Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Strata Various - Best in Brunch

I once joked with another holiday season baby that we should write a book called “The Yule Tide Birthday – Buy This Book AND SOMETHING ELSE”. As a kid, I hated the dual occasion present. Now I’m much more mature. (I’ll wait ‘til you finish coughing.)

When my friend Don seemed particularly bummed out at our mutual birthday season, I suggested I host him a brunch with guests and menu of his choosing. Now I’m the daughter of a woman who maintains that chocolate is a vegetable (and that she needs her five a day), but even I thought French toast followed by chocolate cake might be edging into too sweet. Plus, I worried about getting everyone served promptly . . . the answer came to me in layers.

Stratas were an ideal solution because they could be made the day before and meant we’d all eat at the same time. Stratas are a variation on a quiche and bread pudding. I used my own pain de mie (see Square Loaf in a Round Hole, April 12, 2010), because I’d found it was ideal for French toast in individual servings. The bread is toasted dry in a low oven for about half an hour, then soaked overnight in a mixture of egg-milk or cream-seasonings and possibly cheese. I did two, the French toast strata was topped with brown sugar, cinnamon and pecans; and, just in case not everyone felt up to unremitting sweet, I made an egg, sausage and cheese strata. These were accompanied by a fruit salad and a green salad. The cake, which I have now made for Marion, Naomi and Don’s birthday is a chocolate pound cake layered with a milk chocolate ganache with a hint of cinnamon, covered in a dark chocolate-espresso glaze. No complaints to date.

Wrong, wrong, wrong and reading in 2011
A recent Skeptics in the Pub podcast featured an interview with Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error. I asked for it for Christmas, because never having been wrong . . . ararararar . . . it is a fascinating study of our attitudes to being wrong, and perhaps most interestingly why we cling to ideas and beliefs when we know them absolutely to be wrong.

In 2011 I look forward to reading the rest of the Inspector Montalbano series, The Return of History by Robert Kagan, Simon Gray’s The Last Cigarette, his final book in the Smoking Diaries, and many more of the many books that line my bedroom. They provide R value only in the sense they insulate me from life’s chaos.

In 2011 may you read many wonderful things, eat many wonderful things, may you recognize your wrongs, forgive and be forgiven.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Raising Pie

I walk into a cooking store in New York, a big one. I won’t tell you the name. Can’t blow my contact’s cover, we’ll call it Wm S. I casually walk over to a woman working in the baking section. I’ll call her Cupcake – what? It’s better than Muffin Top. “Do you know what I mean by a raised pie?” I ask her.

She eyes me carefully before answering. Maybe it’s the flour under my fingernails, but she decides to trust me. “Yes, yes I do.”

I try to restrain my excitement. “Do you have a raised pie mould?” I ask her in low tones.

She glares at me, indicating with her eyebrows, that I must wait for her supervisor to pass before she answers. “No, I don’t have one.” I’m crushed. If I can’t get one in New York . . . Cupcake draws me into a corner stacked with grape peelers and contact lens for potatoes. “You’re going to have to go to a real cooking store.”  Silence, Cupcake is hard nut to crack.

I won’t beg, but I might whine. “Do you know of such a store?” She just got the name out when there was a terrible bang. Someone had dropped a $500 digital mango sexer. All hell broke loose. I made my escape.

As I paid for my raised pie mould, I said to the cashier, “I knew if I couldn’t get this in New York, I couldn’t get it.” She smiled and said “If you can’t get it at ---- you can’t get it.”

The raised pie is perfect picnic food, a great way to repackage left over meat, and only moderately dangerous to prepare despite the story above. It requires hot water pastry, which needs to be worked quickly. Line your mould with pastry and fill it with your mixture of meat cut in small pieces, breadcrumbs, and seasonings; depending on the meat involved sometimes nuts are added, such as pistachio and in a traditional game pie you often see a hard boiled egg placed at the centre.

On goes the top, make a small hole and glaze it with an egg beaten with cream. Bake for 90 minutes at 350. Tent the top with foil if it is browning too much. After 90 minutes, remove the sides of the pie mould, apply the glaze to the sides and bake for another 30 minutes. Allow the pie to cool for about 3 hours. Put the sides of the mould back on. Take a cup of stock appropriate to your meat and two teaspoons of gelatin, soften the gelatin in a few tablespoons of stock in a saucepan, then add the rest of the stock and cook over a low heat until it is syrupy. Put a funnel in the hole in the top of the pie and slowly add the gelatin stock mixture. Chill the pie over night. Cut in slices and serve with chutney, pickles and a salad.

The pie in the header picture is the remainder of a ham the size of a Volkswagen. It’s my best after multiple tries. I am Madam Mowbray and this is my story.

Haunting Times
One of the first books I remember reading was a collection called Tales to Tremble By. It included Ambrose Bierce’s Middle Toe of the Right Foot, which I still recall vividly. Later on I trembled to Sardonicus by Ray Russell, W.W. Jacob’s the Monkey’s Paw, Bram Stoker’s Dracula of course, and the master M.R. James. Fear is fun when you are young.

That was then. Now I am bored by the eerie face at the window. The monster under the bed is made of dust and the horrible thing in the closet is a dress I’m too old for now. I just finished Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a genuinely spooky tale. I ask myself, why does it work? I think it’s because, even though it is set in the early part of the last century, it puts its narrator in a very contemporary state: surrounded by people who mean him no harm, but who leave him to face the central menace alone.

We live in an era of hyper communication, but when I sit on the streetcar listening to people on their cell phones naming the stops we’ve just passed, I can't help feeling a lot of it is the contemporary equivalent of whistling past the graveyard. In 2010 the horror is in the loneliness.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Known To Be Useful

I recently came upon plastic tongs for $9.99. The packaging explained they were a tea bag squeezer. Really? $9.99? Kitchen gadgets that claim to work wonders when all they are is a superfluous substitute for a knife, or, as in this case a teaspoon pressed against the side of the pot, well they make me think of William Morris.

He said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Good sharp knives are a given. Here are five other kitchen essentials in no particular order:

• Two sets of measures – one for wet ingredients, one for dry, saves time.

• Peeler – Bonnie Stern says when you find a peeler you like, buy three because you’ll never find them again. (This is true of so many things.) My friend Naomi gave me a ceramic blade peeler years ago. I’ve gone through two more since and have another on standby.

• Wand blender, such as the Braun Multi-Quick. If you are pressed for kitchen space, this is the multi-purpose appliance to have.

• Melon baller, not just for melons anymore, nudge, nudge, wink, wink; it's useful for butter servings, when making pastry, serving ice cream, and I hate to think what else.

• Flat whisk for blending without incorporating a lot of air.

I Surrender
I’ll bet we all have books on our shelves that we know we’ll never read, but think we should own in the event that fish really is brain food or we ingest enough anti-oxidants to allow us to happily consume St. Augustine’s Confessions or NAME YOUR POISON. I have no quarrel with these books. They speak to our better aspirations even if we prefer to listen to a murder mystery.

The books I have decided to break up with are those that 1) annoy me, and 2) are too clever for me. They sit around the house with their bookmarks hanging out 30, 40, sometimes even 100 plus pages in. It’s the bibliographic equivalent of sticking out a tongue.

Of course I feel guilty. Do I in fact deserve these wagging extremities for not following them through to the final page? Doris Lessing said in her preface to my copy of The Golden Notebook that you shouldn’t force yourself to finish a book that doesn’t engage you, but you should return to it later. I have followed this advice. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was unreadable. Unreadable on the subway and (stop the insanity) on a stationary bike, but in the silence of a cottage without television or phone it was un-put-down-able.

With Udolpho the problem was environmental. The reason I will never come to the end of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To The End is I never came to care about his horrifically self-centred characters. They put the “so what” in solipsistic. Out you go and give me back my Tunbridge Wells bookmark. Incidentally Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections left me, unfinished, feeling the same way.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made several Best Books of the Decade lists I give up with regret at page 414. I am not smart enough to make the connections between the nine stories that make up this tour de force and I confess I skipped the two science fiction bits.

So what am I reading? An atrocious historical novel (for the clothes), a Venetian mystery (for the food), and I’m making my third attempt at Middlemarch in the hopes that George will dance with me this time. I recently heard an interview with Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, etc. ) in which she explained how different she found it now from when she first read it at 17. I had the same experience with The Great Gatsby. (Can you see Doris nodding?) Eleanor Wachtel responded with a quote from Middlemarch that turned out to be the epigram in the next book I read, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, hard to ignore the Gods of Literature when they manifest themselves so spookily, no?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Life and Pie

It occurs to me that we aspire to mountain tops but when we attain them—if we attain them at all, we only get to stay a short while. Life is lived in the valleys. One of the reasons I take care with food is that, while I rarely reach a summit, I can have good meals daily, which brings me to pie.

Any time is a good time for pie, but especially fall. Ode poor Keats! Victim of every writer’s dream: to write something that becomes so widely familiar it’s a cliché: thanks to him autumn is notoriously a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. We don’t get much mist in autumn in southern Ontario, except the lovely grey bloom on plums. You get plums as early as June, but my favourite are the little Italian plums that arrive about now. Every fall, usually more than once, I make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s flame tart, (see the smaller illustration).

This year I have also made plum pear jam and was so surprised and pleased with combination, I decided to try it as a pie filling. I pitted and chopped about four cups of plums, and peeled, cored and chopped three or four pears. I tossed them in a colander with a bit more than half a cup of sugar, some cinnamon and nutmeg. I left the colander over a bowl and tossed the fruit occasionally over about two hours. I transferred the juices from the fruit to a small saucepan and reduced them by half, then blended in a couple teaspoons of cornstarch. The fruit went into a nine inch pie pan lined with pastry and the reduced juice over that, put the top on and bake for 45 minutes at 350. I haven’t got a name for it yet, Plear Pie?

Summits and valleys . . .There’s a line in the Dire Straits song On Every Street that always makes me smile, “Every victory has a taste that’s bittersweet.” Happily this is not the case with Plear Pie.

Great Gossip
I have mentioned Diana Athill here before. She is someone who impresses with her fairness, candour, and humanity. The first half of her memoir Stet, an editor’s life gives an insider’s perspective on the gamble that is publishing. The second half is a collection of portraits of the some of the writers who became her friend including V.S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore.

I confess it is the second half that beguiled me. Who could fail to be charmed by this description of Brian Moore and his first wife, Jackie, “They were both great gossips—and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour.”

Isn’t that where most great books begin?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Post from England

I came to England a lot as a child; and I have fled to England as temporary refuge as an adult. The England I visit is not the England of the film This is England or Coronation Street. The England I visit is of my past and my imagination - what would it be like to grow up with family close by? to travel roads that are tunnels of green daily, to have milk delivered in bottles, to make jam from fruit gathered from hedgerows and never be far from a castle? I have an unearned nostalgia for these things.

On my most recent visit my niece-lets (cousins once removed takes too long both to write and to say) and I went for a four mile ride. More accurately, I walked along side trying to look like a responsible adult should such a creature be required. The horse clearly thought not.

We walked up lanes shouldered by hedges jewelled with blackberries (fruit not PDA’s I hasten to add in advance of wiseacres). We climbed a hill past an abandoned orchard to views of the North and South Downs and quilts of fields of varied green. We passed a cottage where a brown lab sprang as if by magic from a large dog flap, ran to his gate tail wagging furiously but didn’t bark. We scared up a brace or two of pheasant as we passed through a quiet farm.

There are two pheasants to a brace, one male, one female, if anyone cares. Thomas Hardy has a poem, Afterwards in which he wonders if he'll be remembered as a "man who used to notice such things". I like to be a woman learns such things.The Paston Letters are a medieval collection valued by scholars for their insights into family life and manor management of the period. This trip I learned that just above a horse’s hoof is the paston joint. I have also learned how to prune roses, how to roll pastry properly and discovered slipcote, a mild sheep’s milk cheese.

I first had it in a quiche at Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville-West’s famous garden, and then bought some at a farmers’ market. I used it in a salad of rocket (aka arugula), cress and lettuce which I dressed with vinaigrette and topped with the cheese, sliced beets and walnuts, and served with thinly cut slices of my aunt’s homemade bread buttered. Madam, lunch is served. Thank you, Jeeves.

I have been to a pub where they offer a platter of three different kinds of chips (French fries) as an appetizer. I have also been to a pub, The Red Lion in Horsted Keynes where I had roasted pork belly with a cider sauce, served with a salty wafer of crackling, gently wilted spinach and a timbale of potatoes. Pudding (dessert) was a champagne jelly encasing summer berries.

The first day of my trip we had lunch in the garden to the sound of sheep bleating in the next field. My last day came quickly. Hope is an act of imagination, someone, a poet or philosopher once said. I hope to have more weeks of summer in England.

Five for the Road

The best argument I have heard for the Kindle, Kobo or any other electronic reader is that it means you can take more books with you on a trip than you would normally carry. I am more afraid of finding myself without engaging reading material than being without suitable clothing, as proven by this trip, when in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, I packed almost nothing warm. But I had five books on board and another three waiting for me (free shipping within the UK? Why not?).

This trip I read three novels set in my other favourite country to visit, Italy. Inspector Montalbano frequently breaks the rules in pursuing the truth of his cases, but wait, this is Sicily and there are no rules, except perhaps that of the nobleman in di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, who insisted everything must change in order to remain the same. Montalbano knows he wins battles, but never the war and consoles himself with wonderful meals, especially local seafood.

Italophile mystery lovers will probably already know Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series set in Venice and Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, but perhaps you haven’t read Peter Elbing’s The Food Taster. Starving to death in the late medieval countryside, Ugo is a widowed peasant with a lovely daughter when he lands a new job. Tasting the delicacies prepared for his local lord is part dream come true, part potentially a fatal nightmare.

There are several givens in the mystery genre. We are often served red herrings for instance. In the mystery set in Italy, we are also served superb food.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Empress of Ice Cream

Things lodge in your brain but aren’t understood for years. Years ago, in the throes of an excruciating break up this returned to me: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life.” I don’t have a lot in common with Tennyson’s Ulysses, but suddenly I understood that, along the pulses as Keats would have it.

More recently I hosted one of my Wonderful Wild Women parties. To these I invite the many WWW that I know, but who perhaps don’t know each other. In honor of summer it was an ice cream and cake party. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. It’s taken me decades to get that.

I have a theory that everyone has a defining paradox. I don’t know what mine is and it would be impertinent of me to say what yours is. So here’s an example, from someone I don’t know and can’t offend: Ben Franklin said something to the effect that you should live as if each day were your last and as if you were going to live forever.

Prayer flags, ice cream and relationships have a lot in common. Prayer flags fulfill their function, in fact become prayerful flags by unraveling. Ice cream can only be enjoyed in circumstances fatal to its iciness. Relationships, well perhaps you see where I’m going.

But you want to know about the ice cream. I made five flavors: cream cheese (yes, sounds weird), cherry with fruit fresh from the Niagara peninsula, malteser with wholesome chunks of organic maltesers, peanut butter and chocolate (if peanut butter and chocolate were people they’d be blissfully con-joined twins), and coffee. I’ve never had a store bought ice cream that did justice to coffee. Homemade ice cream isn’t difficult, as with bread, it is more a question of time than skill, and the results are infinitely better than store bought. I made three cakes: a lemon poppy seed pound cake, a buttermilk cake, both from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, and a dense chocolate fudge cake.

I had hoped to make my party in the garden, but the weather thought otherwise and sent a monsoon. So we crowded into the living room. Conversation flowed, cake was had an eaten too, ice cream fulfilled its destiny and I felt truly joyous. So rarely and so lucky am I to be surrounded by so many caring, smart and kind women. When I first read the Wallace Stevens poem I remember tasking myself with remembering what concupiscent meant (lustful). Now I get the rest of it. It is a happy thing, if only to be had once a summer, to be an Empress of Ice Cream.

Overlooked (?) gems
When I find a writer I enjoy I make my way through their whole oeuvre. This can lead to disappointment – though it’s nice to know even great writers have some training wheels books. Sometimes a la Grey’s Elegy you discover that flower born to blush unseen.

Julian Barnes is most famous for Flaubert’s Parrot, but my favorite of his is England, England, a hilarious send up of the museum-ification of his home and native land. I would also recommend a slim volume, The Pedant in the Kitchen, about his adventures as a home chef.

Hilary Mantel is still topping the charts with her Booker winning Wolf Hall, but the book of hers that I would pack if exiled to a desert island is Beyond Black. Anyone can do tragedy. A lot of people can do comedy. A really skilful writer takes the reader the full 360 of experience. Hilary Mantel is a supremely skilled writer.

Anthony Burgess wrote many booky wooks, some would say too many, the most celebrated being Clockwork Orange. I spent two weeks at a northern Ontario fishing camp oblivious to black flies and impervious to boredom thanks to his Earthly Powers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kitchen Devils

Ann Hodgman wrote a cookbook called Beat This! The premise of which is that she has perfected the chocolate chip cookie, devilled eggs, meat loaf and so on. She invites her readers to ‘beat this’ that is to say send her an even better version. She can make anything better she says; she’d just add bacon and chocolate. (Weirdly I was recently presented with a tiny bar of chocolate and bacon, which disproved Ms Hodgman’s theory.) But the reason I started this meander is, like all cooks, I am looking for the Platonic Ideal of my favourite dishes.

I’ve found some. I will look no further for my ideal cheesecake. My niece Mei Anne will tell you that my macaroni and cheese bows only to the serving spoon. I have recounted here the path to the perfect pain de mie . . . However, I remember my dad saying he could never be a stamp collector because you could never have ALL the stamps. You can never have ALL the recipes but you can have an awful lot of them and worse luck, however careful (read anal) you may be, some will go astray. If there are kitchen gods, then I think there must also be kitchen devils.

Case in point, I found my perfect pasta puttanesca in an olive oil ad in Food & Wine magazine. Strange admission time: for years I have been cataloguing my cookbooks and magazines, i.e., the recipes I want to try and when this is done rating them, making notes about ingredient substitutions, etc. Imagine my frustration when I discovered that despite having years of back issues, in order, the one I want, October 1994 is missing.

When I began my catalogue of recipes I thought that I would eventually try them all. Instead, the culinary universe is expanding and the Kitchen Devil is abroad in the land. He let that magazine slip away with the recycling. The rice salad recipes my friend Lynda wanted? He has tucked them in the back of a cookbook containing something else I was cooking at the same time.

Perfection is the enemy of good. You hear that a lot lately. At the risk of sounding flippant, everyone’s got enemies. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” You hear that a lot too. What most people don’t realize is that the “speaker,” Browning’s Andrea del Sarto knows himself to be a failure, a cuckold and a cheat. Now I don’t think there is any shame in being a cuckold, but my point is I retain the vestiges of my girlish figure because I will only eat perfect cheesecake.

I will drive myself and anyone within 100 yards of me crazy, because I can’t find the rice salad recipes, not even on epicurious. I will mismanage my own system and discover that I’ve just made eight servings of a recipe I’d already tried and found wanting. The devil isn’t just in the details. He’s in us.

Beryl Wrote Gems
Beryl Bainbridge died July 2. The BBC interviewed someone, I think Kate Moss (the novelist, not the model – super models don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 and not at all for departed novelists, methinks). The BBC reporter asked her why she thought Bainbridge had never won the Booker, though she was short listed five times. Before Kate could respond I told my iPod the answer: her books were too short.

Short like diamonds are small, like a little semtex packs a big bang. Short like a well timed glance can cause gales of laughter and silent tears can reflect a howling grief. No doubt about it, Beryl’s humour is delivered on a sharp blade. Her characters aren’t often likeable, but they are human. And she conveyed it all in so few brush strokes.

My friend Carolyn introduced me to Beryl. She gave me The Birthday Boys, about the doomed Scott expedition, and Every Man for Himself about the Titanic for a house warming gift (a bit ominous, now that I think about it, but never mind, I loved them.) I was off. Off like a pig after truffles. Off like a Sandra after chocolate. Not pretty, but very satisfying.

Kate Moss said she thinks that in years to come According to Queeney, my favourite, Bainbridge’s account of Samuel Johnson’s last days and his patron Mrs. Thrale and her daughter, Master Georgie, which deals in part with the Crimean War, and The Birthday Boys will be recognized as works of genius. I agree. Perhaps as we survey the consequences of excess, politically, environmentally, and fiscally, the zeitgeist will make more room for small treasures.

Friday, June 25, 2010

In Full Flour

To make pizza at home requires some equipment that you won’t otherwise have much call for. (Not that I have much call for madeleines and I’ve got a pan for those, and a cast iron one that makes little corn breads in little corn cob shapes; it weighs a ton as one of my less fortunate toes can attest – but I wouldn’t be without either of them.) So if you are thinking about making pizza think about getting a peel and a baking stone.

Then there is the question of heat. The classic wood fired pizza oven reaches temperatures the domestic oven only dreams of in a rage. I read recently that some people use the self-cleaning setting to bake pizzas at home. The whole idea of “self-cleaning” is as ludicrous to me as scrubbing bubbles and age defying creams, I mean, don’t you just wish inanimate objects had such good intentions? Yes, I mean you, roll of tape with no apparent beginning. Anyway, I say 550◦ is plenty hot.

Great pizza starts from the bottom up and the night before (true of so many things, no?) though I began the pizza pictured here at 7:30 in the a.m. I am told that really good pizza dough rests over night in the fridge. This was pretty darn good, which I attribute to the flour, Antimo Caputo tipo 00. My friend Elizabeth says it is available in Little Italy, but I ordered it from Forno Bravo.

My previous attempts at pizza have been stymied by the dough’s elasticity. I’d shape it, turn my back to gather my toppings and discover my circle of dough had gathered itself back into ball with a yeasty harrumph.

I let this dough rise in the fridge about nine hours, then divided it and let it come to room temperature for about an hour and a half before shaping it. Here’s where I need to improve my technique. My pizzas were thin in the middle almost to the point of tearing, but still too thick at the edges. I’ve since watched a couple of You Tube videos and will take up the dough again shortly. As soon as those bubbles have tidied up the kitchen . . .

Me, Impressed
Last October I had a delightfully spooky experience. I got to swim lengths in Johnny Weismuller’s favourite pool in his hometown, Chicago. The present day Intercontinental Hotel embraces an earlier hotel built in 1929 which included the pool at the then dazzling elevation of 13 storeys. Salad or fries? How many times have you watched someone virtuously choose salad and then not eat it? Hotel pools are like that. That’s why I love them.

Entering this Art Deco playground is like walking into an amphitheatre made of Spanish tiles instead of marble. At one side of the pool is a ceramic fountain filled with ferns. The other side is raked and fitted with tables and chairs so the audience can watch swimmers while getting watered. Except no one is there. Send in the Sandra.

I kept thinking of that setting as I made my way through Me, Cheeta the autobiography of Tarzan’s best friend. Yes, I said autobiography. The story is told by the chimp to complex effect. Scientists tell us that the act of observation influences the outcome of experiments, but this Hollywood insider has the animal advantage of in no way inhibiting the behaviour of those he observes. His misunderstandings of human motivation are funny and poignant by turns. Or does he misunderstand?

Cheeta sees human hierarchies as paralleling that of the chimp pack, hard to argue with; and always refers to Jane Goodall as attractive. Cheeta dislikes Chaplin, Rex Harrison, and Maureen O’Sullivan. He views himself as ground breaking comic actor, deserving of the Academy’s first Oscar for Best Animal in a Comic Role – one of the most powerful parts of the book is his imagined acceptance speech. The heartbeat of the book is Cheeta’s love for Tarzan/Weismuller. That you believe in with aching certainty.

I wish I had time to read this book again and eventually I will in the vain hope of puzzling out just how he did it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Queen of the Carbs Meets Quinoa

Starch. When most people are planning a meal, they plan it around the protein. Me, I plan it around the starch. Crown me the Queen of Carbs, without them I simply don’t feel full. Where I would be wary of sampling an exotic fish (I’m squeamish about the bones), or cautious when considering an unfamiliar fruit, tell me about a noodle or grain I haven’t tried and I’m there, fork at the ready.

This isn’t to say I’ve never met a carb I didn’t like. I’ve never cottoned on to kasha. I will never forget the hiking trip in the Outer Hebrides where my companion would put a quantity of bulgur in a margarine container with some water before we set out. By lunch time it was sufficiently softened for her to eat. She also ate apple cores. Enough said. Happily the bulgur ran out and we fortified ourselves from little brown paper bags filled with shortbreads and oatcakes purchased at the various villages we passed through. Happy days. Farro is a high protein grain that sustained the Roman legions and is still popular in Italy, but not with me. So too soba noodles.

Pasta, potatoes and pancakes, they are all great things to build meals around, but even I can tire of these three princes, particularly now that the weather is turning warmer. Last year I made several nice rice salads: one with chicken and a lemon dressing garnished with pistachios, another with proscuitto and asparagus, but quinoa is my new favorite starch for summer.

This tiny grain looks rather like couscous, but takes considerably longer to cook. Every recipe I have tried requires you to boil it then steam it. It’s easy and worth it. If you don’t already have a fine meshed strainer that fits over a pot, this is a good reason to get one.

Like all good starches, quinoa is happy to be a vector for a variety of flavors. My most successful experiments have included dressings of melted butter and a citrus juice, combine with this with cooked corn, chopped scallions and mint and you have an ideal summer side dish that will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days. The dish in the banner picture uses lime juice, black beans, scallions, tomatoes and coriander. Bonus, quinoa is suitable for people who are gluten intolerant.

Library of the mind
I heard an interview recently with Apichatipong Weerasethakul winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. To paraphrase, he said memory is fragmentary.

This struck me forcefully because with Father’s Day approaching, I have been trying to recall my dad. I was going to make this post about food we’d shared. He’s the man, after all, who taught me how to fry an egg. I remember him coming home from work on a cold night with redskin peanuts in a bag in his overcoat pocket still hot from the roaster. I remember a meal in Boston, my first time having lobster bisque, and the gist of what we talked about, and a dream that didn’t come true. I remember a richly sauced dish he made of partridges with pears and picking out the buckshot—fragments, literally and metaphorically.

More fragments: the smell of pipe smoke on wool, a grey cardigan I never remember him not having. He spoke Trevor, a basso profundo grumble that I had to translate for my friends. He laughed reluctantly, volcanically.

He gave me books. I remember one book of limericks that I’m sure he thought had been inspired by Edward Lear, but to his horror hailed from somewhere near Nantucket. The book I think of when I think of my dad is R. M. Ballanytne’s Martin Rattler.

Born in Edinburgh in 1825, Ballantyne is the granddaddy of dangerous books for boys (and the daughters of enlightened fathers). He lived a Boys’ Own Life. His father went bankrupt and died. At 16 he signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in order to support his mother and sisters and sailed for what became Canada. He spent most of his seven years here in cargo canoes, collecting furs from outposts.

Based on those experiences he wrote a series, The Young Fur Traders and Ungava. His most famous work Coral Island appeared in 1857, Martin Rattler the following year and believe it or not, is still in print. These are books about plucky youngsters in sticky situations and threatening environments.

In the Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales, at least traditional ones, is to warn children that there are dangers in the world, but at the same to instill in them the belief that if they are sufficiently clever, calm, patient, hard working – you pick the adjective, they can overcome, perhaps even triumph. Isn’t that a parent’s job too?

My dad enchanted me with Kipling’s Just So Stories and Treasure Island. My dad taught me that in an emergency you can use a Brazil nut for a candle. I have long awaited a suitable opportunity. This bit of survival lore probably came from Martin Rattler, along with my fear of anacondas. Catastrophes have out numbered triumphs, but better to light a Brazil nut than curse the darkness. My dad, I miss him.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

When Your Road Doesn’t Lead to Rome

This is about love. This is an admission of failure. I love, I mean really, really love spaghetti carbonara. I have tried many, many recipes, including Marcella Hazan’s. The results have ranged from reasonable to greasy pasta with scrambled eggs.

I have ordered spaghetti carbonara in many restaurants, sometimes with disturbing results. The strangest (to me) in Aigues-Mortes where it was served with a raw egg yolk on the half shell nestled in the middle, as if it were pasta tartar.

The Platonic ideal of this dish is available to everyone, well everyone in Rome anyway, at the Grotte Del Teatro Di Pompeo. This is reputedly the site of Mark Anthony’s oration over the aerated body of Julius Caesar. The restaurant has been there since Pompey’s Theatre, on the ruins of which it is built, closed – so don’t worry, it will still be there when you go, but what to do about the carbonara in the meantime?

Here is what I do. This is not spaghetti carbonara, but it is a satisfying approximation. I read this recipe in an article about what chefs make for themselves after a long night in the kitchen. I have made it with Philadelphia cream cheese when I couldn’t get mascarpone. It works in a pinch.

Set a pot of salted water to boil for your pasta. In a heat tolerant bowl whisk an egg together with about three tablespoons of mascarpone, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. While your pasta cooks hold the bowl just in or above the boiling water and continue to whisk. You want the cheese to melt and the egg to thicken, but not scramble. As the sauce cooks throw in some grated parmesan. When the pasta is cooked reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water and add it to the sauce. Toss the pasta in the bowl with egg and cheese mixture. Garnish with more parmesan and, for “true faux” carbonara, some bits of crispy bacon or pancetta. Alternatively, it would be nice with half a cup of cooked and drained peas.

Friends, would-be Romans, it isn’t spaghetti carbonara, but to mix up my Shakespeare, ‘tis enough, t’will serve – as many as you like, just use an egg per person and scale the pasta and cheese accordingly.

Hardy’s luck
Dickens is often faulted for his reliance on coincidence. And I must say my life’s been short on serendipitous encounters with benefactors, but I have experienced at least one distinctly Dickensian coincidence. A few years ago I was telling Naomi I had stumbled on a book that I was really enjoying. “It’s just like Dickens,” I told her. She said she was reading something she just hated because, “It’s just like Dickens.” We were both reading Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

Now that I’ve told you that story, I’m reminded of the incident in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where two drunken friends share a hotel room. In the dark they climb into the same bed. Each man thinks he is in his own bed with a stranger. “There’s a man in my bed.” “There’s a man in my bed too.” A fight ensues. They both end up on the floor. “My man chucked me out.” “So did mine.” It’s not a very good hotel they conclude.

That sort of thing happens a lot. The other day at the gym I was trying to divert Steve from our next set of torture. I said I loved Thomas Hardy. Steve made a face. I feared pinky-only dead lifts would follow. He’d been made to read Tess in high school and hated it. What a shame! The place to start with Hardy is Under the Greenwood and Far from the Madding Crowd. Then, I know you won’t, but honestly, he’s a tremendous poet.

Hardy wrote cinematically before there were cinemas. I am thinking of the scene in Madding Crowd when Bathsheba and Gabriel struggle to save Boldwood’s hayricks from the rain and can only see each other by flashes of lightning. I am thinking of young Jude considering life, flat on his back in a field on a hot day looking through the interstices of his straw hat.

I know what you are thinking. It’s warm kidney salad all over again. And it’s a fair cop. Still, I hope you will take a wander through Wessex, in Hardy's early summer it is particularily fine.

P.S. We are all full of contradictions and to prove my own case, having said I don't make cakes that require icing, I made the cake pictured in the banner for Naomi's birthday. (She asked for 'elaborate' and it was more photogenic than spaghetti.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Prufrock with a Cherry on Top

My friend Naomi and I once went to a resort in the Haliburton Highlands for the weekend. We were the only guests, strange at the best of times, ominous if you have seen The Shining. The chef was delighted to see us. So delighted he asked us if there was anything we didn’t like. I told him the one thing I did not like, from its texture to its taste, was kidneys. “Ah!” he said, “but you’ve never had my warm kidney salad,” his eyes, well, shining.

Note well: never tell someone who likes to cook that you don’t like THING YOU HATE GOES HERE, because they will say, “You should try HATED THING GOES HERE PREPARED IN QUESTIONABLE WAYS.”

I visited my friend Leah recently. We stood on her tranquil west facing balcony discussing what she wanted to plant there. She mentioned tomatoes. I suggested cherry tomatoes. Gentle Reader, you can be in no doubt as to her response. Yes, she does not like cherry tomatoes. My rose bud lips were forming the words “but you’ve never had my—” when thankfully the buzzer rang heralding other guests and I was saved from myself.

But you, Gentle Reader, are not.

This adaptation of a Lidia Bastianich recipe is fast, easy and it sings of spring (to me at least). Halve three cups of cherry tomatoes. Toss them in a large serving bowl with some olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and salt. Let them marinate for about 20 minutes. Cook a pound of fusilli or rotini, reserving half a cup of the cooking water. Stir the pasta water into the marinated tomatoes along with some shredded fresh basil. Add the pasta and toss with the grated cheese of your choice, parmesan, asiago, pecorino or even chevre. This IS good.

Warm kidney salad, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired: something without kidneys.

Wither Jerusalem?
My parents immigrated to Canada in the late 50s leaving behind an England that my father felt closed its doors on him even before he knocked. Why? He didn’t go to the right school, he didn’t have a posh accent, in short he didn’t know the secret handshake.

He was baffled by Anglophiles. I remember him telling me that in England they built buildings to last a thousand years. In this country, he said approvingly, you build a building and 10 years later you tear it down and put up something better. (No, he wasn’t on Toronto City Council.)

At almost the same time as my parents left, Clive James went to England from Australia and Andrea Levy’s parents made the journey from Jamaica, resulting in their daughter’s book Small Island. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane concludes with one immigrant woman coaxing another out onto an ice rink. Does she dare? And does she dare? Her friend tells her, “This is England, you can do anything.” All of this is by way of explaining why I am intrigued by immigrants’ views of Britain.

I first discovered the poet and polymath Clive James via A Point of View essay. I ask myself why I have met so many wise and funny Australian men in print, but never in person. I am thinking of Barry Humphries, My Life As Me. I am thinking of Robert Hughes and his wonderful autobiography Things I Didn’t Know, and will take my mandatory digression here to recommend his book The Shock of the New. If you like modern art and especially if you don’t, read it. You may still not like it, but you will 'get it' and its context.

The second volume of James’ Unreliable Memoirs series, Falling Towards England is laugh out loud funny. James treats British xenophobia and bad food as well as his own lust, limitations and transgressions with equal doses of candor and wit. Here is a soupçon: “In the pub I got a piece of stale French loaf with a dead shallot laid out on it, a dollop of shepherd’s pie like a rhino’s diarrhea, and a good solid dose of rejection. By and large it is our failures that civilize us, but one doesn’t want to take that principle too far.”

Speaking of civilization, James does so brilliantly in a collection of alphabetically arranged portraits from Louis Armstrong to Hazlitt to Beatrix Potter and Wittgenstein and dozens of other fascinating men and women of diverse and occasionally dubious accomplishments called Cultural Amnesia, Notes in the Margin of My Time. It is tempting to call this a bathroom book because some of the essays are quite short, but it is more like a salle de bain book in the Sorbonne.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good Grief, Ginger

Life is sadder than it has any right to be. Case in point, in the midst of a crisis I took the dog to High Park. The cherry trees were in blossom but not leaf so all you could see along the avenue was clouds of pink, so dense that their reflection tinged the surface of the bordering stream. It is hard to understand how life can contain so much pain and so many petals all within the compass of an hour’s walk.

I do not subscribe to the pseudo-philosophy that when life hands you lemons you should make lemonade. Along with Susanna Moodie, I believe it is always best to be about and doing, so at 6:30 in the morning I made a cake with powdered and finely chopped crystallized ginger. (Important tip, avoid flexible tube pans. They do not cook evenly, often resulting in overcooked outer edges and under done centres.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m no good at icing things over, so I favor cakes that don’t require it. Instead of icing, while the cake baked, I made crème fraiche ice cream. Let me pause here to recommend Liberté crème fraiche. It is sublime, great with pound cakes and buttermilk pancakes with berries. Here endeth the digression.

The tang of the ginger balanced the understated sweetness of the ice cream to create a combination that encapsulates my beliefs about sorrow better than any puckering lemonade ever could.

There are no sweet sorrows
I am not against hope. I don’t have a beef with optimism. But in the church of Positive-Thinking-in-Spite-of-the-Facts, I am a heretic. So it was with immense relief that I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, an examination of the cult of positive thinking and its unintended but toxic consequences.

Toxic Consequence #1: Blame the victim. Ehrenreich, who has had breast cancer, cites examples of support groups that expel members whose cancer recurs because they will bring the other members down. (Also, a qualified endocrinologist, she examines the mind-body connection in regards to health and finds it non-existant.)

Toxic Consequence #2: Reality is a buzz kill, dude. If the emperor has no clothes (and it ain’t pretty) and you say so, you can be fired for it. In the church of positive thinking criticism, no matter how constructive, is “bad attitude”.

Toxic Consequence #3: If the problem isn’t the problem, but our attitude towards it, the problem goes unaddressed. Remember the end of A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Present with the two waifs hiding under his robe, Ignorance and Want? Beware this consequence the most.

Ehrenreich is excellent on the twisted neo-science of mass-marketed positive thinking, but perhaps more importantly its morally corrosive effects.

My Antidote: Start with Keats’ Ode on Melancholy, then straight on to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Oh, and do some weeding and bake a cake or two. . . There is no attitudinal alchemy to make failure, loss, or betrayal palatable or lemons sweet. If there is a trick to truly making progress, to living a full life, it is not pretending otherwise.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Square Loaf in a Round Hole

Someone once described pain de mie as what Wonder Bread wishes it could be. To get this bread right has been a goal of mine since I was introduced to tramezzini, luscious over-stuffed sandwiches that I first encountered in Venice.

Tramezzini are never grilled like their skinny cousins the panini. You see heaps of them on display in bars, cut in triangles to reveal their plentiful fillings. It is understood that one would never order two halves with the same filling, any more than the Italian electorate would censure a politician for having a wife and a mistress. Such homogeneity would be an offense to the spirit of dolce vita, but as usual I digress.

Pain de mie should have a thin golden crust and tight, fine crumb. It doesn’t compete for attention, but is strong enough to hold up under the temptations of silky mayonnaise or a hunky slab of vine ripened tomato. I have tried two or three recipes, but was not truly happy with any of them.

Then I stumbled on a recipe by the venerable Beard. It produced a loaf of perfect proportions but unpleasant density. I scaled back the flour from 6 ½ cups to 4 and . . . perfection. Fun for a beginner, this bread is baked in a Pullman pan which is straight-sided with a sliding lid to give you a perfectly square loaf. I believe the name Pullman is a corruption of pain de mie, but I have also read that this bread was served on trains and christened in Pullman in honor of the cars (you will also see this bread called a Pullman loaf).

Give it a try. Slice it thin, fill your sandwich generously, then open wide and say mmmmmm.

Page turning podcasts redux

As promised, here are some more great book-related podcasts.

· NPR Topics: Books – this is a fiction and non-fiction potluck, with authors and topics drawn from all over the NPR network.

· World Book Club – BBC World Service – typically each episode features an author and one of their best known works, with an interview and readings followed by questions from the audience, via telephone and e-mail.

· Writers & Company – CBC Radio – Eleanor Wachtel is a national treasure who has introduced me to authors I would never have otherwise read including Nuala O’Faolain and David Leavitt, but it is Wachtel’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature and profound humanity that make these interviews so compelling.

Diana Athill is another author I would never have read if Eleanor Wachtel hadn’t pointed me in her direction. I began with her memoir Somewhere Near the End and just finished Yesterday Morning, her memoir of childhood. Stet – An Editor’s Life records her nearly 50 years as a director of André Deutsch where she worked with Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore to name a few. Stet, of course, is the now practically obsolete copy editor’s mark for “leave it in” and is as much a reflection of Athill’s honesty as her career.

She reminds me of Orwell in his essays and journalism. They are similar in their awareness of the privileges that are theirs by accident of birth and equally unembarrassed to record their experiences truthfully. They are different in that Athill records her pleasures with zest. She is also without self pity and therefore poignant about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – regardless of class – from the effects of being a child of unhappy parents to the losses that are part of aging.

If Diana Athill were my aunt, I can’t help feeling my parents wouldn’t have left me alone with her for the evening without providing a list of topics she was not to talk about, (probably prefaced with “for God’s sake” underscored with eye rolling). Since I no longer need a sitter, but am still eager for provocative observations and tales from a life well and fully lived, I look forward to learning from her latest book, Life Classes.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spoon Up and Tune In

My friend Terri loves soup, so I often make it when she visits. Most recently that meant a Tuscan-style bean and cabbage soup garnished with crispy bacon and toasted garlic bread crumbs, just the thing for lunch on a blustery afternoon. Last week, despite being March it was so warm I sat in the single sunny spot in my garden and read for an hour. So it was an Asian inspired chicken soup with bok choy for dinner that night, light and flavorful. Then, this being Toronto spring officially ended. Again. Forget sitting in the garden uploading vitamin D, it was heading for -10. That inspired my first attempt at mulligatawny, the southern Indian classic, a warming combination of chicken, coconut, onions, garlic and stock garnished with yogurt and fresh coriander.

Soup kitchens are synonymous with poverty, but one shouldn’t assume that the soup was always Oliver Twist-type horrible. At a lecture earlier this month at York University mystery writer Maureen Jennings described her research process which included following a recipe for soup that would have been served in 19th Century workhouses. While relying on flour and barley to stretch it to many bowls, Jennings pronounced it delicious.

Alexis Soyer, the Gordon Ramsay of his day, worked tirelessly not just to create soups that could be prepared quickly to attempt to feed the victims of the Irish Potato Famine, but to design portable kitchens and serving systems to reach the greatest possible number of the poor. You can get one of his soup recipes and the details of his dizzyingly complex life in his biography Relish by Ruth Cowen.

Tuning you on

I love my iPod, from my first nano, sleek as a tube of Chanel lipstick and slimmer than a Parisian model to my current 30GB workhorse. I seldom set forth without rings on my fingers and buds in my ears. But what I started out to tell you about is some terrific podcasts about books:

· Book Review – N.Y. – a weekly summary of what will appear in the NYT book review, interviews with authors, bestseller and publishing industry news.

· Books and Authors – BBC Radio 4 – author interviews, as well as discussions on reading related topics such as trends in translation, and resuming reading after bereavement.

· Books on Guardian Unlimited and The Guardian Book Club – This is a two for one. The first is wide ranging look at books, the state of publishing, poetry and The Hay Festival, which The Guardian sponsors. The Book Club focuses on a single author and work.

I’ll have three more podcasts for you next time. I wanted to leave room to mention Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death.

Dibdin is best known for his Aurelio Zen series. I have been making way through his other works, because alas there will be no more. Dibdin was a master of the epistolary novel and has a Browning-like gift for letting his narrators reveal themselves warts and all while retaining, if not our sympathies, our fascination.

Reading The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and particularly Dirty Tricks, I often wanted to ask Dibdin if he was Browning fan. Now I know. The poet looms large in this book set among the ex-pat community in Florence. A murderer is apparently visiting the torments Dante devised for his Inferno on those he deems to be sinners. Some online reviewers were frustrated by the twists and turns, but I enjoyed – as I always do with Dibdin – his erudition, his blatant love for all things Italian, and his gift for rendering characters that lets you see the muscles moving beneath the skin and into the heart with all its fears and contradictions.

I wanted to end this post with a reverse play on Dante’s “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but I confess I’m stumped. Instead I’ll say, “May it always be gazpacho weather with you.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Books and Bread

Welcome to the first post of Read ‘em and Eats, which I intend to be a chronicle of what I am reading and what I am cooking. I’ve never wanted to belong to a book club because I’d hate to be told what to read – there are too many books piled about the place for me to be further distracted from my own meandering path. But I love hearing about what other people are reading and look forward to comments that add to the piles beside the bed, in the office, on top of the toilet, spill out of the shelves outside the kitchen . . . you get the picture. Speaking of the kitchen, my lifelong goal has been to be the kind of cook that if you turned up on my doorstep unannounced I could respond with a meal that would be engaging and satisfying – like a good book? So let’s begin.

Let them eat bagels
I had understood that croissant were among the most laborious of breakfast foods. Bagels can’t be far behind. I attempted them for the first time this weekend. Unlike the usual two rises of your regular loaf, bagels not only have multiple rises, they are boiled before they are glazed and baked. I love to knead and bagels are aces in this department.

I did two batches. One the half recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible. As always her recipe was full of intricacies, well-explained and illustrated, and requires commitment on the home baker’s part. If you work to her exacting and preferred instructions this is two day exercise. Was it worth it? Oh yeah. Great crust encases a chewy, flavorful interior.

The recipe for the second batch was from Janice Murray Gill's Canadian Bread Book, which I fear may be out of print; if so, check out for second hand copy. It’s an excellent book for the beginning bread maker and expert alike. This recipe was less complex in process and shorter in working time. The results were also very good, produced slightly bigger bagels, though they weighed the same in both cases. These were closer to store bought bagels in that they were cakier in texture.

Bottom-line, I preferred The Bread Bible bagels (say that six times fast) overall for both taste and texture, but I’d use the other recipe again, not just because of the shorter working time, but because they were great toasted.

Eating for England by Nigel Slater
By pure coincidence I happen to have just finished a food book – and by a man who has a passion for toast, which is the name of his autobiography. This book is a collection of penseés on English food, some as short as a paragraph or two, some running to a bit longer than a page, which makes it a great bathroom book.

Slater is not a trained chef, rather a food lover and thankfully not a food snob – he spends a lot of time on childish delights like store bought biscuits and candy.

The pleasure for this book will definitely be heightened if you grew up English and understand at the gut level, pardon the pun, the delights of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, jaffa cakes, and the skeleton in my gustative closet, treacle tart. Let me say in closing then, not bon apetit, but “get that down you.”