Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Ghosts, Yours, Mine and Ours

I thought the worst cold I would ever endure was a damp Christmas in a tiny Victorian two up two down, “heated” by a little fireplace with no flue. Then recently I set out on a walk I make several times a week. Unbidden my subconscious said to me, “Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.” 

This sort of thing happens to me all the time, because I was lucky enough to have a poetry loving mother, to which I added a “useless” degree in English. Threads of poetry manifest themselves like wraiths drawn by a situation to which they are sympathetic. They whisper, like a reassuring friend, that I am not alone; the heartbreaking, the funny and the frigid are all shared experiences.

The Cremation of Sam McGee is a masterpiece blending high Boys’ Own ideals “Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code” - I remember my mother pausing to remark that that was very good - and low comedy: “I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked.”

Back to my frosty walk. My wind stung eyes watered and the tears froze to my lashes. I was en route to my first experience of frostbite. Luckily I had the wind at my back on my return trip, so it wasn’t serious. What was serious was the resulting need for carbs. I decided to make my first attempt at potato and cheddar perogies. 

I have loved these Ukrainian dumplings since I was first introduced to them, draped in caramelized onions, my first year at university. They are readily available frozen, but those are what a sun lamp is to Caribbean beach. I studied up by watching this Cook’s Country video.

I knew the filling would be easy, but the embracing dough worried me. It needn’t have.  It is wonderfully stretchy. I followed the recipe to the letter, or so I thought, but I used up my filling, made 28 dumplings and had quite a bit of surplus dough. I let it rest over night in the fridge before making another batch with a fresh round of filling.

They were marvellous. So good, the store bought ones I had in the freezer have been consigned to the bin. Only homemade for me from now on!

If that evening my door you’d opened wide, you’d have seen, I wore a smile you could see a mile and I’d have said, please pass the sour cream. Perogies and poetry, I hope I have persuaded you to indulge in both.

Speaking of ghosts

At the risk of boring you with tales of my mother, she, who had no particular liking for the great outdoors, had an abiding interest in mountain climbing, which I’ve never been able to go and figure. She would have loved Wade Davis’s Into the Silence, If you have read that or share my mother’s fascination with Alpine pursuits,  I think you will enjoy Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. 

Set in 1935, it follows a fictional attempt on the real, Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. It alludes to the Mallory expedition which is the subject of Into the Silence, and makes vivid the physical and psychological strain of these climbs. I can’t help wondering if she took some inspiration from the phenomenon that Shackelton’s men experienced in the Antarctic “of the delusion that there was one more member (of the crew) than could actually be counted.” I only know of this because of the footnotes to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. A poem. Just sayin’. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Choux in the New Year

Writing a blog is like throwing a message in a bottle into the cyber sea. You never know if it will land anywhere and be read. If this has reached you, let me start with season’s greetings and best wishes for 2018 - since once again I am crashing up against the end of the month and that month is December. 

The first time I really noticed pâte à choux was when my father surprisingly made profiteroles. Surprisingly because this was a man who boasted about volunteering to cook on his hunting and fishing trips so he wouldn’t have to do dishes, and bragged about reducing said dishes by heating up things in open cans. 

He died around Christmas time, so I miss him extra at this time of year. I’m surprised to realize how many food related memories I have of him. Taking me to a diner for a fried egg sandwich after a dentist appointment, hot, greasy, wonderful and proof positive my gnashers were in working order. On a frigid evening producing a bag of redskin peanuts from the pocket of his overcoat still warm from the roaster. And lastly, an ambitious dish of partridge with a pear cream sauce. That doesn’t come in cans.

I was lucky to be taken to Cafe Boulud for my birthday by my friend, Naomi, whom I’ve known longer than I knew my father, strange to think. For dessert we shared a Xanadu of profiteroles. We were presented with a shiny dome of chocolate, the waitress then poured warm chocolate over it to reveal three perfect little profiteroles garnished with candied pecans. It was magic and it was delicious.

Over the last year I’ve been building a new life in a new town, while trying to keep the foundation of my previous years. Among the new friends are The Pine-South-Brown Street Irregulars, a group of wise and witty people who meet once each month through the winter for food, wine and conversation, not necessarily in that order or in equal proportion. For my first meeting I made gougère, pâte à choux made savoury with the addition of gruyere cheese. 

This is my tale of choux in three times: shared with my father long lost, my dear enduring friend, and people in my new home. Little puffs of pastry as fragile and transitory as the moments in which they were enjoyed. Psychologically, or if you would rather, spiritually I find myself in a newly discovered country, one without hope. I hear the protests of sun blinded optimists before you even make them. Be quiet and listen. This is a wonderful place, nourished by memories, where I am free to enjoy each moment for itself. I hope you find yourself on these shores one day.

More Oscar, less self-improvement

I can recommend the third instalment of Gyles Brandreth’s mystery series featuring Oscar Wilde, the Dead Man’s Smile. I found it a little slow to start, but ended up delighted as before with the wit, historic and literary allusions, and familiar locations in London and Paris.

Stand Firm, Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Danish academic Svend Brinkmann is a provocative polemic, the funny cousin of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided. In a nutshell it is a light, accessible introduction to the Epicurean strand of Stoicism. That makes it sound highfalutin, but it could be equally well described as an entertaining defence of common sense.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Cooking by the stream of consciousness

As a five-year old I was not known for my discretion. Not as 30-year old either when I come to think of it, but I am working on it. What made me think of that? 

The appearance of Christmas decorations before the Jack O’Lanterns were decently decayed got me remembering my indulgent parents who let me pick a truly awful artificial tree (which I loved) composed entirely of tinsel branches. Which led to the memory of pestering my father to tell me what was in the tiny box he’d bought for my mother.

“No, you’ll tell her.” After much pleading and promising he revealed the secret: telescopic golf clubs. He explained, “You are driving along and you think I’d like to play a game of golf. You stop the car and pull out your telescopic golf clubs, you can play anywhere.” I thought this was fabulous, and was very disappointed when the little box contained a watch. What’s the segue?

I recently made a roast beef dinner which telescoped into multiple meals. I’d made the Brussel sprout recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Feast, which features chestnuts and pancetta. I gently reheated the leftovers and had them on a bed of greens with a citrusy dressing and a few shavings of parmesan. Scrumptious and filling. 

A pound of the left over beef went into an Indonesian style curry with lots of ginger and coconut milk. Delicious, but I went overboard on the quantity of sauce, so I ladled off enough to make matar paneer which was a welcome vegetarian respite. 

With the remaining roast beef I made main dish salads with greens, avocado, cherry tomatoes and a mustard mayo dressing. Didn’t waste a morsel of that beef, much to the dachshund's disappointment. The great thing about cooking by the stream of consciousness is you can never step into the same stream twice. 

Multiple mysteries

By delightful chance the third book in Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde mystery series, The Dead Man’s Smile begins on the cusp of Christmas. I’m only a few chapters in, but it is as intriguing as the first two. I recently finished the second book The Ring of Death, which puts a complex spin on the classic locked room mystery trope. Both books are studded with historic trivia, adding to their fascination for me.

The Vanishing Velázquez by Laura Cumming is a real life mystery: the authenticity and whereabouts of a portrait of the prince who would become Charles I of England by Velázquez. He produced what many think to be the finest painting in the history of European art, Las Meninas. The portrait was purchased at an auction by John Snare, an English printer and stationer in 1845. He spent the rest of his life fighting, and sacrificing virtually all, to prove the painting’s provenance and to retain possession of it. Cumming braids the lives of the painter and the printer into an intriguing narrative. 

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.