Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Most Important Meal, Or When Will it Be Morning?

Matthew Arnold of darkling plain fame used the term “touchstones” for moments of excellence in literature. I have touchstone moments in books, movies and life, ones that ring viscerally true. One is in Casablanca. Ilsa in a state of emotional exhaustion tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them. Our situations aren’t quite comparable. No Nazis around (that I know of) and happily I have a valid passport, but I have wished for someone to spell me with my emotional knapsack. I miss my dad. 
He gave me my first cooking lesson. Breakfast, and not just any breakfast, the full English: eggs cooked in the fat from the bacon, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and a “fried slice”. Such is this meal’s fame that in Amsterdam pubs feel it's important not only to offer an English breakfast but to publicize that it is “cooked by an Englishman”. One pub felt it necessary to underscore this point with a supplementary sign guaranteeing an “Englishman on Duty”.
Well, in that case, fire up the toaster! In one of several pieces that are honestly unfinished, dishonestly “in progress”, I have a character who breakfasts himself out of depression. He eats breakfast three times a day until he’s ready to start again. I remember being 17 and heartbroken over a story I’d written. I’d got a great mark on it, but as I told my dad, “I put everything I know in that story.” I was written out. Dad removed his pipe long enough to growl, “Sandra, it’s not just the bad things in life that repeat themselves.”
I clutch that touchstone in the dark hours. It gets me through until it’s time for breakfast. 
Canadian, eh?
Canadians like to imagine we are hardy survivors, who according to Pierre Berton know how to make love in canoes. In fact most of us live in urban centres clustered along the 49th parallel and don’t know our J stroke from a J cloth. 
It is my long held belief that camping is simply housework in the worst possible circumstances. My lack of wood lore made me as uncomfortable as a rainy night in a pup tent when I came to resume work on a mystery set in northern Ontario circa 1960. This is how I came to read Cache Lake Country, Life in the North Woods by John J. Rowlands, illustrated by Henry B. Kane.
Originally published in 1947, the language is self-consciously quaint (animals are critters and aboriginals of few words) and yet it still feels artless because it has the random flow of a diary with no thought to segues. Rowlands takes us thorough a year month by month, sharing his observations of flora and fauna and giving advice on how to stay warm, fed and dry. 
He explains how to make moccasins, how to purify murky water and provides several recipes including one for salting blueberries. He tells you which species of woods are best for various paddling conditions: spruce for flat water, maple or ash for rapids. The optimum rate for sustained travel is 25 strokes per minute. But before you fall into the temptation of double entendre, this is a chaste and manly book. The only women folk are aunts and sisters who live at a distance and send useful packages of tinned goods.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I am currently cooking in a cramped, ill-equipped kitchen with a fridge that rumbles like a Panzer division. I was trying to think of something I could make Marion for dinner that wouldn’t leave me exhausted and frustrated.

Then I remembered a dream I had many years ago. My friend Carolyn and I had been discussing dreams —  in the Jungian sense, not the stars in our eyes sense. Virginia Woolf appeared to me wearing one of her magnificent brocade robes and said, “bear but a touch of my hand and you will be upheld in more than this.” If you recognize this is what the Ghost of Christmas Past says to Scrooge, Mr. Freud will give you a cigar. 
Quick, To the Lighthouse! The answer to the dinner question was obvious: a daube. The kitchen was not a room Virginia made her own. In fact, she didn’t spend a lot of time eating, poor thing. Leonard would spend hours trying to spoon consomme into her while reassuring her that what she’d written that day was the best thing she had ever done. 
Despite her obvious tragic aspect, it’s hard not to smile at “The beef, bay leaf and wine — all must be done to a turn.” She makes those of us who’ve cooked and eaten this dish (but not the bay leaf) squirm a little more on her behalf by adding that it will be ruined if it has to be kept warm.
This is sloooow cooking. For 12-24 hours, marinate four pounds of stew beef in 750 mls of red wine with a chopped onion or two, carrots and celery with a bouquet garni of herbes de provence, orange peel, a couple of crushed cloves of garlic, whole cloves, peppercorns and of course, a great big bay leaf. Normally you would tie these up in a piece of cheese cloth. I didn’t have any, so I used a tea bell. Stir occasionally.
Remove the beef, reserving the wine mixture. Pat the beef dry and brown it in olive oil in batches until you’ve done it all. Mix a tablespoon of tomato paste into a half cup of stock and use this to deglaze the pan you browned the beef in. Bring the wine mixture to a boil, then simmer for five minutes. Put the beef, wine and stock mixture, and a handful of niçoise olives in a Dutch oven, cover and cook in a 300 degree oven for at least two hours. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of orange juice. Cook for another half hour.
I served my daube with polenta, but mashed potatoes or, if you are feeling truly decadent, a gratin would be wonderful. Yes, Virginia the leftovers are great.
Neglected Master of a Neglected Art
It would do my heart good to think I helped someone enjoy poetry, so I must tell you about Samuel Menashe’s New and Selected Poems. They are vivid and accessible, they crystalize observations with poignant clarity: weeping windows, impudent sparrows darting among the pigeons. Though one of the best in the collection is about life as felt, rather than seen:
There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen —
The eternal event is now, not when

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alone on the Vine

Today we are united in the conviction that we are the odd one out. In my own case, I can’t help feeling that my pleasure in composting, of seeing winter flowers and the detritus of dinner being turned to the good makes me marginal. Then there is my love of arcane cooking methods and of making things that can be readily bought - canned tomatoes and fruit preserves, which brings me to grape jelly. 
Every fall at Brock the air in residence would be filled with the smell of Concord grapes and accompanying clouds of fruit flies. When I first met them I thought these were good-for-nothing grapes. In Ontario they seldom ripen fully and so have a gelatinous centre. They have big seeds and lots of them. As students we bought them by the basketful and ate them wishing they were white and seedless.
If Concords were soldiers, they’d be infantry. If they were shoes they’d be sensible. In the years since I first met them a lot of the Niagara Peninsula’s Concord vines have been decapitated and grafted with fancy-dancy European wine producing cultivars, a Frankenstein story with a happy ending. 
My neighbors Bev and Frank re-introduced me to the Concord. Her mum still runs the family farm on Lake Erie. I am the lucky recipient of their autumn surfeit. The plentiful seeds that make it a grape best eaten out of doors are full of pectin, which is what makes jam and jellies set. To make grape jelly, as with so many things in the kitchen, you need more time than skill. 
Put two or three small plates in the fridge. Warm four cups of sugar in a 250 degree oven. Take four pounds of grapes, washed and stemmed and bring them to a boil with a little water.  Add the warm sugar a little at a time, stirring to fully dissolve it before adding more until it’s all incorporated. Reduce to a simmer, cover and let it cook for about half an hour. Drain in a strainer lined with cheese cloth and let it stand for at least three hours or overnight. Measure the resulting syrup. You want to know how much you have in excess of four cups, so you have a general idea how much to reduce it by. When you have reduced it to approximately the desired amount you can begin to test for jell point. 
The easiest way to do this is with a thermometer. Naturally, I don’t do that. I like to test for jell point by putting a few drops of the jelly syrup on one of the chilled plates. Draw your finger through the syrup. If the halves remain separate, you’re at jell point and can proceed to bottling. The grape mash, of course, goes into the compost. There, now you’re one of me.
Clear Sighted Mollie
I so enjoyed Mollie Panter-Downes Minnie’s Room, that I borrowed the copy of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, her wartime stories, which I had given to Naomi before she had time to read it. Bad form, I know.
It’s easy when you read a lot of history to feel condescendingly towards the people who lived it. Our 20/20 hindsight must surely be superior. Panter-Downes is fully aware of the social revolution the war is fueling and in no doubt that there will be no going back. That wiped the smug smile off my face and replaced it with one of pure delight. 
Panter-Downes can break your heart with one carefully placed word, as you will see if you read It’s the Reaction. None of these stories take an obvious turn; each explores the human condition with subtlety and compassion: envy, sibling rivalry, the romanticization of war, the strain and difficulty of getting through life with generosity and grace. There are many novels that accomplish far less than these 21 graceful stories. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Of Mothers and Invention

I am not a professional chef. I am an ambitious amateur, whose reach oft exceeds her grasp. At a loss for what to make for dinner, I thought about things I’ve enjoyed recently. I thought about what was in the fridge. Laughably, I thought about what might be quick. The result was an improvisation I’m calling Prosciutto Two Ways.
The chef at Vertical Restaurant makes prosciutto and melon a feast for the eyes. The melon is cut in ribbons and interleaved with the prosciutto to form a rose garnished with fresh mint. Not for one moment did I think I was capable of fabricating faux flora out of cantaloupe, but I had an idea: weave the ingredients as you would the lattice on top of a cherry pie. “It would have worked if it hadn’t been for the--” as the designer of the Titanic said. 
A peeler produced slices that were too thin. With a knife the slices were too thick. I didn't have a mandolin. Where are those K-tel slicer-dicer guys when you need them? The result was disappointing visually, but it tasted fine. I have learned since that the chef uses a salami slicer.
Next I shredded prosciutto and sauteed it in olive oil with garlic, removed the prosciutto and reserved the flavored oil. I parboiled broccoli florets, drained them and tossed them with the reserved oil, then on to a cookie sheet where I topped them with slices of bocconcini and put them under the grill. I then cooked pasta and tossed it in a red sauce, which I topped with the grilled broccoli and cheese, then garnished it all with the frizzled prosciutto. Wheeew. I think I was trying too hard, as the contortionist said to the fireman. But I’d do it all again. No, I wouldn’t. I’d use asparagus . . .
Minnie’s Room
Persephone is Demeter’s daughter and the unwilling wife of Hades, who by allowing her to return to her mother once a year provides us with spring; and whose return to her husband is signaled by autumn. Thus Persephone Books restores neglected works, mostly by women of the last century to their place in the sun. As objects each one is a work of art with end papers inspired by period wallpapers with matching bookmarks.
Number 34 in the Persephone catalogue is Minnie’s Room a collection of the post-war stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. Each one delivers insight - not with a bang or a whimper. Pain is endured with gentle humour. In The Exiles, Colonel and Mrs Stanbury are relocating to South Africa where their money will go farther. Mrs Stanbury thinks of her husband, “Maybe he was too old to adapt himself to the changes - or they were too old, as she loyally, not entirely truthfully, put it for she was a gentle soul.”
In these stories we are shown the world in a grain of sand. In the title story a room is a castle. In What are the Wild Waves Saying? a girl discovers an adult  truth in a glance. In I’ll Blow Your House Down a widow finds solace in an ugly dog whose less appealing owners buy her marital home. Panter-Downes' characters live ordinary lives, endure, persevere, compromise, and affirm love with the touch of the hand on the way to the unknown.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gazpacho is Not the Only Soup, with apologies to Jeanette Winterson

With tomatoes ripening on the vine a young girl’s thoughts naturally turn to gazpacho, but with some leftover roast my soupish thoughts wandered further east. Vietnamese food is a fragrant study in contrasts. 

This soup starts with a combination of chicken and beef broth and oyster sauce infused with ginger, anise, cloves, cinnamon and fennel seeds. Rice noodles are soaked for about 20 minutes in cold water before they are boiled for two minutes. The broth is strained to remove the aromatics; the noodles are portioned into serving bowls, in goes the broth, some bean sprouts, slices of beef, all topped with chopped scallion greens and fresh basil and coriander. This is not a first date soup as there will be a lot of unseemly slurping. Light, but satisfying, it’s more a friendly, I’ve-seen-you-first-thing-in-the-morning kind of soup.
The long and the short of it
Autobiographies fascinate me, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m a sucker for a novel that assumes this form. I’ve read a lot of them: William Boyd’s The New Confessions, Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, and of course the granddaddy of them all Tristam Shandy, but Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger is a revelation.
Taut throughout where these others occasionally lapse into turgid detail, Claudia Hampton tells us the history of everything including herself from her hospital deathbed. She makes no excuses, pushes away all sentimental comforts and exposes wounds as keen during her last days as when they were inflicted decades before. She isn’t always likeable and she sometimes gets things wrong. In short she is fully human. I imagine her remembering some deliciously barbed comment she made, and demanding with Leigh Hunt that 

“Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!”
I don’t read a lot in translation, but the TLS recommended Javier Marias’ collection of short stories While the Women Are Sleeping, and because it specifically mentioned a couple ghost stories I had to give it a try. An Epigram of Fealty, while not specifically ghostly reminded me of M.R. James, as did The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban. But while the subject matter varied among these stories, the writing style did not, which may be a fault of the translation. Or not. I don’t know. It’s not without interest, but was for me more like a jar of something I wouldn’t really want to eat I’d pick up to examine out of curiosity, rather than an inviting dish.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Dog Days and Doggerel

Back in the day, my mother could induce my squirming obedience by reciting the first few lines of a poem. At the risk of sounding antique, I don’t think this would work on the youth of today. 

The poem began “I’m sitting on the doorstep/And I’m eating bread an’ jam/And I’m not really crying really/Though you may think I am”. I can’t remember any more thanks to some self-protective synapses, but the gist of it was the other children wouldn’t play with the narrator, so she sat alone and failed to get her Participaction quota of activity and overdosed on carbs and sugar.

It still makes me squirm, because I still imagine someone being cruel to my mother and me being unable to protect her from the vagaries of life, then as now. It was brought to mind recently when I was trying to explain to someone “methinks she doth protest too much” and writer’s block. You see, I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is only not knowing what you want to say; and/or not knowing how to say it.

Yet I’ve been struggling with this post, though not for lack of cooking. Recent experiments have included avocado and shrimp fajitas, warm pork salad with a ginger vinaigrette, both fabulous; a quinoa dish, a black bean and corn salad; fudgsicles (disappointing grainy texture, be it dissolved to try again with better chocolate and to make better puns); and three new ice creams: strawberry sour cream, apricot pistachio and Vietnamese coffee.

It is the inspiration for this last ice cream that has pleased me most these past few steamy weeks. Vietnamese coffee, ca phe da, which I first had at the Pho Hung restaurant here in T.O. is surprisingly refreshing. If you were being strictly authentic, you would use coffee beans grown in the highlands of Vietnam and brew it in a cá phê phin.

However, this will give you an equally gratifying result: brew a shot of espresso, while still hot mix in a generous teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk. Pour this mixture over ice. Trust me, if you drink these puppies on your front porch all the kids will want to be your friend.

A Bevy of Books
If I have been stymied of late by something I don’t believe in, at least I’ve been reading.

Darkness Visible is William Styron’s memoir of his struggle with depression. If you have experienced depression or love someone who does, you will find a friend in this book. If you are curious about this illness and its role in creativity, let me also recommend Anthony Storr’s Churchill’s Black Dog and Kafka’s Mice.

Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz is both engrossing and challenging. Schulz explains why error is inevitable, but more importantly why we should embrace it and suggests how we might do that with more grace than is often comfortable. An engaging mix of philosophy, statistics and anecdotes, it’s undermined my confidence that I’ve ever known anything and I hope I’ll be a better person for it.

Persona Non Grata is the fourth novel in Ruth Downie’s series featuring the Roman army doctor or medicus, Gaius Petreius Ruso and is the best to date. Ruso returns to his native Gaul to sort out his family’s failing fortunes, whereupon his principal creditor is poisoned.

Booker winner Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz is an intense study of a love affair and its casualties that occasionally made me laugh out loud.

Finally, It’s Only a Movie is a memoir by English movie critic Mark Kermode. A scholar of the horror genre, he is known for his quiff and his coma curing rants (listen to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews podcasts for more info). It’s worth reading for the two chapters that bracket the book detailing an interview with Werner Herzog, during which Herzog is, as he put it, “unsuccessfully shot” – with a bullet, not a camera.

Makes getting wobbly over second rate verse seem pretty pathetic. Auf wiedersehen!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cookies and Crumble

Food has inspired so many sayings. We take things with a grain of salt, abhor the one bad apple, watch the cookie crumble, but not the pot or it will never boil.

We recently had our third annual street party. It is a chance to celebrate the end of school and be introduced to all the new babies who were miraculously incubated under winter coats. After the bike rally, the soccer game, street hockey tournament, water balloon fights, face and nail painting, it is time to eat.

Last year I erred on the side of novelty, a chicken and rice salad with pistachios. It was rather good, but I wasn’t using my noodle. As Marc, my hairdresser once said of my hair colour, “It’s OK, but it’s not fun.” Oatmeal raisin cookies are fun.

To my mind the oatmeal and indeed the chocolate chip cookie should be crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. These were a pleasure to make not least because I got to use two of my favourite kitchen toys (the distaff equivalent of the power tool?), the Kitchen Aid and my Salter scale. I get an absurd amount of fun out of weighing ingredients then ensuring my cookies are of uniform size.

It takes a lot of careful little steps to get a great cookie: creaming the butter, but not too much, rotating the baking sheets half way through . . . all so little people will want to grab one in each hand, fuel for the next adventure, which they consume on the run.

I enjoy the mayhem, but after a couple of hours the bitter overwhelms the sweet. I have no children of my own. I retreat back to the kitchen. There’s no use crying over spilt milk, but I do.

The Master and the Mystery
A little catch up here. I finished Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men, densely plotted, not all the threads tied off – just like life – and a surprisingly moving ending.

Of Hadji Murad: it breaks all of the writing class rules, “show don’t tell” particularly. Hey that’s the difference between the apprentice and, well Tolstoy. We know from the outset that Hadji Murad is doomed. The question is not what will happen, but how and why. The overall arc of the book is mirrored in the incidents that make it up. We are told the outcome of a scene, then how it played out and why. It’s a fascinating way to build dramatic tension. Tolstoy is Shakespearian (he’d hate that) in his ability to give us a 360 view of his characters. But in comparison with Hill’s mystery, it left me cold. Because even though it is full of felt life, and even the minor characters are fully fleshed, Tolstoy has no pity for them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pavlovian Responses

Change: we crave it and we resist it, often at the same time. My dad was a great believer in change. Choose change he told me as I nervously headed off to university, and if you don't like it, choose again. Of course there is that other species of change that is inescapable, mandated by time and life. Antigua is a memory and my mum is back in hospital.
Change can be slow. My walk home from the hospital takes me up a steady incline of what 13,000 years ago was the bottom of the glacial Lake Iroquois. June used to take forever to end so that summer holidays could begin. Change can be fast. The summer holidays, when they finally arrived, I was sure, like love, must last forever.

I asked my friend Lynda what she’d like for her birthday lunch. A devoted anglophile, I was sure she would say roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, and possibly a cheesecake. She surprised me by choosing pasta and “anything with raspberries.” My instinctive response was a chocolate pavlova with the requisite berry. I used Nigella Lawson’s recipe. She often has great ideas – like a salad with watermelon, olives, feta and mint – but she isn’t always reliable, so it’s a good idea to check her website for errata. The cookbook is called Forever Summer. I rest my case.

Podcasts re Food
I’ve suggested a number of book podcasts. Good podcasts on food are far rarer, at least where I’ve ventured in cyberspace. So let me direct you to a podcast so cool it wouldn’t break a sweat on your private island, so hip it hurts, but just smiles and orders another martini: American Public Media: The Dinner Party Download.

Each episode begins with an “ice breaker”, followed by a cocktail inspired by an historic event, then a variety of food news, interviews and music. Where else could you learn that Texas is considering legislation to legalize shooting feral pigs from helicopters, or hear comedian and author Demitri Martin riff on food-isms?

Strange Tastes Indeed
I just finished the weakest in a mystery series that I had enjoyed up until now for its locale. Since I don’t have anything nice to say, etc., I will have to mention instead what I am currently reading. Perhaps you will think my tastes strange or eclectic, if you are feeling kindly.

The Various Haunts of Men is by Susan Hill, who provides a skein of plot lines and pulls you along to see how they weave together. Ironically, this book is rather long, whereas the other book, Hadji Murad is a novella by Tolstoy. Many people, including Boris Akunin believe it is the best short story ever written. Based on Tolstoy’s military experiences in the Caucasus it is cinematic in its vivid detail and tragically timeless as recent history proves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Modern Travel, or Where's My Adapter?

Dateline Antigua. How travel has changed. Or perhaps it is me. Or both. My packing was dominated by thoughts of how to rationalize the quantity of electronics I HAD to bring, plus various grooming products. Clothes, who needs clothes when you have more computing power than got man to the moon and your hair looks this good?
Once established in my little cottage surrounded by oleander (it’s like living in a Rousseau painting) I headed out in search of food. The market was a study in contrasts, as interesting for what wasn’t there as what was. No fresh fish, but lots of fresh herbs, tiny pineapples and local yogurt, which is excellent. . . there was a bewildering selection of olive oils, Italian prosciutto, pine nuts and chocolate, Canadian chevre and Ploughman’s Pickle - they get a lot of Brits here. Nelson himself stopped by long enough to get the harbor named after him.
Tired, I opted to keep it simple. I ate my prosciutto and local melon dangling my feet in the pool while the water for the pasta came to a boil. Pesto rhymes with pronto for a reason. All washed down with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, a quick skinny dip and so to bed. Like I said, who needs clothes?
Since then I’ve played a game with myself, trying to have variety while using up ingredients. I’ve had pasta puttanesca with tuna instead of anchovies. And eggs, eggs are a great friend of the solo chef. I used up the other half of a can of diced tomatoes poaching eggs in a sauce with capers, onion, celery and olives . . . salad nicoise . . . egg salad sandwiches on lovely little onion buns. Tonight is pork curry on rice and a raita hobbled together with yogurt and some terrific avocado salsa I stumbled on. Have to work up an appetite with a swim first I think. . .
Have a Hunch
As a mystery reader I’m in it for atmosphere as much as the puzzle. I love the elasticity of the genre, there are archaeologist detectives, house sitting sleuths, ancient Roman finders, and on and on. I recently spotted a mystery series in which the recurring theme is pizza. I left the pizza crime behind, but I did bring along C.J. Sansom’s Heartstone, Shardlake Goes to War, the fifth in his series set in Tudor England featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. 
Heartstone takes place in the shadow of impending war with France towards the end of Henry the VIII’s reign. Intricately plotted, I never saw the ultimate twist coming, and thoroughly enjoyed the period detail - Sansom is a former lawyer and scrupulous historian, however, ever susceptible to the pleasures of pedantry, there is one anachronistic misattributed quote methinks. Let me set you some detective work: should you decide to follow Shardlake from London to Portsmith see if you can spot it. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

And the Crowd Muttered

My friend Naomi’s youngest son has memorized pi to 60 places. I understand this impulse completely and can share in his delight when his math teacher asked him if he knew what pi was. As a child I memorized the Roman emperors in the hopes that one day someone would ask “who came after Vespasian?” It hasn’t happened. Yet.

Don’t underestimate the pleasures of pedantry. For instance, I recently read in a newspaper, whose shame I shall cloak in anonymity, that rhubarb is a fruit. Rhubarb is an herb. Its leaves are poisonous. It is also what actors say on stage to mimic the murmur of a crowd. In England it is forced in large dark barns. Its emerging leaves sound like barnacles clutching at air at low tide. At my old house it was the first thing up in the spring. Brave souls eat it raw.

I am not brave. Rhubarb! It is lovely stewed, in jam and pies, alone or with strawberries. I was so excited to see rhubarb at last that I bought much too much. The result was a pie, rhubarb blackberry jam and I haven’t decided on the third thing. As Mae West said, “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

What’s that? Titus, thanks for asking.

The Prof, The Cook and an Aussie
If you are interested in the craft and art of writing can I suggest Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt. He is also the author of the best seller Making Toast and a playwright. This may explain why the dialogue feels stagy. The first six chapters are classes in which Rosenblatt and his students discuss their work. It is the book’s seventh chapter that makes it worth reading, his summing up of all he meant to say to his students.

The Sharper the Knife the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn is another in a new genre, “How I Found Redemption Through Food” or HIFRTF, as I like to call it. Flinn picked herself up after being dusted from her job and took herself to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. The writing’s clichéd at times, there is no challenge without a corresponding triumph, giving it a Disney-ish feel. Think of it as a series of postcards from Paris with recipes and you won’t be disappointed.

Finally we come to the first volume of Clive James’ autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs. His father enlisted in the Australian army at the outbreak of war, survived combat and internment in a Japanese POW camp only to perish when the plane returning him home was downed by a monsoon. Watching James grow up in the shadow of this absurdly tragic event is like watching a tree nurtured by Terry Gilliam take shape, funny, macabre and unpredictable.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

La, la, la lemons

I am self-medicating with lemons in the absence of over due rhubarb and trilliums. Walking the dog hunkered into hat, coat and gloves, eyes fastened on flower beds covered in brown leaves, skeletal trees on every side I feel confused. Is it spring or is it autumn? When I’m planting bulbs in the fall, perhaps morbidly, I often think how it is like burying little skulls – though is there a more hopeful activity than planting flowers in the anticipation of spring?

When life hands you lemons, runs the ironically saccharine saw, make lemonade. Ever the contrarian, I make risotto. Lemon risotto is a nice starter or accompaniment to pan fried sole or schnitzel. Most recently I made a main dish of it, topping it with chunks of chicken which I lightly floured, sautéed in butter and oil, then deglazed the pan with lemon juice and tossed the chicken with the reduced juice. This took place while the risotto rested prior to serving. I garnished it all with sage leaves I’d fried in the butter and oil before the cooking the chicken.

Doing the chicken this way was a great way to finish up the lemons I’d shorn of their zest for muffins and the risotto. You make this risotto by cooking the Arborio rice in butter and olive oil with a finely chopped shallot or two. Now comes the stirring. It takes about five cups of warmed chicken stock to a cup and a half of rice added a ladle full at a time. Stir, stir, stir, and once your stock is incorporated take the risotto off the heat and add about a teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest, finely chopped sage and mint – surprise – a couple tablespoons of lemon juice, parmesan to taste, a little knob of butter, cover and let it rest for five minute during which you can salivate, prepare the chicken as described above, pour a glass of wine . . . look out the window in the hopes of crocus.

Lost in Shadow
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a labyrinth of book. At first glance it seems to be an off shoot of magic realism with a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. But things are not quite what they seem. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Zafon explained that the inspiration for his Cemetery of Forgotten Books was a bookstore outside Los Angeles housed in an old hangar without electricity. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own flashlight.

Longing and loss unite the characters along a shared thread, Julian Carax, the author of the book within the book, The Shadow of the Wind. In picking it Daniel is committing to keeping it alive for future generations, as his father, a second hand book dealer explains. Soon afterwards Daniel finds himself living events in his chosen tome, including being pursued by a disfigured man who smells of burnt paper, Lain Coubert, who may be the devil himself.

The first two thirds are delightful, but I began to weary in the home stretch. One of the hardest things to convey in writing and in life is why one person loves another. Not only was I dizzy from repeated pirouettes of plot, I became credulous about the “why” I was to believe that eventually virtually everyone, except his arch enemy, were prepared to make heroic sacrifices for the illusive Julian Carax.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making a Mess of Lasagne

Lasagne can be problematic. There was a time when a potluck supper was invariably a fugue on layered noodles. I remember a quintessentially Canadian experience, when I planned an elaborate dinner starting with a vegetable lasagne appetizer, which I prepared in advance – including homemade noodles – and froze. Having baked and served it up to my six guests, I sat down to join them and discovered it was STILL frozen in the middle, none of my hyper polite guests had said a word.

I have also made a wonderful chicken lasagne from a Lidia Bastianich recipe from an ancient Food & Wine magazine. It was great and as my Italian ex-mother-in-law would have said, "lotsa work."

And yet, what is more satisfying than lasagne? I’ll tell you, skillet lasagne. Why bother with all that careful layering when it’s all going to end up, jumbled up, in the same place? I have Cook’s Illustrated to thank for this one, and I recommend their The Best 30-Minute Recipe cookbook heartily. I have given it to several people and heard only good things about the results.

Because I had a hard time getting vegetables into my houseguest, my mother, I had to get a little sneaky. I scaled back the meat and stirred in a bag of baby spinach, which wilted down to discrete perfection. An excellent dinner, full stop – should I say colon?

Ghostly parallels

Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black is for many the gold standard in contemporary ghost stories. It is a thoroughly convincing period piece set in a remote house with a secret and terrible past. If I were a minor character within it I’d tell you it’s a “ripping good yarn.”

Hill, who also writes detective novels, which I haven’t yet sampled, has a second haunting novella The Man in the Picture, but I’m not sure I can judge it fairly. This one is set in Cambridge and like its companion it has an interesting, amiable and intelligent narrator, and the parallels continue to the point where I felt I was reading a variation on a theme. Now if I’d never laid eyes on The Woman in Black, something tells me I would have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jagged Little Cookies

I don’t like to complain. Given a choice, I prefer to vent, punctuate that with sobbing, and finish it off with a fine whine. But that’s just me. Shortly before Christmas my mother fell and broke both her wrists. Since then my time has been almost entirely occupied with hospital visits, doctors’ appointments and channelling my inner Martha Stewart as I give her condo a needed makeover.

My mother is an enthusiastic consumer of sweets as I think I’ve mentioned. When she emerged from her post-operative haze I asked her what cookie she’d like me to make her, even though I already knew. Sure enough, she said “those little ones where you put the jam in the middle."

Thimble cookies, these are labour intensive little gems. You make basic cookie dough into tablespoon balls, roll those in beaten egg white, then in finely chopped nuts and make small impression in each – with a thimble if you are a stickler for tradition, your thumb or the end of wooden spoon. After baking, while still warm, you deepen the indent and fill it with the jam of your choice. The ones pictured here are apricot and raspberry.

My mum’s convalescence has included these, flourless peanut butter cookie chocolate sandwiches and banana raisin muffins. The shared features are they are all sweet, portable and safely stowed in a bedside drawer.

Like Dolittle’s Push-Me-Pull-You, my mother and I are bound together and straining against each other. She craved daily visits to be sure I hadn’t been carried off by a serial killer. A glimpse was enough, after that I could, as she so succinctly put it, “sling my hook” – translation for non-Anglos and the not nautical, b----r off or set sail. Jolly good.

Once upon a time she read me books like Three Men in A Boat and Wind in the Willows and we laughed ‘til our sides hurt. She wrapped Christmas presents with the care of an artist –I remember one box made to look like a house, complete with chimney, cotton wool snow and reindeer foot prints on the roof. Last week she’d been feeling particularly bad and was eager to see me off. On our way to the elevator another patient asked her if she was better? She said, yes, now that she had seen her daughter, because I’m her aspirin (and a pill?). People change, cookies crumble, I’ll take my compliments where I can get them.

Reading as refuge
I can’t believe I’m already within one slim volume of latest of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series. They have been a perfect refuge over the last months. Not that they offer a world vision where justice is done; often the best Montalbano can do is create a stopgap against the remorseless working out of things and "crush melancholy's grape" behind clenched teeth. Perhaps strangely, I find solace in Camilleri’s complex and unflinching view from Montalbano’s veranda overlooking the sea.