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.


  1. I read Treasure Island, acted it, saw the movie. I even read it in shorthand in high school! Just imagine, fifteen men on the dead man's chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, in shorthand.

    The Coral Island is still on my bookshelf.

    Have I ever grown up? Do I want to?

  2. A friend of mine (actually a man I was once profoundly in love with) used to call this "episodic memory". When you can recall in the most vivid detail, with every one of your senses, a moment in time but have no memory at all of what happened in all the surrounding days or years. Memories preserved in a bottle that you can unstop, that can be lived vividly but only in isolation. They are the ones I hold most dear.

  3. Dear Sandra,

    I also associate a meal of fried eggs and toast with my Scottish father. I suppose that might be fairly common, as it is a simple meal that with limited culinary skills a father knows how to make. I remember sharing many such breakfasts and suppers with my father, when my mother was away or in hospital, accompanied by her chili sauce. The antecedent to ketchup, in my mind. My mother's was sweet, tomato-based with finely chopped celery, onions and peppers and a vinegary tang and I remember her pulling a big cheese-clothe bag of spices out of the pot before she put it up the Mason jars stored in the cellar. I made a big vat of it once myself and maybe should do so again as I have tried many commercial versions with very little satisfaction. Sandra - do your culinary leanings include pickling? If so, perhaps you'd be interested in joining forces in the fall?

    The other thing about my Scottish father I remember was the serial tales he spun for me. Reading about your father sharing books and Boys' Own stories with you, Sandra, reminded me of this. Though it sounds like your father had much more literary leanings.

    "Memory as fragments" from your allusion is a very good way to put this. I can only remember bits and pieces of one of these serials now, that my dad kept us going on for months. Apparently, in his spare time he was a member of a secret organisation known as Niat Pac-levram: a group of spies and assassins. My father was one of the assassins, and not one of the relatively benign spies. You might think thoughts of your father secreting off to kill people, important people, would frighten a 8 or 9 year-old girl? But being Scottish my father held his cards close to his chest, revealing very little about himself. However, I was familiar with his dry sense of humour and penchant for making up outlandish stories and knew each instalment held clues. Sadly, I cannot remember one single dignitary or president from these instalments now. I do remember the answer, though, so likely the stories involved characters like Superman and the Green Hornet.

    I also remember that neither my brother or myself solved this particular series and finally, after much begging and wheedling on my part, my father revealed that his secret association was actually Captain Marvel spelt backwards. I remember my brother howling with delight over my father's reveal but remember it left me feeling slightly annoyed. I'm not clear why; except I recall being disappointed in the payoff for all the hours I put in listening and puzzling over this particular set. It didn't suit my storytelling expectations somehow, maybe I thought it was too boy-oriented, though I was a very proud tomboy. I don't really know, except I'm glad to remember the fragments and all the feelings about my father it evokes.

    Thanks, Sandra. I'm really enjoying your blog.

    Wishing you a Happy Father's Day this year.

    PS I know you said you're still waiting for an opportunity to press the Brazil-nut candle into service, but have you lit one to satisfy your curiosity? How did the nut do? Did it afford you much light? How long did it burn?