topped it with some roughly ripped basil leaves – and a little more grated parmesan to finish it off…people actually gasped...wow.

Then the front door opened and our friends Karen and Steve arrived from their flight home from Vancouver (where Karen had made the tagine recipe for her family). So we set two more places and the main course came to the table.

Andy brought out a magnificent sirloin roast that he’d cooked with a fig wine sauce. He served it with green beans doused in pine nut butter and roasted potatoes we’d cut into fingers that could be dipped in a thickened garlic/spring onion yogurt sauce.

By now it was 11:50pm…and 2007 was going to be brought in with champagne and dessert…it was perfect.

We did it without the television – just relying on our own sense of time and the clock on the DVD player…that was as close as we got to Times Square.

Once we’d settled down, Jain brought out martini glasses filled with tiramisu…smooth, creamy, with a kick…and she says she doesn't cook.

By about 2:30, I was still sitting at the end of the table, leaning back in my chair, almost sliding out of it but for the need to nurse my second cup of coffee, looking at the refuse of a table after a feast - looking at people's faces glowing in the last of the tea lights - everyone wiping tears of laughter as they listened to stories by a couple of gifted, natural storytellers - catching Steve's eyes and locking on for a few seconds - and thinking.

New Years. I reckon crossing the divide with a full belly, a champagne flute, a great love of my life to kiss is just about all the reckoning I need. My tastes and philosphies are simple.

This is how traditions start. Beware.

Or at least wear comfortable shoes.

And Happy New Year.