January 31, 2008

on the moon in winter

My body is one treatment away from the end of chemo. This weekend marks the precarious bridge between the treatment a week ago and the final one on Valentines Day. This weekend my immune system will be at its ebb – the neutrophils fighting to come back, any germs that harbour in me, fighting to take possession of their host, me.

It’s my reality - a surreal balancing act.

I can’t feel it – I just know it’s happening. I’ve lived in a bubble since the last treatment, staying far from humans and our parasites and germs which hitch rides on us all. That too is surreal – staying in contact through the web – feeling like I’m on the moon.

The race between my plummeting white blood cells and the germs has shown itself a little. I have thrush for example. It’s a yeast infection of the tongue – how delightful. It is also ironic. The fungus coats your tongue in a blanket – putting an insulation layer between you and food. Between you and flavour. That’s not just ironic. That’s just cruel.

Living without flavour is something I would hate. Now that I’m doing it and know it’s temporary – it’s a little bit bearable.

But something’s happened. I find myself more aware of taste – hunting carefully for it with every bite. Attuning my senses as I can.

Just last week I saw a science program about taste – and they told the story of a wine taster here in Canada who fell, bumped her noggin while curling, went to a wine tasting two days later only to discover after the first swig that there was nothing there. She couldn’t taste it. With rising panic she tasted a second red. Nothing. That was 7 years ago or so…She never got it back. She was lost.

I feel myself hitting back. In defiance I reach out for the strongest tastes I can muster. At a restaurant two weeks ago I pulled back the waiter as he was leaving with our order to add anchovies to my Caesar salad. Anchovies! Anchovies? Me? Me, who would walk around the block as a kid to avoid the smell of a fishmonger’s? And I could taste them. I may never do it again, but they kicked ass.

I made one of our favourite side dishes last week – basmati rice with caramelized onions and greens folded in, fresh ginger and garlic, red pepper, a little shaved carrot - I salted it. Then I salted it. By the time we forked it in our mouths, our kidneys were begging for relief and a bucket of water.

But I could taste it. Even I could tell I’d used a backhoe’s worth of salt. It kicked ass - and not in a good way.

And what’s saving my soul right now? My precious nose – while my tongue is subjugated to the tyranny of this white, furry blanket – my nose is in hyperdrive. Ever on the hunt for the most expressive smell it can find that’s beautiful.

It dives for every pot – we made stock on the weekend – I spray myself liberally with my perfume and drink in the smell like I’m dehydrated sensually – I absent-mindedly bought a bar of soap near the cash at the drug store the other night, olive oil soap with lavender…the smell of lavender…while at other times reminds me of lace and grandma’s, has come to smell of beauty and the earth, and sweetness mixed with spice – I found myself in the bathroom yesterday, grabbing at the pretty block of plain brown paper and just inhaling the essence of wild fields and sun and warmth.

Just standing in my bathroom, in the basement of this old house, at the end of Canadian January, transported sensually to France. To windblown fields, where lavender grows defiantly where it likes, where my hand tugs gently up the stem as I walk along in the sun, and flies to my nose to gulp down the essence quickly before it evaporates.

Existentialism in the bathroom. I think that's where most people find it, isn't it?

And in the kitchen.

My eyes are part of the conspiracy – I ache for beauty – at a time when my own feels so buried, a field of fuzz on my head, not enough eyelash to hit with a mascara wand, eyebrows once so defiantly bold that now look like a smudge – at a time of year when tree limbs are asleep and unconscious of the wind and the windchill, when the soil is rocked solid by ice, where the beautiful grays and browns and purples are the sum of the spectrum – the time of year when I start dreaming of magnolia and daffodils, crocuses and those first winter snowdrops that will poke above the soil not long from now – I look for beauty in people’s eyes and smiles, in red sofas, in fur hats, in dappled sunlight, in caramelized onions.

And I stare.

My meals need colour…this isn’t an appetite issue (I’ve gained five kilos and am over-sufficiently spongy). This is my sensual appetite struggling through this winter to supersede biology.

It’s a gift. Seeing, tasting and smelling like I’m parched. It’s a gift.

January 24, 2008

another graceful offering

As Karen is to being alive, Carol is our spiritual hunter - ever in search of peace of mind. She's methodical, organized (actually most of the graces in my life are highly organized, I've learned lots from them), fiercely loyal, caring and huggy.

She organized the cooking night that pulled together five women who would put oodles of food in my freezer.

She not only invited the graces to bring recipes, but she made one of her own and served us dinner, all on a Tuesday night.

My job was to sit in a chair, scoff appetizers, throw wine down my gullet and offer pithy critiques of the whole jumbled process. They said that's what I do best....hmmm.

Carol's dinner choice was interesting. It was Chicken Sausage with White Beans and Rosemary, from a book called On Rice by Rick Rodgers (wasn't he a country singer? he shoulda been...maybe that's where the bean recipe comes from, home on the range).

Rodgers writes in his book that this is a Tuscan version of the worldwide pairing of beans and rice - I have a limit to my beans and rice intake, since my various trips to Central and South America. I have done my fair share...

This recipe sounded pretty white - and pretty bland. But it was incredibly comforting. So I share it here - although I might raise the octane on some of the flavourings at will - and don't skimp on the salt. Taste carefully at the end.

Chicken Sausage with White Beans and Rosemary, from On Rice

1 lb hot or sweet chicken sausage or turkey Italian sausage
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium red pepper, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or 1-1/2 tsp dried rosemary
2 cans (15 ounces each) white kidney beans
1/4 tsp of salt (I'd add and taste...because I suspect this might be low for some people)
1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper

Pierce the sausage with a fork. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer uncovered, until the sausage is firm, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool. Slice the sausage into 1/2" rounds and set aside. (I might grill these next time, to see if that offers a different hit of flavour.)

In a flame proof casserole or Dutch oven heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic and red pepper. Cook for about 4 minutes, stirring often.

Stir in the broth, wine and rosemary. Bring to a simmer for five minutes, uncovered. Add beans and sausage rounds, simmer for 10 minutes until beans are hot. Add salt and pepper.

Serve with rice. Place rice in bottom of bowl and spoon meat and beans over top, and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

January 22, 2008

insulation essentials

Karen finds grace everywhere. Of all the graces in my life, Karen lives by the ethos of experience - try it, push it, live it. She wants to travel everywhere - she wants to try every food - she wants to live every experience she can. She is the most alive of us.

Even her hair is long and wild and crazy. We traveled briefly together in Nepal and the Nepalese loved to touch her hair. They called it happy hair - and that happiness permeates her.

And she finds grace in kitsch - before she went through her paring down phase, she had the coolest collection of snowglobes. She now lives out of town unfortunately - she teaches some unwittingly lucky students at a college up north.

She's donated recipes before to foodnut - her stellar magic nuts which are now a classic in my kitchen - and her less than helpful recipe for homemade cheez whiz that was meant for her recipe cheesy broccoli casserole meant to be eaten with tongue firmly in cheek.

She came into town to help in the cooking marathon to feed my freezer. Here is what she donated to the cause:

"This Mac & Cheese recipe comes from the Best of Bridge books, both "Grand Slam" and "The Best of the Best". Voila...Karenxo"

Gourmet Macaroni & Cheese

2 1/2 cups macaroni (625 ml)
1/4 cup butter (60 ml)
1/4 cup flour (60 ml)
2 cups milk (500 ml)
1 tsp. salt (5 ml)
1 tsp. sugar (5 ml)
1/2 lb. processed cheese, cubed (250 g)
(Velveeta works... yes Nicky there is processed cheese in it... it's good though right?)
2/3 cup sour cream (150 ml)(fat free
is fine)
1 1/3 cups cottage cheese (325 ml)
2 cups grated old cheddar cheese (500 ml)
1 1/2 cups soft breadcrumbs (375 ml)
2 Tbsp. butter (30 ml)

Cook and drain macaroni and place in a 2 1/2 quart (2.5 L) greased casserole. Melt butter over medium heat; stir in flour; mix well. Add milk and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until sauce thickens. Add salt, sugar and cheese. Mix well. Mix sour cream and cottage cheese into sauce. Pour over macaroni. Mix well. Sprinkle cheddar cheese and crumbs over top. Dot with butter and sprinkle with paprika. May be frozen at this point. Bake at 350F (180C) for 45-50 minutes. Serves 6.

January 21, 2008

spanish chicken in my kitchen

There are moments in life that stop you cold - not including January in Canada.
Moments when grace fills your life, and if you're lucky you can feel it.
I'm surrounded by grace - women and men whose spirits anchor me in place - whose support cradles me - whose generosity inspires me.

When Charlie Rose asked Ruth Reichl what elevates a good cook into a great cook - you could sense he was looking for an answer like technique, experience, the love of risk. She said generosity.

And I was thrilled - because that is what cooking is to me - a place to let my heart out and let it nourish others. I felt if we ever met, I'd be understood.

The graces in my life got together and cooked for me a while ago. Five women, one kitchen, five recipes, one freezer.

Nic worked on one counter making her famous mushroom soup. Jain slaved at the stove over shepherd's pie. Karen got to the oven early to bake macaroni and cheese. Carol, being the host, had already made vegetarian chili. And the recipe I'll share today came with Naomi - who has made chicken marbella many times - and a few times for Steve and I.

It is a classic that comes from, once again, the Silver Palate Cookbook - it was in fact the first entree they offered their customers.

When Naomi wrote me the recipe she added, "I just wing-ed it (as it were) because instead of 4 chickens, I used 6 legs-plus-thighs.. Also, I deleted the olives (for the sake of Sir Steve)... And I didn’t puree the garlic, I used one of those hardware-grater thingees..."

It seems a versatile dish - with sweetness and saltiness in balance. It can be an appetizer or main - and while they recommend you serve it at room temperature, there are some climates and times when hot is where it's at. And having just put the plastic over the bedroom window to cut the draft - I know it's January again. We froze the chicken in individual portions (in the freezer, not on the window sill, if you're wondering), thawed it carefully and warmed it in the oven.

For you, with grace - Chicken Marbella, adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup pitted prunes
1⁄2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1⁄2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely puréed
1⁄4 cup dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 chickens (2 1⁄2 pounds each), quartered
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1⁄4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, oregano, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight. (The marinating is essential, don't skimp on the time.)

2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

3. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the brown sugar and pour the white wine around them.

4. Bake, basting frequently with the pan juices, until the thigh pieces yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice when pricked with a fork, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

5. With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices and sprinkle generously with the parsley or cilantro. Pass the remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.

16 pieces, 10 or more portions

Note from Silver Palate: "To serve Chicken Marbella cold, cool to room temperature in the cooking juices before transferring the pieces to a serving platter. If the chicken has been covered and refrigerated, reheat it in the juices, then allow it to come to room temperature before serving. Spoon some of the reserved juice over the chicken."

January 18, 2008

umm, not so much

In this month's Saveur there is a very cool article by Laura Shapiro called "Taste of the Nation" about a fascinating project from the 30s to collect together a massive book of recipes that they wanted to call "America Eats".

It was part of Roosevelt's New Deal program to put writers to work. Unfortunately it was never finished - although some people are working on projects to get it out of the archive dungeon and into the light of day. It sounds amazing and I hope we see more of it.

The disturbing part is that apparently the Roosevelt White House used to hold their dinners and "sometimes sat down to a salad of pineapple 'sticks' rolled in crushed peppermints."


Now the most disturbing word in that sentence?


…Does Ms. Shapiro mean to say they served this more than once? Was it to Stalin? Because peppermint rolled pineapple sticks is for evil doers.

January 17, 2008

techie tea

So I was reading Kate's blog on tea at Accidental Hedonist as I'm wont to do. And one of the comments included this website for Macheads, your very own desktop Tea Timer

And given my ritualistic zen thing about tea - which some might call just tight-assed - when I saw the tea timer download...I just HAD to share...

Go in peace...And put the kettle on.

January 16, 2008

Code Red - food emergency

When the cover came off the plate, I realized it wasn’t there to enhance anticipation. It was to prevent retching.
It’s been a long time since I was forced to eat institutionalized food – so these words came out before I’d picked up my knife and fork:
It’s a slice of Alpo. Warmed up.
Waxed in gravy that had separated in brown globs inside diluted, gelatinous corn starch.
A blob of fake mashed potato.
And four spears of broccoli that seemed offended.
They called it meatloaf.
And I ate it….
Life gets smaller when you’re sick.
Have you noticed that? If you have the flu and you’re curled up in bed in a fetal position, your life shrink wraps around you. The farther away the news, the people, events, the less important. Your obsessions change from say, the currency market in Hong Kong, or women’s rights in Afghanistan, to orange juice.
Not from concentrate.
I noticed that on Saturday. For the second time in my life I had to go to emergency…the first time I was four, enjoying my favourite post-grocery shopping treat of the week: french fries and Coke with my bof. (Okay we didn’t shop for food as much as spin ourselves sick on the railings of the grocery cart corral.) She and I started wrassling and I twisted my arm in the back of the chair, screamed, then whimpered heroically all the way to the hospital – where they made us wait so long, I was fine by the time they x-rayed it. I remember coming home bummed because I was castless. Casts on the arm were cool…they indicated adventure. To a four year old.
This time the emergency room and I got intimate because I developed a fever – and on chemo (I’m 2/3 of the way through) – that’s a no-no. I didn’t want to be a patient. I’ll tolerate outpatient. Not patient. I think it makes me feel too vulnerable. I hate feeling vulnerable. No wait. I hate being out of control – think of the back of the gown alone – it just screams: here is a specimen.
So, chemo attacks any rapidly-dividing cells – unfortunately including my white blood cells which fight infection. They become what Rumsfeld or Cheney would call medical collateral damage. Doing harm to do good.
They had pounded into me that if my temperature hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 F) I wasn’t to call or wait or anything. Just get to ER. So we did. And there I stayed – four days until my immune system showed it could behave itself.
I may have dreaded the idea, but I was grateful to be there.
But what gives hospitals the right to twist that gratitude by admitting you and then serving you Alpo and calling it meatloaf?
Or chicken noodle casserole? Sunday night.
Or pork goulash? Monday night (I ordered the vegetables alone).
All meals whose ingredients have more in common with a lab than the soil.
Food that's beyond life support. That gave up trying. That never had a chance.
We joked about it in our room. There were three of us.
While I was there one of my penmates heard that she had won a bed at the particular palliative care centre she wanted to die in. She almost cried with joy. Life had shrink-wrapped around her tight.
She looked a little older than I. Not much. After two rounds of chemo, she told them to stop. Her skin was just starting to tinge yellow – that stealthy, creeping sign.
She obsessed about the tiniest, molecular-sized things. Her clock was angled incorrectly. She stopped a nurse to have him turn the waste basket the other way. Her bed pads were wrong. The curtain was too far along. Her light had to be on. She didn't read. She didn't have a tv. And she stayed awake all night, like an owl. Waiting.
She had been there since before fall had turned to winter.
Her friends and family visited every day, bringing her what she wanted – a submarine sandwich one night (the night I had the Alpo, which was just unfair) – a cheeseburger and onion rings from their teenaged hangout joint the next night.
I laid there listening from behind the curtain that I shrouded around myself trying not to let in what this third-floor ward meant. Steve and I walked around one morning only to come across a priest, holding his book in front, leaning on the wall, looking at the floor, his sacrament collar dangling, as he waited to deliver last rites. And even over the incredible din of the overwhelmed nurses' station, you could hear the weeping from somewhere. We turned back. Down another hall, another family with young kids gathered around another bed, the husband saying it was going from hour to hour. His wife is, if she still is, 43.
That, my dears, is too close. I like the world of denial much better. We walked over to the cardiology floor…
So, knowing I was escaping to come home, knowing I’d be able to sink and drown the smell of the hospital in a perfumed bath, knowing that I’d feel the weight and security of my down duvet, and knowing that I could make my own dinner with ingredients that were loved and respected, not institutionalized/brutalized and processed into the “shape” of short back ribs, no bones! (yes, my first night there)…I found myself wandering through my cookbook collection and free-floating recipes to find the most fundamental recipe I could offer – that represents love, respect, comfort and life.
Here it is – for you.
My Mum’s Yorkshire Puddings
vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups milk (Mum uses 1 or 2%)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Take a 12- cup muffin tin and pour enough vegetable oil (canola is my Mum's preference) into each cup to coat the bottom (she uses about 1 tsp per)
Put the tin in the oven to heat up.

Meanwhile, whip together the eggs. Then add the flour, salt and milk. Beat until smooth.

Carefully remove the tin from the oven and again, carefully pour the mixture into each cup filling about 1/2 to 2/3 full. If the oil doesn't sizzle, it's not hot enough.

Put them back in the oven for approximately 15-25 minutes. They should puff up and turn a beautiful golden colour.

Remove from oven and put into a serving dish - and take to your table groaning with roast beef and horseradish and vegetables and gravy.

Do what we always did as kids, when you get one or two or three on your plate, pour gravy into the well that formed in the centre. And devour.

If there are any left over, and if you like cold leftovers, these are beautiful with jam the next morning.

Yorkshire puddings - fundamental. From my Mum's big, loving (and non-shrink wrapped) heart to yours.