A tale of too spicy

I don't know when it was that I decided I liked spicy food, but I suspect it had something to do with Buffalo wings. I have to say, a good Buffalo wing is hard to pass up.

Now, there's no recipe for Buffalo wings here, so don't get your hopes up. I know. I'm sorry. I did spot a pretty promising one in Bobby Flay's recent release, Throwdown: More Than 100 Recipes from Food Network's Ultimate Cooking Challenge, however. If you happen to be in the market for a Buffalo wings recipe.

My father has always liked hot food. Food so hot sweat trickles down your face, even in the dead of a Canadian winter. Like father like daughter, I gradually followed suit. I keep two hot sauces at minimum in my refrigerator at all times; pickled jalapeñoes and canned chipotles in adobo are staples of mine; and when I get it, my pizza is usually covered in chili flakes (and more hot peppers, of course.) I keep cayenne and hot paprika at the ready. I realize most of my obsessions are of the fickle variety -- I might be tempted by a celery root here or a fennel bulb there, a pile of raspberries in the summer or a couple blood oranges toward the holiday season -- but my love of all things lip-burning, tongue-tingling? I think it's getting serious.

Down the street from my first apartment is a terrific Vietnamese place. The owner, one of the sweetest men you'll ever meet, makes it his mission to know all of his diners. If I ever make it there again, I know he'll pop over to my table and say in his broken English, "Where've you been?" as he hands me my order, a bowl of rice vermicelli with chargrilled pork, stuffed to the brim with gently pickled vegetables and fresh mint. It's too much for one person to eat, really, but sometimes you might gobble it up gratefully anyway, stuffing yourself silly, and the fact that it costs $7 might make you do a happy dance and repeat the whole thing over the following week. On one day in particular, the man walked by my table and peered down at my bowl. "Wow," he said, "you like it spicy?" The bowl was bright orange from all of the sriracha I'd drizzled in.

"I think you've lost your tastebuds," my roommate declared. For a long while, I thought she was right. There was a point in time I even infused tequila with fresh, hot jalapeñoes from Florida and shot back that concoction like nobody's business.

But this weekend, when I tried my hand at replicating my favourite Vietnamese meal (epic fail)...something mysterious occurred.

I dove into my bowl, ravenous and excited, and...sweat. My tongue...on fire. It was so hot, I actually started crying. So hot, in fact, that whenever I went to breathe, my tongue instantly blew up in flames. It was an inferno of a bowl. My mind flipped back to that episode of Sex and the City when Miranda becomes paranoid that she'll die alone and be eaten by her cat. Except that I wondered if I in turn might die of too much hot sauce and disintegrate like a stabbed vampire from Buffy.

The thing nobody tells you is that if you keep a bottle of sriracha sauce in your refrigerator for five months, it will get hotter. And hotter. And hotter.

So it makes sense that when I told my father about this incident, he responded with, "Sounds about right. I had the hottest horseradish the other night..."

Old habits die hard. Something tells me that thoughts of burning alive aren't enough to keep me away from hot sauce...at least, not for long.


The other shoe

Maybe you're the type of person who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Such standing convictions take a certain degree of pessimism, I'd say. And, as sunny a disposition as I have, I must confess I've succumbed to that line of thinking several times in recent memory.

I don't know why I felt uneasy all last week. Maybe it's the fact that I went half the week without wine. That could be it. Sometimes I let my neuroses get the better of me. Sometimes I get so excited and happy about life that I fear the rug will be pulled out from under me as I yell, "No, no, but everything was going so well! I don't need to win the lottery! I don't even need that cookbook I've been eyeing..." and so it goes.

The other shoe certainly dropped on Saturday as I found myself standing in the middle of a streetcar somewhere around Dundas and Spadina, cursing the driver and the zombie walk and the Gardiner closing and everything else that was making me very late for work, and, spontaneously, hopped out into the pouring rain with two strangers, running for blocks until I found a cab to hail to get me to my gig and the others to their destination. As I ran as fast as my legs would go into the building, I thought -- well, hello other shoe! There you are! What GREAT timing you have! I was breathless and panicked and fifteen minutes late, but all turned out fine. I even managed to redeem myself (though only after I accidentally poured hot coffee down the back of a woman's chair/designer dress and had to fanagle her a new chair. Alas. Other shoe, I say!) But the point is, sometimes stuff happens. You do what you have to do. And then you eat dog food for dinner -- almost literally, since we were fed hamburger patties topped with a watery jus, undercooked onions and overcooked mushrooms, and some sweet scalloped potato thing I didn't dare go near. I thought of skipping dinner. It was ten in the evening, I wasn't hungry, and the guests got plump garlic shrimp served with Hollandaise sauce, apparently for the sole purpose of taunting me. But seemingly out of nowhere, I had thoughts of my mother yelling at me for not eating enough. I heaved a sigh and tucked in. Well, as much as one can tuck into a hamburger trying to pass itself off as Salisbury steak. Some things, like a fake Chanel bag, just don't make sense.

Eventually someone will meet you on Bloor and you will surprise them. You'll walk down to Bar Mercurio, have the door opened for you, and face a large man with a white apron who shuffles two bar stools together and gestures for you to sit. A bartender with crazy blonde hair holds out her hand and introduces herself, and you smile back. Suddenly you are sipping on an Espressotini, some kind of Toronto-Italian hybrid of a cocktail that tastes like liquid gold and might as well be. Dean Martin croons from the radio as you wiggle your toes inside your Birkenstock clogs and adjust your glasses. That's the thing. Eventually all fantasies give way to reality. Screw it, you think. Take me as I am and all of that business. If the other shoe's going to drop again and muck up my good fortune, so be it.

Espressotini (or as close as I can get to the recipe without begging)
From Endless Coffee Break

Yields 1 high-voltage martini

2oz espresso (room temperature)
2.5oz vanilla vodka
1oz Godiva Cappuccino Liqueur or Kahlua

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all ingredients. Shake well and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with coffee beans, if desired. 


Exhaling at the farmer's market on a Saturday afternoon

I happen to adore poblano peppers. There, I've said it. Judging by my entries here, one might come to the conclusion that I in fact love everything, but that would be a mistake. I do like most things; I'd like to think that's part of my charm (contrary to popular opinion, I can turn on the charm like a champ when necessary.) However, I've never quite come around to cauliflower (sorry), though I have a couple recipes earmarked that might change my mind -- one with cinnamon and cocoa, and another a gratin from a restaurant, if you must know -- and I'm not big on persimmon or papaya (no apologies here.) Horror of horrors, I'm not fond of ripe tomatoes, and I'm convinced I'm allergic to pineapple.

And, to be honest, as much as I love food, I hate that grocery shopping is often an all-day affair around here. Part of it is because I rely on public transportation, or more accurately, my legs. I walk everywhere. Secondly, I'm finicky.

Quite frankly, the number of choices available and the lack of information we're provided with in North America about where our food comes from stresses me out. As the newspapers roll out article after article about local eating and statistics of people wanting to know where their food comes from, or as I pick up a couple t-shirts at a store and find many labels now read 'Made in Canada' instead of Taiwan or China, I know I'm not alone in my anxiety.

 I stand in front of the eggs for a solid five minutes debating which of the cartons is the lesser evil, though I try to make it out to the butcher on Queen West that sells organic eggs or to one of the authentic farmer's markets that actually sell real organic ones. I am particular about the little meat I do buy, and subsequently about my meat-based stocks. I prefer to support local farmers by purchasing my produce directly from them. This adds up to a lot of headaches, as you may imagine, and it's not for everyone. It's never my intention to corner anyone, but this is my reality, and as our choices become increasingly limited by agribusiness and factory farming, it may at some point become yours as well. But on this weekend, lo and behold, I came across several wooden boxes of poblano peppers, littered over a long table with a homemade sign blowing in the wind. I breathed. You can only live your politics so much before they impede on the living part.

...Back to our scheduled programming. 

The first time I ate a poblano pepper was at a Mexican restaurant in Tallahassee. I'm not saying the restaurant is particularly good. It's not. They do make decent top shelf margaritas, though, and on this particular night, I hopped on over there and shared a plate of Chiles Rellenos over a margarita the size of my head. Suffice to say, those Chiles were very fine indeed.

All humour aside, poblano peppers are lovely. On one trip to Plant City, I picked several up at the farmer's market and returned to stuff them with pinto beans mashed with salsa. They were terrific just like that. A good poblano doesn't require much else.

I spent this past Sunday performing a veritable cook-a-thon, stocking up for the week. Out came a batch of granola; Molly Wizenberg's celery root, apple and fennel salad dressed with a halzenut vinaigrette; Melissa Clark's red lentil soup with lemon (excellent) from her new cookbook; and a potato and poblano pepper frittata with goat cheese. We know how I feel about goat cheese. Now you know how I feel about poblanos. Everyone loves potatoes in some form.

I suspect you know where I'm going with this.

Roasted Poblano Pepper and Potato Frittata with Goat Cheese
Serves 4

2 roasted poblano peppers, skins removed, roughly chopped*
3 medium-sized potatoes, washed well and sliced thinly
2 shallots, diced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tbsp vegetable oil, such as grapeseed
1/2 cup goat cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper
8 eggs
Milk, about 1/2 cup

Line potato slices on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F until tender, about 10 minutes. Set aside, but keep the oven on and switch to broil.

In a large bowl, crack the eggs, a good glug of milk -- about 1/2 cup -- and whisk to combine. Add goat cheese and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

In a cast iron pan or other oven-safe skillet, heat oil over medium heat and add shallots. Once softened, add garlic. Once fragrant, add potatoes, peppers and egg mixture. Cook for 5-7 minutes until eggs have set, and place pan in the oven. Keep an eye on the dish and broil until the top has browned slightly. Serve immediately, or eat cold, garnished with salsa or hot sauce if desired. This dish also reheats reasonably well (I served mine with some spaghetti squash tossed in some leftover lemon artichoke pesto.)

*To learn how to roast peppers, check out this tutorial here.


Some place unfamiliar

This morning, I'm recuperating from indulgence.

Oh yes, dear readers, it was one of those weekends.

As it turns out, sometimes you can make a mad dash escape even within the city limits -- all it takes is an excellent tour guide and a spin around Baldwin Village. The first stop included a lovely Moroccan pad thai accompanied by a decent gingerbeer at a vegetarian restaurant, followed by a quick walk down the street to a video store that plays black and white films on a screen outside. You enter, and behold, a taste of Italy in the form of tiramasu-flavoured gelato -- a taste yields creaminess at first, and is quietly followed by a punch of flavour. It's a little unusual, the way it doesn't arrest the tastebuds but instead takes them on a road trip. Afterwards, you are transported via a pair of magic red shoes to a steak house attached to The Hilton where you spin your legs around a barstool and tuck into a slice of the most sinfully delicious, rich chocolate cake imaginable; I wish I would've had my camera on me, for I suspect the torte would have proven exceptionally photogenic. It was so dense, in fact, that it was like eating a scandalous amount of chocolate fudge. Afterwards, all you can do is breathe and smile, the flavour of chocolate still lingering in your mouth.

Recollecting on your perch, contemplating a walk through the city and thereby putting off your Sunday obligations, you think these are the sorts of evenings that make Monday mornings look okay.


Getting out of Dodge

Oh goodness.

I must say, October, you certainly charged in like a lion of an unprecedented sort. Just weeks ago I was eating birthday cake and enjoying my since-deceased leisure time. These days are as long as the limbs of 100-year-old trees, which is to say very long indeed. So when this past weekend popped up on my radar, rife with time for -- dare I even mutter the word? -- relaxation, I embraced it whole-heartedly. A schedule packed with work and social gallivanting is very fine, but sometimes a girl just needs a glass of wine, a warm bath and a good book.

This weekend offered a literal breath of fresh air as I abandoned the city and travelled north to my uncle's cottage for a glorious Canadian Thanksgiving. I mean, just take a look at the view I had as I walked into the living area that first morning, cup of high-voltage coffee in hand.

If you're offended by what I'm about to say next due to its utter fabulousness as a friend of mine was -- truly, for he has informed me we are no longer friends due to my goings on -- let me pre-empt this by saying I'll happily extend chocolate and wine as a peace offering. For three days (!), I sat on the beach with a book in hand, drinking wine and soaking up the last of the sun's brilliant rays. I helped roast a turkey to perfection in an old, apartment-sized oven, and ate myself stupid as one is wont to do during the holidays. There was a few games of Mexican Train, a wildly affectionate Golden Retriever,

pumpkin-carving (and therefore the ingestion of deliciously toasted pumpkin seeds), Motown and Jazz, Dionne Warwick murmuring softly from the boombox -- "ain't no mountain high enough, to keep me from you" as my uncle and I got started on the stuffing. Marshmallows were roasted over a "two-storey bombfire". We kayaked through still waters. There was bird-watching, a lot of sleep, and long, less-than-sober conversations -- though it's worth mentioning I left the politics at home this time. The pine trees have shed many of their needles, all of them landing amongst the lily pads in the lake. That's something to see in and of itself. I'm not much of a camper, but there's something about a weekend at the cottage that is so lovely -- particularly with a couple episodes of Modern Family thrown in for good measure.

I might owe many people wine and chocolate now.

It was so nice, in fact, that a woman in one of the neighbouring cottages strolled out in a bikini and dove straight into the lake. I'm still shivering at the thought of it.

Readers, I even made a cake for the occasion, though I'm embarassed to say it was gobbled up before I could snap a picture. I even brought leftovers home and ate them at work, forgetting all about you! I apologize. But you'll forgive me when I share this recipe with you. The texture is swoon-worthy, I think, and it makes a lovely accompaniment to a rich, big meal. Personally, I'm not such a fan of heavy desserts in the evening, the way they sit at the bottom of your stomach like devious sugary bricks. A veritable Goldilocks, I declare this cake not too too heavy, not too light -- it is just right.

Pumpkin is the epitome of autumn in my mind; the leaves can morph from green to vibrant reds and yellows and oranges, they can scatter themselves amongst the yellowing grass, cider donuts can be fried and eaten, apple picking season can spring itself upon us, hot cider can be consumed, but it just isn't truly autumn until I've eaten pumpkin. 

I do often prefer its savory applications, though puréed pumpkin is oft-considered a dessert sort of thing with all of our pumpkin pies -- undoubtedly an emblem of good old-fashioned Americana. It's true that a good pumpkin dessert is generally irresistable, and will in time convert the most skeptical of Sweet Tooths. However, because I'm not much into sugary desserts, don't expect a sugar high and ensuing crash out of this recipe. You could easily eat this torte for breakfast. According to Laura Calder, it's inspired by the French tortes that litter the countryside. With such an enchanting back story, it quickly (and quietly) became the perfect way to cap off a Thanksgiving dinner among a more intimately acquainted Group of Seven. 

I go weak in the knees for anything that sounds both rustic and foreign, so you can well imagine my delight when the torte came out much the same way -- a little homely, but sophisticated in its simplicity; good enough to mark the end of a holiday dinner, but not so over-the-top that it couldn't be enjoyed on any old day. And really, that's what Thanksgiving is really about, anyway: being thankful for the autumn harvest, communing together, enjoying a sunset -- the ultimate laissez-faire holiday if there ever was one.

Squash Cake (aka "Thanksgiving Torte")
Adapted from Laura Calder, French Taste

Yields 8-10 slices

2 cups pur
éed pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/3 cup corn starch
1/4 cup fine-milled cornmeal
3 tbsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup rum (preferably dark)
Zest of one large orange

Pre-heat oven to 350°F. Grease and line a springform pan. Combine yolks with sugar and beat until light and pale. Whisk in cornstarch and cornmeal until smooth, followed by the pumpkin, rum, pumpkin pie spice, and orange zest.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Bringing the egg whites to room temperature will render this task infinitely simpler.

Gently stir half the egg whites into the batter and fold in the remainder. Pour into the pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean -- this took a full hour in my gas oven. It will be very moist, but if it's still sticky to the touch, it hasn't finished baking. Serve slightly warm with sweetened whipped cream. Perfect as an afternoon accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, or as a lighter dessert. Consume within three days and avoid refrigeration if possible, which will render the cake soggy.


No meal is made alone

"Unless you live alone in a cave or hermitage, cooking and eating are social activities: even hermit monks have one communal meal a month. The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only kind of social life worth participating in.

No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. In my kitchen I rely on Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, the numerous contributors to The Charleston Receipts, and Margaret Costa (author of an English book entitled The Four Seasons Cookery Book).

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago." -Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen


We all scream for Cuban Black Bean

Last week, she was a busy one. I suspect this week will be just as crazy. However, I wanted to stop in and say hello -- Dear Blog, I miss you! Sincerely, Your Significant Other.

I know it's easy to romanticize the things that are no longer broken. It's easy to see beauty where once there were only shadows, because whatever darkness may have stepped at your door has now left you with a wide-open window. I enjoyed the summer, I did. Surely there were problems, both acknowledged on this site and discussed ad nauseum with others, but this summer -- it mattered. It matters even more these days because I'm here (and not, for instance, sailing around the Caribbean on a cruise ship.)

I spent a lot of time entangled in my loneliness. When others ask me, "Don't you get lonely, living alone?" I shake my head slyly and answer, "No, not really. I don't." There is a difference between loneliness and aloneness, and while at first I might have been both lonely and alone, I'm now rarely either. This isn't about being self-righteous, or having found some secret trick, or being in denial. I have great friends. I have a stack of books in front of me, and good music, and a bottle of great wine. There's chocolate in my cupboard and cheese in my fridge, and the amount of canned tomatoes, beans and sparkling water my dad so kindly brought me makes me look as though I'm a bit of a crazy lady (minus the cats.) I have good people around me and work I love, and while there are things I hope to do -- visit museums, walk through High Park, go for hot chocolate, eat Burrata-topped crostini, write, paint my apartment -- there will be time. Isn't that what Eliot said, anyway? I don't trust him, but I'm willing to bet he was right at least once in his life.

Sometimes I think about Alistair MacLeod, a Windsor resident and internationally recognized author (I brag because he's fantastic), and how he always talks about geography and how we are shaped by it (and how it in turn that geography is shaped by us, I'd add.) I also think place is what you make of it. This isn't always easy, and sometimes it takes a long while.

This weekend, I made this city mine. I bought a ham bone from an organic butcher in town, along with a dozen of those thick-shelled eggs I mentioned to you before, and a gluten-free baguette. I know the man who sold it to me, because he picked me out of the crowd of very tall people and asked me what I was looking for. The eggs were expensive, yes. More than many would be willing to pay. But when I heard the shells crack this morning and let the eggs fry in butter, and, with my fork, brought a taste of those orange yolks to my lips, it made sense. I think we're programmed to seek out the best deals, get the best bargain. This seems logical, it does. For those on a strict budget, there are no other options -- I understand and appreciate that, too. But some things have to matter more than money, I think, if you have the luxury of considering things other than survival. If you have a butcher, and a cheesemonger, and a fishmonger, and the man at the grocery store around the corner recognizes you and compliments you again on your hair as you pluck a gorgeous bouqet of parsley and toss it on the counter, a large city can feel like home. Even if you happen to find yourself alone -- gloriously, happily -- you'll never stay that way for long.

Perhaps you'll find yourself alone on a Sunday afternoon, after eating breakfast out with a friend from graduate school you haven't seen in far too long, after taking a long walk in Queen's Park and stopping to pay respect to the 31 fallen firefighters, after paying a visit to Queen West. You'll put music on -- Big Band -- and put a bright red Dutch oven on over medium-high. You'll brown the ham bone while unconsciously half-singing along to Nat King Cole's "It's Crazy", sporting the apron your old roommate gave you as a gag gift, and look forward to the phone date the two of you have planned for the evening. You might take another swig of cold coffee and thank your lucky stars you have a well-insulated apartment, and chop up a couple of shallots. You might think about Shakespeare because "shallot" reminds you of "Shylock" for some reason you've never quite grasped. You fantasize about Thanksgiving, about kayaking and pumpkin desserts and bomb fires. And then, somehow, you cook up a long-simmering pot of Cuban Black Bean Soup as you sink into the sofa with Eat, Pray, Love despite all of the flack the book's received from all of those snobby snobs and envision yourself in Italy, devouring artichoke after artichoke and downing glass after glass of wine, careful to sneak in some chocolate and cheese. Turns out you're right where you're suppose to be, right here, right now.

Cuban Black Bean Soup
Adapted from Kathryn Hill at TheKitchn.com
Yields 6 bowls

1 small ham bone (preferably from an independent and reputable butcher)
2 scallions or 1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 pepper, red or green, diced
2 celery ribs, chopped finely
1lb (about 2 cups) dried black beans
2 bay leaves
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup white distilled vinegar
1.5 tsp sea salt, or to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, as necessary

The night before, wash the black beans and cover with enough water to reach at least one inch over the beans. The following day, drain beans.

In a large Dutch oven or stockpot, bring a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil to medium heat. Add the ham bone and brown on all sides to enhance the flavour of the dish. Fill the pot with cold water and add the scallions, garlic, pepper, celery, bay leaves, beans, chipotle peppers, cumin, oregano and olive oil. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a strong simmer. Allow to continue cooking for 5-7 hours, until the beans have softened tremendously and the mixture coats the back of a spoon, adding water as necessary to thin it out. Add vinegar, lime juice, salt, and pepper and let simmer 15 minutes more. Fish out the bay leaves and chipotle peppers (if they haven't fallen apart.) Kathryn Hill suggests garnishing the soup with sour cream and chopped onion, but I like my plain with a hunk of buttered baguette. Serve immediately, or re-heat with a little water to thin to desired consistency.
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