Monday, October 30, 2017

The Taste of Failure

have made several photogenic dishes this month. Unfortunately they’ve been unspectacular at best, downright bin-able at worst. It’s discouraging, but not the first time I’ve tasted failure. 

One of my more memorable disasters was a Persian inspired stew served on a bed of kasha. Visions of genies and magic carpets danced in my head. I made it for a team of friends who had graciously given up their weekend to help us build a deck. Mike sampled it and decided that “It tastes like camel dung”. An odd appraisal from a nice boy from Burlington.

I enjoy the challenge of planning meals around ingredients left over from other dishes. What to do with half an eggplant, the last cup of buttermilk, a few tablespoons of mascarpone nearing their best before date? What about a bowl of green tomatoes? Harrowsmith Magazine promised me that they could be turned into a convincing imitation of an apple pie. My then husband reacted as if I was playing Livia to his Augustus. (Rumour has it she fed him plums painted with poison.) I assure you, he is alive and well. Somewhere. . .

Sometimes I go overboard trying to make everything from scratch, which brings us to The Lasagne of Infamy. How I laboured on it. I even made the pasta. I was attempting an authentic Italian meal with a pasta course before the secondo.  I froze it ahead, baked and served it up to my six guests. Of course, I was the last one to sit down. I had a forkful in happy anticipation. Why, I asked, had no one said it was still frozen in the middle? “I thought it was supposed to be frozen.” Years later the lasagne popsicle is still not trending, #CanadiansR2polite.

I’m endeavouring to learn French from Duolingo on my iPad. Every once in a while the little green owl logo pops up to remind me that “You’re learning when you make mistakes.” Bien sur. Thank goodness, with the addition of a little time, failure tastes funny. 

A smorgasbord of essays and a murder

Daphne Merkin’s The Fame Lunches has something for everyone as hinted by the subtitle: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, The Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags. Merkin is admirably honest and has an impressive knowledge of history, literature, pop culture, and herself. Even essays with the most seemingly superficial premise pack a punch.

Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and The Candlelight Murders is the first in a series of six books featuring the real life poet Robert Sherard as Oscar Wilde’s Watson. I made it all the way through Richard Ellmann’s encyclopedic biography of Wilde (he even tells you the price and colour of some drinking glasses Wilde bought for his rooms at Oxford). It is a wonderful piece of scholarship. The Candlelight Murders brings Wilde to life. It’s an utterly convincing portrayal of this maddeningly mercurial man. I will be reading all six.

P.S. A Halloween Bonus

Saturday I stumbled on Michelle Paver's latest book Thin Air - I haven't read it yet, but for Halloween may I recommend to you her wonderfully creepy Dark Matter. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Save Your Fork Bulwer-Lytton

We’re all familiar with the pathetic fallacy, right? It’s a dark and stormy night corresponding to our hero’s despair. Cotton candy clouds cartwheel across the sky as the lovers’ hearts soar and tumble. 

Well then, autumn has begun to tinge the trees red and gold. Squirrels are madly hoarding. And so am I. It comes down to fear of scarcity. What if the snow comes and I’m trapped in my den with nothing to read or no new recipes to try? So, after months of biblio-abstinence I have bought boxes and boxes of books. No lie, 13 in one order of several. (Shout out to my new best friends at Book Outlet.ca.)

Every fall I used to make Rose Levy Bernabaum’s flame tart for someone who isn’t around anymore. Since that loss, I’d see the little Italian prune plums in the market and my eyes would mist over like the faint haze on the fruit, (the pathetic fallacy’s a bitch, man). I’d been starching my upper lip for their reappearance when I read this, in the introduction to my new copy of David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert, “Bake something. You’ll feel better!”

Making good pastry has not come naturally to me. It has taken a lot of patience and practice. I got a very special thrill rolling out the pate sucrée, knowing it was going to work just fine. Then, having baked the shell for a few minutes you gently press the fruit into it in concentric circles, bake, cool and glaze. It looks fab, no? But what does one person do with a tart for six?

I cut it in quarters and walked three of them to new friends and neighbours and thoroughly enjoyed my quarter with dollops of creme fraiche. Healing and pastry, practice and patience. 

Paris in two times

As mentioned, I recently acquired David Lebovtiz’s Ready for Dessert. His chocolate chip cookies are my new favourite. I am a long time fan of Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop. I haven’t cooked anything yet from his My Paris Kitchen, (also in my book hoard), but his text makes Paris present. Mmmmemories of stuffing myself with gratin in a narrow wine bar on the Quai Voltaire and sopping up the creamy sauce with brown bread. I couldn’t eat again for 12 hours.

Not since I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teen has a book frightened me as much as Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. I couldn’t put down her darkly funny Beyond Black. I loved it  so much I gave it to several people who told me they found the darkness so oppressive they couldn’t finish it. Whereas it is her evocation of the mob in revolutionary France that is so powerful I had to pause my reading intermittently for a calming dose of a deluding mystery where justice is done before I could proceed. Mantel’s handling of point of view is nothing short of genius. The sense of time and place are visceral. Looking up from 18th century Paris on the page to see the same mobs in modern dress on the news, well, I wish that were a fallacy.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Batter Up!

In food writing there is a lot of riffing on “you are what you eat”. I remember an article in which the author claimed, tell me what fat you use in your pastry, i.e., butter, lard, and I’ll tell you who you are. I would like to join the chorus with “by their pancake shall you know them”. 

I love pancakes. I love flapjacks, crepes, fritters and griddle cakes. I love tortillas, chapatis, Dutch babies, and moo shu pancakes. The only pancake I’ve ever met that I didn’t like is the Ethiopian injera. This is probably just because I haven’t met the right Ethiopian grandmother yet. My point is, virtually every culture has a flat cake used to transport other goodies from your plate to your face. 

My most recent foray into things flat and fabulous were corn fritters from the July/August issue of Cook’s Illustrated. They intended them as a side, but I turned them into a main dish by broiling some cheddar atop the finished fritters and garnishing with salsa and sour cream. Pantabulous. 

I recently acquired a new bike. This is beautiful countryside and one of my happiest vacations was a cycling trip in Vermont, but I haven’t ridden as much as I intended. Why? Because Reader, I could get lost in a circle. I might, indeed, end up back in Vermont without quite knowing how.

If I did, and I could find it, and it weren't sadly closed, I’d return to The Churchill Inn in Brandon for a plate of their cottage cheese pancakes. These are wonderfully paradoxical pancakes, simultaneously rich and light:

1 cup cottage cheese
4 eggs
1/2 cup flour
3 oz unsalted butter, melted

Whir the cottage cheese, eggs and flour in a blender or food processor. Add the melted butter and blend to combine. Batter should be slightly lumpy. Pre-heat a pan and cook pancakes about 2 minutes each side, using 1/4 of batter per pancake. You’re welcome.

Before There Was World Music

John Szwed’s The Man Who Recorded the World is a biography of Alan Lomax. A man with Dickens’ energy, Darwin’s global and historic vision, and a man you wouldn’t want to date your sister. 

Lomax began collecting songs with his father, John Lomax, a man of comparable protean energy. He became a scientist of song. He wasn’t a color inside the lines kind of guy, particularly the color bar, which academia and the FBI found suspicious. As he evolved an entirely new discipline he worked for social justice, which he believed could be fostered through music. Chaotic in his personal life, in his work he was both Herculean and meticulous. 

He struggled continually for funding, and though you find yourself wishing he could have had more money for research, it is equally frustrating to imagine what he could have done if he’d had access to today’s computing and networking power. This was a man born to mine big data.

Alex Ross is a spiritual heir of Alan Lomax. His The Rest is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century has a corresponding website where you can listen to samples of the music he is writing about. In the Library of Books That Should Have Been, Alan Lomax would have produced a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Music to rock the world. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Canada Days*

The first time I felt old I was 17. I was baby sitting and my charge said he liked Elton John’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. I said I preferred the original Beatles’ version. He said, “the who?”

Of course I said, “not The Who, The Beatles.” 

Now Canada is 150 (Ringo is 77!), and I remember Centennial Year, she said with a creak. We students of Stilecroft Public School got to have a day of lessons in the one room schoolhouse at Black Creek Pioneer Village dressed in “period” costumes. Mine was a white blouse and an old skirt of my mother’s, green and white horizontal stripes with pansies on the white stripes.  It was floor length on me. She also made me a blue satin sash that I wore again when I married for the first time. Something old. The things we remember, eh? . . . Expo, riding the monorail, helping to print our class Centennial booklet on the mimeograph machine that filled the room with a wonderfully weird chemical smell . . . creak, creak, creak.

Fast forward to Canada Day celebrations 1980s-style. The reach of my cooking ambitions often exceeds my grasp, else what’s pizza delivery for, (apologies to Robert Browning). I attempted Cornish hens. The recipe called for them to be deboned, stuffed with rice (some of it wild, tip of the chef’s hat to our home and native land), then sewn back together for ease of eating, and served with a fruited curry sauce. I know, fusion run amok. Problem was I hadn’t allowed enough time for the little birds to defrost. Deboning was nearly impossible and almost ended in frostbite, but I did get them on the table and no one died. In attendance: an Italian, a Welshman, a Kenyan, a Scot and me. In 2017 my guest list doesn’t sound very diverse, but at the time I remember thinking this is what Canada is all about.

Last October I was giving my empty apartment a last look before leaving for a new house in a new town. I was scared. There was a folded square of paper on the floor. I nearly didn’t bother to pick it up. It was a letter dated June 5, 1956 from the CBC offering my father his first job in Canada at $2,584.00 per annum. He was 24 and in a new country. The offer included a pension, health and life insurance. That is also what Canada is all about.

The Staff of Life, the Roar of War

If you have any aspirations to bake your own bread you cannot go wrong with Janice Gill Murray’s The Canadian Book of Bread, which is out of print, but still available on www.abebooks.com. The recipes are easy to follow and truly Canadian in their diversity.

Michael Shara’s The Killer Angels is a fictional exploration of the Battle of Gettysburg as experienced by officers on both sides. It is timely in two respects. The Fathers of Confederation could not ignore the recently concluded American Civil War as they did their work in Charlottetown. It is, in part, why Canadian government has generally favored a federalist model. The Killer Angels is also apropos in our strident times. The book brilliantly illustrates the tragic consequences of assuming we understand a demonized opponent, and not continually examining our own reasoning and objectives for errors and obsolescence.

*The name of the boy in the second row from the top, third from the right is John Macdonald. Pinky swear.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plan M

Some people - who may have been pulling my leg - have told me they miss Read’em & Eats, so I am revivifying my Frankenstein. More correctly my Frankenstein’s monster. See, I’m still a pedant.

I paused the blog because I found myself repeatedly writing about my mother’s decline, amid other personal chaos. In short, I felt that all I was writing about was how to hang on by your fingernails. I grew weary of that and feared you did too, Reader.

Three years later I have a firmer foothold on things. I think.

I scattered my mother’s ashes on the crocus lawn at Golders Green Crematorium. I have no belief in an afterlife, but I do like the gentle symmetry of having taken her home to the London that she loved, to her parents and sister. I don’t believe in “closure”. I do believe in scar tissue. It’s a sign of healing, and it’s tougher than the original. Watching my mother’s grey dust swirl away gave me a bittersweet sense of a task completed as best I could though perhaps to no effect. 

Last October the little dog (best boyfriend EVER) and I moved to Port Hope. This is not what I wanted, worked or hoped for, but that does not not mean it is bad. Politics and life are arts of the possible, or as I repeatedly tell my friends, “it’s all about having a Plan B”.

I’m now on Plan M. I have made it through my first winter, which is when I feared I might die of loneliness. There has been a steady stream of visitors and new friends found. I am unutterably grateful for both.

Now Reader, I know the question you most want answered is, what’s for lunch? Today it is Coronation Chicken Salad, The Hairy Bikers’ Recipe. If I weren’t eating alone I would have it with a rosé. Sunday I’m having some of my new townsfolk for drinks and nibbles. Among the things I will serve is a ricotta, prosciutto, garlic and basil dip that I first made for a long ago boyfriend (two legs, bad).

I hope to resume posting once a month. I’m thinking about things such as how to use up a whole container of buttermilk, my favourite picnics and my very own all Canadian brunch. I welcome suggestions. Now for things to read. . .

A Triumvirate of Titles

When my mum was ill I found it hard to read. I played countless games of solitaire on my iPod. Immediately after the move I found it easier to knit than read (a cardigan, a pullover and and a shawl). Nonetheless I have been reading over the the last three years. These are the three titles that come immediately to mind. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, definitely a desert island book for me - this won lots of awards and was widely reviewed, so I won’t explain further. I gave multiple friends Penelope Lively’s essays on aging Dancing Fish and Ammonites for Christmas a couple of years ago. Iris Origo’s War in Val D’Orcia is a memoir that should be ranked with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Very well, alone.


I just spent a week in Antigua beside a pool set in a garden right out of a Rousseau painting. To me proximity to a pool is a sapphire beyond price. 
My mother didn’t enjoy the water, in contrast to my father who swam like a torpedo, so it is odd that she is the one who taught me to swim. This is how she did it. She stood in the shallow end of our community pool. I stood a few feet away and threw myself at her over and over. She would catch my hands as I floundered. We did this day after day for weeks. (Selfishly I never stopped to consider that this must have been incredibly boring for her.) One day, at last, for a magic moment, between push off, splutter and grasp I floated. I knew what it felt like to be borne up by the water. I knew how to swim.

I remembered that as I crawled forward and backwards in my Antiguan pool. And I remembered her watching me as I swam at a B&B we stayed at on a weekend getaway. I said, “you should come in it’s beautiful”. She said, “when you love someone you get as much pleasure from seeing them enjoy themselves as doing it yourself”.

In her long dying I sometimes tried to rouse her to eat or do her physiotherapy by saying “this isn’t the spirit that built an empire”. I was thinking of a famous cartoon from 1940 that was reproduced in my grade 12 history text book. A British Tommy on a beach head shakes his fist at enemy aircraft and says, “Very well, alone”. She, who had survived being bombed in the Blitz, would roll her ice blue eyes and resume her descent.

When Taylor told me that about a week before she died, she grasped his hand fiercely and told him “I love you, you know,” for a petulant moment I thought, “she hadn’t said that to me in years”.

She’d shown me that she did, over and over. When I was a kid there were lots of romantic slogans, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, “love is wanting for someone else everything you previously desired for yourself”. Both wrong of course. 

Her dying reminded me that love is wanting for someone else everything they desire for themselves, even if it means you must let them go. So, good bye Shirley Violet Glaze, thank you for teaching me to swim. Very well, alone.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Because this is supposed to be about food, here is a recipe I adapted from an old Food & Wine article by Dorie Greenspan and ate with gusto in Antigua.

2 cups chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup couscous
1 carrot finely chopped
1 green pepper diced
1 small zucchini diced
3 green onions chopped fine, including green tops
1 Granny Smith apple cut into a small dice
1/3 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup drained and rinsed chick peas
1/4 cup lemon juice

Poach the chicken breast in the stock into which you have whisked the spices and one tablespoon of the oil, remove the breast and allow to cool. Return the stock to boiling and stir the couscous in a steady stream. Put on a lid and remove from the heat. Whisk together the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Dice the chicken. When the couscous has cooled, fluff with a fork. Mix in the vegetables and meat. Toss with the lemon/olive oil dressing and season with salt and pepper. Serves six to eight.

What I Read
What do you read at the beach? No mystery there, mysteries. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse annoyed a little - the detective, Albert Campion has amnesia so you are lost along with him for the first two thirds. Murder in Grub Street by Bruce Alexander features the real life blind Judge John Fielding (brother of Henry author of Tom Jones) as seen through his “eyes” and protege Jeremy Proctor. A very satisfying read. I ended the week with Josephine Tey’s Singing Sands, her last and wonderful Inspector Grant novel. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What can you do?


In these blurry days between winter and spring it is hard to decide what to cook. In the last four weeks I have made scones imagining cream teas outdoors and huddled over a bowl of mulligatawny for warmth. The latest pie was chicken, olive and preserved lemon, because it struck a balance between the heartiness required by winter and the fresh warmth of Mediterranean flavours. The sun shone, ice melted and I made Marcella Hazan’s minestrina tricolore, a light sort of vichyssoise. The temperature dropped and a pot of bacon and lentil soup with pasta seemed in order.

My mother is in palliative care. Cooking is therapy and perhaps my food choices mirror the oscillations in my mother’s condition. I’m going to go all reckless on you and risk a poetic mash up. For a long time my mother has been more than half in love with easeful death, and longed to go gently into that good night. But that’s not how it works.

Every now and then, less and less frequently, she has a good day. By which I mean she stays awake for almost an hour at a stretch, drinks her juice without prompting and is able to hold the glass herself. Good days are rarely followed by good days, no matter what I do. I know this, but it does not prepare me for the shock of the bad days when she feels awful and is too tired to even talk on the phone to a friend of half a century. In this instance knowledge is not power. In fact, it doesn’t help a bit.

Tomorrow when I leave my mum I will come home to zuppa ci verza alla bergamasca. As I write this I am soaking the chickpeas. I will feel a little better because I made it and the buttermilk bread I will eat with it. It’s something I can do. A little victory, but aren’t they all? I intend to accumulate as many as I can, one spoonful at a time. They are a celebration of the good days and a salve against the bad.

Earthy pleasures
Clare Leighton is famous for her woodcuts, which have a muscular vitality. Her two best known books are The Farmer’s Year and Four Hedges which are both structured around the annual cycle of sowing, growth, harvest, rest and renewal. Reading Four Hedges makes you feel that you are following a friend around her garden. She doesn’t bother with lengthy introductions to herself or any of the other characters, because we’ve all known each other forever. She works with such enthusiasm, you long to be invited to help.

If you are a gardener, you will feel an even closer kinship with her when she talks about the tenderness she feels towards plants she has nurtured over many seasons, and the brave hope that planting bulbs represents. I often think of my last, lost garden and wonder if the new owners are taking proper care of my rhodies and if the crocus and trilliums have naturalized. One last poetical paraphrase: one could do worse than be a sower of scilla.