Old habits die hard

In graduate school, I prepared for the holidays by clearing out my side of the refrigerator and the pantry, which meant that I shopped exclusively for apples, eggs and yogurt for all of December. For the most part, I cooked decent meals for myself; they were usually balanced and sometimes even rather involved – shepherd’s pie, roast chicken, carrot and dill soup with homemade stock, pork chops served with homemade applesauce. I’ve sufficiently outlined the flops on this site, but let it be known that we did eat some delicious meals, too. Regardless, I met mid-December with what I fondly refer to as – I kid you not – “the hashbrown bowl”. It’s fairly self-explanatory, as you can well-imagine, but essentially you layer diced Yukon Gold potatoes with cheap grated cheddar cheese and Heinz ketchup and call it a day. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to eating like a college student.

I can’t say I’m that much better these days. I’ve traded the potatoes for cruciferous vegetables (just say with me: cruciferous, cruciferous, cruciferous!), but I’m still the girl standing barefoot in the kitchen, freezing her toes off and hoping all of the bits and pieces yield something palatable. This week: bowl after bowl of an oddly rich, hot vegetable soup slightly sweetened with parsnips; softened black beans stirred with bold chipotles in adobo and chili powder, eaten over a bed of just-cooked green peppers, onions and mushrooms and topped with slices of velvety avocado; toothsome chickpeas tossed simply with red wine vinegar and a top-quality extra-virgin olive oil; and tonight, a bowl of brown rice pasta with broccoli, chili flakes and Laughing Cow cheese. With a bit of grated cheddar on top (!) What can I say – old habits die hard.

And yes, Laughing Cow. What? My culinary vices include, but are not limited to, Ethical Bean medium-dark roast coffee and Laughing Cow cheese. I don't want to be right.

My head of organic broccoli was on its way out and pronto, and so I tossed it in with the pasta during the last few minutes of cook time and mixed in the cheese and a bit of milk to coat. This is not the dinner dreams are made of, but it was oddly comforting and nourishing and made a lovely companion to a few podcasts I listened to. It’s the kind of simple food that makes sense to eat on a night leading up to the holiday festivities.

What do you eat leading up to the holidays?


A game-changer

Girl Hunter by Georgia Pellegrini was recently released. I haven’t read it yet – it doesn’t seem to be out in Canada yet – but I feel pretty certain it will be a game-changer, the way Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma became a platform for other books of the same and inspired multiple books on local eating. Why? Because the cookbook section at my local Chapters has grown tired and boring, dear readers, that’s why. I love local food issues and even I, girl who can listen to the same song on repeat twenty-five times, have grown sick of reading the same things. And then along comes Georgia, a pretty blonde who offers up a sizeable dose of charm and a lot of interesting things to say about hunting and artisanal food production.

Certainly food-related issues and topics have been trending romantic over the last few years. At their core, the philosophies espoused by Slow Food, local eating, artisanal food production, and "sustainable eating" express this perspective most acutely. It's a nice thought to think about, even if entirely unrealistic. Industrialism occurred because those traditions involved some seriously hard labour. However, given the current culinary climate, it seems intuitive that hunting would follow suit; after all, if we're devoted to growing organic vegetables, keeping laying hens in our backyards for eggs and making our own butter, isn't it only natural that we might want to learn how to hunt, gather and forage, too?

While Pellegrini is remarkable in her own right, I find it interesting (though unsurprising) that in marketing the book, the complex questions a departure from Wall Street into the world of hunting might provoke were deliberately overlooked in favour of the simplified You can hunt a deer and still be a lady! Was that ever a question? But it is, isn’t it? It’s not only a fresh book idea; it’s a fresh idea, period.

It's a Wednesday night and I'm fashionably late for drinks with my friend K. in Cabbagetown. I met her well over a year ago in passing when we both served at an event hosted by a well-known real estate executive on a large piece of property outside of Barrie. We’ve taken a seat at one of the high tops and I’m deep into my first glass of wine. "I talked to my friend and he tells me I need to play hard to get," she says. "I am playing hard to get. I'm not doing anything. But he says no one will hunt a deer that's standing right in front of them."

In every other aspect of our lives, women are encouraged -- hell, forced -- to pursue. You want a fancy education? Go after it. You want to climb the corporate ladder? Give it a try. Venture to Thailand, knock back that shot of tequila, learn how to fly a plane; you can do whatever you want and be whomever you choose. All you have to do is choose it. But when it comes to hunting, we're told to lay down the gun.

"I don't get it,” I tell her. “I know so many great, funny, single women with vibrant social lives who have so much to offer.”
"Well, one thing's for sure. I'm not waiting a month until he comes back from Hawaii."
"What, no postcard?" I smile, dunking a sweet potato fry in aioli.

I suspect hunting will gain ground in the coming years. You'd be surprised to hear how many people hunt -- no one ever seems to discuss it. Georgia generally waxes poetic about it, which may inspire others to move out into the field. I mean, it’s already happening. Still, though, a part of be wonders: while it’s socially acceptable, for the most part, for a woman to bring home the bacon, will anyone object if she slaughters the pig, too?

I’m celebrating B.’s birthday in Kensington Market over a glass of Cabernet, flank steak with chimichurri, Yukon Gold potatoes and a perfectly tender mushroom salad. B. is one of the most endearing women I've ever met; she’s easy to like, maybe because she’s warm and open-hearted and her smile easily lights up a room. Maybe it's the fact that she is dancing around in her sequin skirt, purchased from the children's department. "You can't even tell!" she says. “Can you? I don’t think you can tell.”
"When are you planning on heading back to Huntsville?" her sister asks her.
"Um, well, I was thinking..."
"I'll give you a ride back anytime you like," J. pipes in.
"Why, are you going there sometime soon?"
"No, but I know how much you like my music."
“He does have great taste in music,” she says, looking over at me.
"What, you don't like the sound of my uncomfortable silence?" her sister asks.
The table erupts in a glorious fit of laughter.

B. used to live with her grandmother, but now lives with several other people in a big house in Toronto. She’s another fabulous go-getter, heading, why of course, to Huntsville this holiday.

My parents met on a blind date; they were set up by friends who are no longer together. As the story goes, my mom pursued my dad, who was mostly interested in sports and getting into mischief and not the least bit interested in committing to a long-term relationship. My mom’s a pretty convincing woman and my dad’s an awfully smart man, so I suppose it was inevitable. What would’ve happened had my mother let him go? There’s a picture of them when they were dating. My dad is thin and lanky and wearing some retro shirt and a fedora, and my mom’s there, her hair softly curled, looking beautiful. My dad is the kind of person who shows you he loves you; my mom fills in the words.

I want to read that book. I want to read someone else’s passion. And then I’ll let the wind take me, drive me into the field, where we learn to hunt and run in equal measure, where we navigate the terrain using our minds, our hands, the clothes on our backs.  


How to move up in the world

I think I've been in denial of the cold temperatures for a good month now. November was unseasonably warm in Toronto and it was easy to get carried away. Somehow I expected strawberries to appear at my local farmer's market and the flowers to start blooming again, yet here I am, nestled between the Brussels sprouts and the turnips. Not that there's anything wrong with cruciferous vegetables or tubers.

But after donning my fall trench coat for weeks (during the workday, anyway), I finally relented. I yanked out those fleecy, warm blankets from the steamer trunk in my living room. I've added an extra blanket to my bedding. I've been mingling with a pair of flannel pyjamas, nearly letting go of my tank top and shorts ensemble. Most telling, you'll find me most nights parked in front of my television watching Law & Order, mug of Lady Grey in hand. Oh, what an exciting life I lead! Rest assured, as busy as the city is, we Torontonians sleep. There might be drinks and dancing on the weekends, but come Tuesday night, we urban dwellers are undoubtedly catching up on some much-needed R&R. Even the most energetic of us need time to re-fuel. At least that's how I envision it in my world of generalizations.

And so I've made my way back into the kitchen, hovering over flames. Sounds a little Gordon Ramsay-ish, doesn't it? Well, when I'm finished cooking and you peer down into the abyss that is my sink and spot all of the dirty dishes waiting for you there, Hell's Kitchen is not much of an exaggeration. This week I listened to the Tragically Hip on repeat and stuffed mushrooms with the patience of a three-year-old. Tonight I'm planning a meal of eggs, these Brussels sprouts and this Thai-inspired salad that makes me want to pick up the Fresh line of cookbooks and see what all of the fuss is about myself. But first, we need to talk about oatmeal.

I know talking about oatmeal with others is often akin to talking about chores. Everyone knows they should be eating breakfast, oatmeal in particular, but nobody eats it, or they do it begrudgingly, or they eat it because they are doing their best to lower their cholesterol. Here's the thing. Oatmeal is delicious, or can be when prepared right. This pumpkin oatmeal is delicious, as is this carrot cake variation. Don't tell anyone, but it's also good with this chocolate hazelnut spread we all secretly adore or a generous scoop of peanut butter and jam. But it is also delicious baked. If you are not an oatmeal person or do not care to eat first thing, this is portable and tastes like dessert. Dessert, readers. And if there's one thing most people are generally game for, it's an excuse to eat sweets before noon.

I love Heidi Swanson's version. This one is clearly based on that. But berries are no longer in season here, despite my daydreaming and November's deceptively warm temperatures, and I have an abundance of crabapple sauce on hand from a pick I went on back in August. I don't know about you, but applesauce isn't something I through a lot of. Not like hummus, anyway. And as a single person living alone, it's tricky to pawn off on others. Here, come over for some...applesauce. You see why one might not keep friends. It's not exactly the same as saying, hey, come on over for some coffee and homemade cookies! (that would be spiked coffee, if you are one of my friends) or, even better, I have five bottles of wine that need to be used up, how much time have you got? This is how you move up in the world, people.

This baked apple oatmeal, conversely, is satisfying and perfect for those chilly mornings where you're caught at 7:15am 7:30am 7:45am 8:01am reaching for your robe and damning the bed again for adding yet another bruise to your collection, so that everyone at your gym thinks you're being abused from the knees down. This oatmeal goes well with coffee, a drizzle of pure maple syrup and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt, and still leaves you enough time to read an article or two and check your Twitter feed for all of the good worldly gossip and pack your lunch. It's the kind of breakfast that makes you want to hope for world peace and other crazy, nonsensical things, the kind you're most capable of believing before noon when you're jazzed out on caffeine and sugar (though knowing my penchant for not-to-sweet desserts, you can bet your bonnet that there isn't much sugar in this. At all.)

It just so happens that throwing together a batch of baked oatmeal is easy peasy. One bowl, a few on-hand ingredients, some time suntanning in the oven and poof, breakfast for the week. It's the kind of thing you can pull off even after a day crammed with meetings, the word DEADLINE ominously running through your mind at warp speed. You want to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Make baked oatmeal. It won't necessarily make you popular among friends, but it will keep you in the running. And after too many nights in front of the television drinking tea, you'll need something to keep up your credibility.

Baked Apple Oatmeal
Adapted from Heidi Swanson

Yields 6 generous portions

2 cups rolled oats
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 - 1/2 cup organic cane sugar, depending on taste
1 cup almonds, roughly chopped (feel at liberty to substitute)
2 cups milk (I used light vanilla soy milk)
1 egg
3 tbsp chia seeds (optional)
1/2 cup ground flax seeds
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tbsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
Generous pinch of sea salt
1 cooking apple (I used Gala), sliced into thin wedges
1.5 tsp baking soda
3 tbsp vegetable (grapeseed) oil or unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 375F.

In one bowl, mix together all dry ingredients (oats, sugar, almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda) until combined.

In a separate bowl, mix wet ingredients (applesauce, milk, egg, oil OR butter.)

Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly whisk in the wet ingredients. You'll end up with a pretty wet batter, so you know.

Grease an 8-inch square baking dish and pour in the mixture. Top with the apples and bake, uncovered, for 35-45 minutes, until cooked and set. You'll know it's finished when the edges start to move away from the sides of the pan. Serve warm or cold with a drizzle of maple syrup and a dollop of yogurt, if desired.


We get around just fine

At a time when we're told to focus on the big picture – namely giving to the less fortunate and thinking of others before ourselves -- it's ironic to feel as though you’re being pulled to focus on the small things. If you don't pay attention, you could find yourself pulled under a strategically placed mistletoe, miss the wreaths recently hung against the marble wall at your workplace, accidentally imbibe one too many festive cocktails. There are so many details to this holiday.

After spending a good amount of the wee hours of Sunday morning trying to get home from a late-night shift, I found myself, four hours of sleep in me, at a prestigious venue in North York built in the late 1800s serving brunch to J. Crew clad ladies and their well-to-do husbands, sipping on Chardonnay and eating plump shrimp. When I served at a wedding back in the fall the grounds were gorgeous – you could see the giant trees in the distance, the abundance of orange and red leaves, and the weather had just begun to cool off. Now, on the inside, pine trees were up and decorated in red and gold, setting off the mouldings and dark parquet floor. R. and I hung out in the women's locker room sipping on coffee in tiny elegant teacups on saucers and eating a breakfast of baked apple oatmeal out of a plastic container, talking about her love life and impending trip. It's the kind of conversation where issues of personal value arise, where you ask yourselves what the big issues and the small issues are. We finish our coffees and return to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, moving seamlessly from relationships to the purpose of doilies on saucers. We’re small fish in a big pond, but we get around just fine.

A friend of mine is currently battling cancer. He is twenty-eight. The last time I spoke to him he was boarding a bus, preparing for a day of radiation. Prognosis is good, all things considered, and the fact that he has more lives than a cat works in his favour. While it's no small thing, that he can make light of the situation and find the humour in it proves how much larger than life he really is. Speaking with him now, he seems calmer now, wiser now. Seven years have passed since we met and we’re getting older. Cancer is large, larger than all of us, but shows up so small.

My former boss once told me that her husband, who is not a very big man, sold her when he said, “Dynamite comes in small packages.” I smiled.

And then there are these mushrooms, because this is a food blog after all. They garnered rave reviews at the corporate holiday party I brought them to last week and I actually like them quite a bit myself. They're delicious and satisfying and addictive, but don't sit too heavy as most appetizers do. What sets these mushrooms apart, to my mind, is the balsamic vinegar they are tossed and baked in prior to being stuffed. It lends a welcomed acidity and sweetness, mellowing out the richness of the filling. It's the kind of thing I might serve to a small group of friends one night over wine and conversation, the kind of small group that fills a room from end to end.

Stuffed Mushrooms
Adapted (slightly) from Food52

Serves 15-20 people
Please note that this recipe makes quite a bit of filling. The reviewers over at Food52 mentioned tossing some of it into a frittata or an omelette -- a nice idea. It also makes a good dip for crackers or broccoli.

6 pints mushrooms
4 tbsp good-quality balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

1 package cream cheese (light is fine)
¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano, Asiago or other salty hard cheese
1 onion, chopped and caramelized
3 garlic cloves, minced
1lb ground pork seasoned with fennel and red chili flakes OR mild Italian sausage, browned

Preheat oven to 350F. Stem and clean the mushrooms and toss with the olive oil and vinegar. Season generously with sea salt and pepper. Bake for 25-30 minutes.

For the filling – mix everything together in a large bowl. If your ingredients (caramelized onions, meat) are warm when you add them to the cream cheese it should be pretty easy to mix together.

Stuff the mushrooms and bake for another 30 minutes or so at 375F until the tops have browned.


Worth the wait meatballs

Something's been keeping me up at night and it goes by meatball.

Having grown up in a mutt of a household -- my father is of French, Scottish, English and Native descent, while my mother's background is mostly English -- my main exposure to meatballs came from holiday get-togethers and summer barbecues. These meatballs were almost exclusively of the frozen variety, usually covered in some too-sweet commercial sauce and terribly dry. Yet somehow these magical things seem to incite rave reviews in most and invariably make me cringe in disgust. Yes, I'm a veritable food snob, and if it comes down to frozen food vs. starvation, I can tell you my hunger will put up an enviable fight. Life is too short to eat bad food, non?

It wasn't until Molly Wizenberg's article on meatballs appeared in Bon Appetit that my mind opened to the
possibility that meatballs might be good. Partly this is because I happened to like the magazine back then, and more importantly, Molly's recommendations are solid. I'm a worshipper at the tower of Daily Granola. I've made these chocolate puddle cookies twice to remarkable results (do seek out the cacao nibs.) I've also made adapted versions of these chocolate chip cookies and these buckwheat cookies, both delicious, as well as this chickpea salad, her (and Marcella Hazan's) recipe for tomato sauce, this red lentil soup with lemon, and Brandon's chana masala. You can trust this girl with your palate. She is also responsible for turning me on to Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe fame and the most perfect roast chicken you've had in your life. IN YOUR LIFE, people. That is a big deal for roast chickens everywhere.

But still, no meatballs. When I first moved to Toronto I subsisted off eggs, beans and rice and whatever inexpensive produce was available, mainly because I couldn't afford much else. And I used to eat a lot of lentils before embarking on this project of sorts where I told myself I'd make an effort to eat more exclusively Ontario fare (though this, I have to say, is ridiculously challenging if you are not a particularly big meat eater. I miss lentils and brown rice.)

Anyway, in essence, meatballs should be good. Ground meat, a binder, some seasoning, a great sauce -- I can be sold on these few things alone. But for some reason very good meatballs rarely materialize around here, and because I'm a bit of an uncomfortable omnivore, meatballs aren't really one to make the cut. There's also that whole time consuming business that nine-to-fivers tend to avoid (like the plague -- another cliche) and that whole dirtying many pots thing solo cooks and eaters everywhere tend to avoid (again, like the plague.) I actually adhere to a two-pot rule when cooking, so I went out on a bit of a limb here. Yes, I'm a rule breaker. Are you happy? I'm happy. Because I have a pot of these. And so should you. Especially on a cold and dreary day like today, where I was forced to treat myself to a giant gluten-free Prairie Girl cupcake for having to walk forty minutes in the pouring rain to restore balance. Or something like that.

My very good friend Sam made these allegedly incredible meatballs a while back. They are not Molly's, they are Mario's, and while I'm sure Molly's are very good, perhaps even exceptional, these are, too. I think Sam has urged me to make this recipe just about every time I've seen her, and although we don't see each other quite as often as we'd like, trust me when I say it's been many a time.

I divided the work up over the course of two evenings, since these lovelies take three (!!!) hours from start to finish. I made the sauce and made the meatballs the night before so all I had to do was brown the meat and bake them when I got in.

And honestly? Make these meatballs. They are incredible -- everything a meatball should've been a long time ago. And worth the wait.

Adapted from Mario Batali

Serves 6-8, depending on appetite

1lb lean ground beef
1lb hot Italian sausage, removed from casings
8-10 slices day old bread, diced into 1-inch cubes (I used O'Doughs gluten-free flax)
1/4 lb proscuitto, chopped finely
3 eggs
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup + 1/4 cup grated Pecorino
1 bunch Italian parsley, minced
1/2 bunch mint, minced
Several gratings of nutmeg, about 1/4 tsp
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Tomato sauce (I used Mario's recipe)
1/2 cup dry white wine
Vegetable oil, for frying (I use grapeseed)

Combine the first 10 ingredients in a large bowl and mix well to combine. Add 4 tbsp olive oil to the mixture and form into golf-size balls. Layer them on a lined sheet tray and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight to help them retain their shape.

Heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil in a cast iron pan or similar to medium-high. Add meatballs, taking heed not to overcrowd, and brown them. As they brown, add to a Dutch oven or similar cooking vessel one by one. Top with tomato sauce, wine and extra parsley or cheese, as desired, and bake for about an hour until meat is fully cooked. Serve immediately.


The faintest idea

I’m sitting down in the near-future to talk about my distant-future with a trusted, older co-worker of mine.

This appointment came up by accident, after gathering in a small room to discuss a list of projects (momentous things transpire in small rooms, I’ll have you know.) We both agreed that it was not the conversation we intended to have. The thing is, if I’m being totally honest, which is how we roll here in Aubergineland, I don’t pay much heed to my future. I understand that I should. I acknowledge that I, at twenty-six, should probably know what I want, have a plan of attack as to how to acquire it, and be ready. But I spent my early twenties in college drinking too many pints and sharing stories with my classmates and reading a whole lot of books, and mostly I figured that things would just work themselves out naturally, that it was somehow inevitable. I imagined that one day I’d have a career, whatever that happened to be – I think I wanted to be a book or magazine editor at the time – and that someday I’d find myself in a long-term partnership, possibly marry, own some kind of property, and have children. Although all of that seemed fairly abstract, too. Hell, it still feels lofty to me.

The thing is, nothing magically works itself out. Nobody tells you that. They certainly don’t tell you that during hours-long debates at popular grad school public houses. Most pursuits necessitate some sort of process and intent. And I am especially poor at marketing myself. You wouldn’t think so, seeing as I have this shiny blog here and all, but I am terrible. I haven’t the faintest idea of how to package my misfit list of skills and interests into something even remotely compelling. And most importantly, I am petrified of acknowledging what would "make my heart sing." I have no concept of what that road might look like and I am awful at forging my own path. Mostly I flail around and try to look decent doing it.

I am a writer – that’s the truth. I’m pretty sure I have always been a writer, because before I could write I painted my thoughts, and before that I would tell myself stories. I’m pretty sure I will always write the way I’m sure singers feel they will always sing and painters feel they will always paint. For a few odd years I was reluctant to call myself one because I didn't write often and I thought perhaps I should be published first before I went around advertising myself as this writer person. But at any rate I am of a generation and live in an era that every day denounces the critical importance of real, engaging content. Hand-written letters and telegrams were replaced by email and the phone, which have since been replaced by social media and text messaging. We want to read our newspapers without paying for them and we make a fuss when they go up in price. We want to watch television and the news online without paying for cable or satellite, and we find it absurd to pay thirty dollars for a hardcover non-fiction title that the author may have spent one, two, three years researching and writing and who may very well be living below the poverty line. Who attends poetry readings anymore? How many publishers are pushing good books over best sellers? Who wants to be a writer now? I don’t. What do you do when you are a writer who likes learning and writing about food and who is concerned with the state of food security in North America? Who is passionate about local recipes and culture? Who gives a damn about humanitarian causes and some vague notion of sustainability? Who wants to hear from you? Who will listen? What do you have to say that is so different and so much more insightful than what the next person has to say?

This isn’t related to food, I know, and so maybe I’m cheating a little here. I’m used to having the answers; I don’t know that I’m comfortable with open-ended questions. Because the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t always know what I want. I don’t have a five-year plan, or a ten-year plan. I don’t know that even if I did know what I wanted that I’d have the chutzpah to pursue it single-mindedly, the way I’ve always pursued everything else. I don’t know that I would want to. I don’t know that I am sufficiently self-assured in my convictions to realize them fully. I don’t know that I have the guts for that. I don’t know that I am ready.

Which is scarier: not getting what you want, or standing at the precipice of it?


If you're willing

“Enter through back alley,” I read. “Well, that sounds safe.”
“Oh there it is,” he says.
“That’s not an alley. That’s a street.”
“Ask any hooker, it’s an alley.”

It’s your typical Thursday night shift: we all show up at the venue, not knowing what we’re going to be doing or where we ought to be, and play it cool – which, by the way, isn’t all that difficult to do when it’s -1C outside and windy as all hell.

“So,” C. says, “That guy back there? He’s nineteen. I just hit on a nineteen-year-old security guard. But he looked twenty-five.”
“Are you turning pedophile in your old age?” I answer, smirking.
“No. No, no, no.”

We’re herded upstairs where I meet Bree, “like the cheese but spelled differently,” and Velvet, bartenders who are busy polishing glassware. Velvet glances at me and takes out a copy of Gods Behaving Badly from her bag, handing it over as the client turns her back. “Close your eyes, ask a question, and flip to a page. You’ll get a word.” I do as she says and get an answer to my question. “What is this game?” Bree laughs. “Something we invented ten minutes ago because we were bored.” I like them immediately.

We put in the time, running up and down stairs. Around eleven, when the outside world has left, we gather around the last table standing and eat bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin with truffled aioli, summer rolls with cilantro, olives, cheese, fruit, stuffed mini potatoes. We tell each other our stories – it’s always best to come armed with one or two – and meet the still midnight air together as we make the trek back home. It seems warmer. The winds have calmed.

My day-to-day is jam packed with rules and regulations, corporate policies and standards. There are rules, here, too, but mostly it is about living in the moment, learning the art of infinite adaptability, being okay with plans being subject to change. Some greet uncertainty with caution while others throw themselves head first into the abyss.

After weeks of melancholy-tinged conversations with others about the economy and the state of the world, being reminded of how few choices we really have and how powerless we really are, feeling as though I can choose my own life is re-invigorating. We have never been able to choose our environment; that’s out of our control. But at the end of the alley there is a door, if you can see it, if you’re willing to brave it, and in spite of what you know or think you may know or have been told, adventure lies ahead.


That sort of disarming thing

Whoosh! Weekends spent in my hometown are always far too brief. I'm aware that I'm unusually close to my family, but perhaps it's because I actually like them. We discuss local wine, new recipes and travel destinations. We play board games. There's a lot of yelling and carrying on.

They warm my cold, black heart. That sort of disarming thing.

Amherstburg is the kind of place where you meet up with decade-old friends at the local greasy spoon, the kind of place that still serves $5 breakfast (with coffee) on checkered table cloths and doesn't accept interact cards.

You follow your sister into the barber shop early, before the regulars pile in, and head to the back so she can trim your ends and make you look presentable. You ask her boss how he's doing. You say hello to her co-workers, and together discuss the merits of roasted red pepper hummus as someone gets their hair straightened to the sounds of Top 40s.

Before leaving for a party, someone might exclaim, "Take a roadie!" and so you do, tossing it under the seat, smiling while shaking your head.

And then, poof!, you arrive back in the Big Smoke, surrounded by skyscrapers and fellow transplants.

Now I'm going to talk about Brussels sprouts.

But wait! Don't leave! Just say it with me: Brussels sprouts. It sounds pretty. I think it has to do with the word sprouts. If they were called something different, perhaps Brussels blooms, maybe people would be more inclined to eat them. When I brought them up to a room full of co-workers, most cringed in disgust, repelled by the sprouts.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of the little cabbages. I like cabbage. I even like vegetables in miniature. Though people have tried to convince me over the years that Brussels sprouts are inherently delicious, I'm a reluctant believer. There's still not much of a gravitational pull. I've tried them roasted with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, sure that a simple preparation would win my heart. That didn't happen. I've eaten them with bacon. Meh, alright. My mom likes to boil or microwave them. There are no words to accurately describe my facial expression when the words "boil" and "sprouts" unite.

Fortunately, food authorities exist out there and Cook's Illustrated is really the foremost of them. It's one of those modern day rarities: no glossy photographs, no fuff, no advertisements (!) -- just plain good ol' teachings. What can I say? I may be woed by pretty things, but not indefinitely.

At over seven Canadian dollars, this magazine does not come cheap, folks (though my current library fees makes it look like a bargain.) But it is good quality. I often mosey over to Chapters on my lunch hour to peruse the cooking and art sections. I might grab a coffee and linger a while. It's a nice reprieve from Cubicleland. The good news is that these recipes are classics, which makes the magazine an investment -- unlike current favourites that publish predominantly sensational food news, appealing nearly exclusively to a bourgeois sensibility. I've stopped subscribing to these because I find the recipes are poorly constructed, flop or simply aren't good. Pretty pictures be damned (!).

The more I cook, the less I rely on your standard recipes. Yes, I love trying new things. I'll give a good-looking dish a go. But perfecting the basics is sometimes trickier and requires more diligence and patience than I may have been willing to muster in the past. I can find you a great chili recipe; I can make you a fish taco that will blow your socks off. However, ask your typical home cook how to properly roast Brussel's sprouts or cook scrambled eggs and they might look at you a little quizzically. Truthfully, anyone can follow a recipe; it isn't exactly hard. But acquiring skill -- identifying when something has finished cooking, tasting with intent, understanding the various components of a dish -- that takes experience and a little know-how. Cooking a fine, simple meal is an underrated thing.

And so, Brussels sprouts.

I've become a bit of an overnight fan.

By adding a bit of water, the sprouts are transformed. Magically, they are rendered tender and sweet, the bitterness removed entirely by the slow caramelization process. It helps to find yourself some nice Brussels sprouts, by which I mean fresh ones with tight leaves. I purchased mine at the local farmer's market, where they all looked delicious.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, Nov. 2011

Serves 2

1lb Brussels sprouts, cleaned, trimmed and halved
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Drizzle of water
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 500F. Using a sheet of aluminum paper, make a pouch. In a separate bowl, toss the sprouts with the olive oil until thoroughly combined. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add the sprouts to the pouch and drizzle with a splash of water. Nip the pouch shut. Roast for about 10 minutes, covered, and uncover for another 10, or until sprouts are tender-crisp and lightly caramelized. Serve immediately.


On eating alone, or a case for orange food

I've pulled some impressive magic tricks in my day. If you place an open container of hummus in front of me, I will make it disappear.

I've eaten my weight in hummus this week, having made it my dinner -- with seed crackers and broccoli -- the past two nights. This is what happens to single people. I am perfectly capable of tying my own apron strings, brining and roasting chickens, braising cabbage rolls, boiling lentils, and baking potatoes, but with no one to cook for, sometimes -- happily (!) -- dinner is hummus. Which, in my defense, is better than a half pint of ice cream. I leave that sort of indulgent behaviour to humid summer days when even glancing at my oven makes me want to throw myself at my freezer. My oven and I have a bit of an open relationship from June until September; it seems to work for us.

There was that one New Year's Eve when I ate flourless chocolate cake for dinner accompanied by a French 75. This is not a good combination. I'm not advising you mix the two. But I wanted one of each and so one of each appeared. Or that time last winter when I split a slice of chocolate cake with a friend over an espresso. That also became dinner.

I highly recommend ice cream for dinner, by the way.

Eventually I find my way back to civilization. It helps that I'm fond of vegetables in that must-hit-the-market-weekly kind of way. I cooked up a pot of vegetarian chili last night while throwing myself an impromptu dance party. And this morning I woke up sans alarm to the sun, bright and cheery. I made myself some oatmeal with some old carrots I had on hand as the coffee brewed. I put on Billie Holliday. I finished a book. It was a remarkably productive morning.

I was almost late to my 9 o'clock meeting.

You didn't need to know that.

But my shirt was ironed and buttoned correctly. I slapped on a pair of polished black pumps. I wore lipstick, people. I tried my hand at that whole be charming business.

And the oatmeal was delicious. You don't need charm when you've got the chops, folks. Or a terrible case of cocky.

You toss some grated carrot in with some milk. (I don't know about you, but I usually end up with a surplus of carrots this time of year. I always think I'm down to my last two. This never happens and I never learn.) As for the milk, I use Silk light vanilla soy milk because I appreciate their (seemingly) transparent practices and traceability. You can use whatever you have on hand -- cow's milk, almond, whatever. You heat it until the carrots cook a little -- the timing will depend on how old your carrots are -- and then you add your rolled oats. You cook that. You throw in some warm spices -- ginger, cinnamon --and a splash of vanilla. You mix it around. You could add some nuts or seeds here if you like, but I just salt it well, and then I sit down to eat. It takes a bit of time, but it's worth it. Especially if it means you can sit around a little while longer listening to good music and enjoying your java.

And the hummus? We're on a bit of a hiatus. Until next time.

Carrot Cake Oatmeal

Adapted from Angela at Oh She Glows

Serves 1

1 carrot, finely grated (about 1 cup)
1 cup milk, or as needed
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 tsp ground ginger
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp real vanilla extract
Real maple syrup, to taste
Salt, to taste

Toss your grated carrot and milk in a pot and heat over medium-low. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the carrot has a chance to heat up. Add your oats and stir thoroughly. Continue stirring until the oats are almost fully cooked, about 4 minutes, adding additional milk if and as required. Add spices and vanilla. Remove from heat and stir in the maple syrup. Salt until the flavours come through clearly.


How far you can see

The morning is crisp and clear, signs of the kind of autumn day I longed for back in October, the one I felt I was denied. The kind that conjures visions of walks in High Park, in midtown maybe, sipping on a cappuccino or a mug of peppermint tea, observing the leaves slip into brighter clothes, window shopping, whatever it is Torontonians do on Sundays. I’ve my apron on as early as 7:30am, moka pot heating on the stove, slicing a Spanish onion with a nearly dull knife.

I’ve been reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman for a while, flipping back and forth. Both are great reads for different reasons. I love Chabon's failed heroes. And I love the manner with which Waldman treats the human condition. She writes the main character, a young woman who has recently lost her infant daughter, with great sensitivity; yet Emilia Greenleaf is deeply, beautifully flawed. There's no pretension here. I adore how the reader is absolutely compelled to sympathize with a character who isn't necessarily an easy person to care for, but who is intensely layered and interesting and really, by striking out against those closest to her, is simply asking to be loved. I was on the subway last night when I glancedat the author's biography on the back -- “[Ayelet Waldman] and her husband, the novelist Michael Chabon, live in Berkeley, California, with their four children.” I had no idea they even knew each other, but I've been falling asleep with both of them on my bedside table all along.

“It’s a really big city, William. It’s a huge city, and Collegiate is one tiny, little dot. It’s a tiny, little, meaningless dot. It’s a huge city, and you’re going to have a huge life, and I promise you, I promise you, Collegiate means nothing. No matter what happens, no matter how mad and sad anybody gets, you’ve just got to remember how big everything is, and how far you can see.” (Waldman, pg. 180.)

Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Frittata with Fontina
Serves 4-8

2 tbsp unsalted butter
½ large Spanish onion, sliced
250g cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 large eggs
½ cup milk (I use 2%)
2oz grated fontina cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a cast iron or ovenproof skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook slowly until nicely caramelized, about 45 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue stirring until the mushrooms have browned slightly.

Heat oven to 350F.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk until well combined. Slowly add the milk. Season the egg mixture with salt and pepper, and pour into the skillet. Cook over the heat for about five minutes and then move the skillet into the hot oven.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until the eggs are mostly set. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle cheese over top and broil for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the top slightly browned. Serve immediately.


Meeting Tuesday

I have a song for every day of the week, and the Stones own Tuesday. In part this is because I love the Stones (who doesn't?) paying tribute to them before I make my way to work makes for a happier day spent in Cubicleland. Also, "Ruby Tuesday" is easy listening for people prone to noise sensitivity prior to 10am.

There's no such thing as a bad Stones song, and while it would be wrong to play favourites, "Ruby Tuesday" holds a special place in my heart. Mostly it reminds me of my cousin Kate, who, at a yearly summer get-together, adamantly declared we play it, her blonde head swinging in the hot, still air. I don't remember what comes next -- maybe she got up on a chair and sang along loudly to it. I wouldn't put it past her. But I do remember feeling pretty free and content. And listening to the Stones long into the evening.

This Tuesday is my first day back from Vacationland. The bad news is that my vacation has come to an abrupt halt, not to be resurrected in any way until the holiday season is in full swing. On the bright side, I did a bit of cooking: there's a pot of white bean, sweet potato, kale, and chorizo stew that simmered away in a robust homemade stock; I pulled together some chicken fajitas and mushroom omelettes while my friend was here visiting; and this granola, my new favourite granola recipe.

There's a few things I like about this. It's not a bad way to meet a Tuesday morning. It has this sweet-salty thing going on that I, as a big-time salt afficionado, adore. Like most granola recipes, it's relatively quick to toss together, and if you choose the right peanut butter -- I am dead SOLD on this crunchy Ontario brand, come hell or high water -- you end up with a truly remarkable product. For those who prefer clumpy granola, this should fit the bill nicely.

If you're looking to use up some of those leftover pumpkin seeds, this recipe offers a lovely arena. Although the original is quite good, I've modified it slightly to meet my tastes (and dietary restrictions.)

Peanut Butter & Honey Granola
Adapted from the Kitchn

Yields about 4 cups

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup hulled roasted pumpkin seeds
1.5 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1.5 tsp ground ginger
1/2 cup honey (I prefer wildflower honey)
1/4 cup demerrara or light brown sugar
1 cup natural peanut butter
1.5 tsp real vanilla extract
2/3 cup grapeseed or olive oil
3/4 cup roughly chopped dates (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 325F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine oats, seeds, salt, cinnamon, and ginger.

Heat honey, brown sugar and peanut butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the peanut butter is melted and well combined. Turn off the heat. Slowly add in the oil.

Using a spatula, carefully mix the hot, wet ingredients with the dry ones. You're looking for a slightly rough, chunky texture. Transfer to the baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes, stirring at 10-12 minute intervals, until amber-coloured. Remove from oven and let cool completely before tossing with the dates, if using, and storing in an air-tight container. For best results, use within two weeks.


Oh this adventurous life

I don’t know how it happens, but the months sail by, flipping through like a shuffling deck of playing cards. I never learned to shuffle, either.

I weathered the rain and wind the other day to pick up my very best friend at Union Station. As I went in to hug her, I thought, yes, finally, I can breathe again. It’s that kind of friendship – the one that can only blossom between two fiercely independent, free-spirited individuals who, geeks to the core, never let the world tell them what to want, what to do, what to believe and connected because of it.

An aside: I just noticed that if you sub “vampire” for “friend” in that paragraph above it might sound a little Anne Rice-y, which I suppose is awfully fitting considering the season. Trust that the only red liquid imbibed this week starts with “w” and ends with “ine.”

On the East side, I take her to my local coffee shop. It’s the kind of place you need to learn about through word-of-mouth due to its side street location and low-budget advertising. It’s Bulldog Coffee – I think they have a couple of different locations – and they’re my favourite. The baristas crank out mean espressos and chat with you as if you’ve known them forever. I appreciate the openness. But then again, it’s that kind of neighbourhood, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone; the kind of place where you’re likely to run into a friend you haven’t seen in ages, and – surprise! – find yourself sitting down to drinks on the fly. I like that.

I order for my friend and we take a seat by the door, settle in for the long haul. We talk it all over. Our lives – the past, the present, the future; our regrets and disappointments; our successes and accomplishments; where do we go from here?; hopes and fears. We cover the landscapes, one by one. I listen to her recount her trip to Australia, how beautiful it was, how much she loved Sidney. I tell her about how I was dazzled by the bright lights of New York City. We recall the time I made inedible dill carrot soup with entirely too much dill and garlic. When she introduced me to The Best Potato Salad Recipe ever (yes, ever! I feel very comfortable dropping that word around The Best Potato Salad Recipe. It's not too much.) There's that time we devoured an entire loaf of gluten-free monkey bread in under twelve hours at the exclusion of all other food groups. The conversation comes easily. It's as if no time has passed at all, which I suppose is how it is with good friends.

“Should we get something else?” she asks me.
“I still have coffee,” I protest, swirling the last of the froth.
She pauses.
"We’ve been staring down at the bottom of our coffee cups for the last two hours.” And we both laugh.

Here we are on the West side, listening to the piano man stomp his feet on the worn wood floors. This place feels like something out of the 20s, but I can't place why. My chair moves with the keys and I don’t mind. Harlem Underground is small and intimate and the food is delicious. We recount old stories with our old friend, D., and as predicted, spend the night fighting back tears. The conversation weaves and changes course, because this is 2011, not 2008, and we are a little older and maybe a little wiser now.

“When did we last see each other exactly?” someone asks as I sip on a dirty gin martini. I think it was when we came back to my apartment after a night at some local bar. Maybe it was the night we shot a few games of pool at the Firehouse and I embarrassed myself by proving to everyone what an embarrassingly bad pool player I am.

“Allow me to fill you in on our ‘adventurous lives’,” I say, taking another bite of cajun catfish.

We are separated again by the many kilometres, our lives shaped by the choices we make, the meals the markers. I think it over while simmering some chicken stock, boiling beans back to life.


Feast for the Fight, etc.

Feast for the Fight took place last night, and so it came to pass that this Torontonian braved high winds and rain in the name of fundraising.

In high school, I met a very brave and beautiful friend of mine through mutual friends. The way I remember it, we were introduced because she was friends with someone I had a ridiculous crush on, and while the crush went nowhere -- thankfully, as I had some interesting taste back in the day -- she and I became friends. She was the one who got me drunk at our prom party off apricot brandy. She was the one who helped me study for history and classical civilization exams in university and made sure I had my information down pat. When she was living in Toronto she brought me back a load of gluten-free products from Toronto to try; around my nineteenth birthday, we split a bottle of Sour Puss while at Guelph, visiting a friend of ours. I remember the night I met the man who would become her husband and thinking he seemed cool. When we both lived in Windsor, we danced together at the Loop like nobody's business, and we continued the tradition by being the last ones standing on the dance floor at the wedding of a friend of ours this past May. Whenever I've been through the ringer and I let my friends in on it, I can count on her to say, "Your house or mine?" and though she may not have always agreed with my choices, she's always been on my team.

And no, we are not alcoholics. Thanks for checking.

Several years ago, around what must've been my twenty-first birthday, I spent a lot of time at the hospital. My grandfather was wittling away, the consequences of working as a millwright during the hay days of asbestos. It is one thing to know someone is dying, but it is quite another to know they are suffering. It feels heavier. But while I'm reasonably adept at dealing with death in my own way, as much as anyone can ever be, it's another to know that girl you sat across from at the school cafeteria now sits across from you in the hospital. Because I do not take myself so seriously, I have this terrible habit of cracking jokes when people are upset. And so between bringing Tim Hortons fruit and yogurt cups to my grandfather and listening to Johnny Cash on tape, I tried to see her and make her laugh. Maybe you just had to feel it instead of trying to make sense of it.
Shortly after my grandfather died, her mother passed away from cancer.

Since then, she has participated in the CIBC Run for the Cure every year. I ran with her a couple of years. Of course, with these things, it is not just about the money, though that matters. And it's not just about the race. It's about respecting and honouring the past, certainly, but also about conjuring a vision of the future that looks better than the present. This sounds hokey and trite, but yes, it's about hope. Can you imagine a day when we can cure someone of cancer? I want to live that. Feast for the Fight is one of many fundraisers dedicated to raising funds for cancer research and the like, but I didn't agree to attend solely for that. I attended in honour of that vision. It's that vision that gets me knitting scarves for women and children living in shelters. The one that lived with me as I weeded an older woman's garden this past summer while plucking crabapples from a tree. The one I carried with me to the top of the CN Tower tonight, something I am doing because that same friend encouraged me to do it, wrote me a note to remind me I could it, and helped me to raise enough money to participate. Here's to all of that.

I am glad that I could, over a bowl of pretty good pad thai at the Queen Mother Cafe, give back in some small way. But I am also glad to keep doing what I do, which is this: to cook and to write about the way food brings these stories back to life for me. To show the people in my life that I love them again and again, whether it's through a slice of maple whisky pumpkin cake or a plate of overcooked scrambled eggs (hi Laura). This is the way I hope.

While I wait for that vision to manifest, I'm feeling fortunate tonight that I have people in my life who offer tremendous support and keep me grounded. You make the present a gift to live.


With time to breathe

The days around here are slowly winding down.

Gone are the whirlwind months of surprise visitors and grueling shifts, never-ending to-do lists and afternoons (and evenings. And the wee hours of the morning) spent canning. I’m reading (!) again, dear readers. I’m trying to finish up Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and I’m in the middle of the unexpectedly addictive Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. I'm trying to catch up on my blogs and finish a newspaper. I made a pot of simple broccoli soup tonight and finished my leftovers. The front door of my apartment is newly painted thanks to my super. My place is clean. I have a "new", waterproof winter coat. The dishes are done (!) with the exception of one soaking pot. The laundry is under manageable conditions.

It would seem I have my life in order! With time to breathe!

I'm working on a few recipes for you. I made pumpkin biscotti last night. It sort of bombed. I made beef short ribs and polenta with acorn squash the other night -- that was pretty delicious, but it needs another go. Tonight I picked up a few pounds of locally grown, LFP-certified beans (red kidney, white navy and black turtle) and some of the best peanut butter made with Ontario peanuts. We'll see where that leads.

The leaves are crunchy beneath my feet and I’m given to drinking several cups of tea during the day to combat the inevitable chill October’s presence always seems to bring in. One of my very favourite people is set to visit next week and spend a few days with me, which, to my mind, is an early holiday gift. We lived together all through graduate school, and for drama's sake I can't say life has been the same since. I’ve looked high and low – there is no one like her in the world, and I’m looking forward, more than anything, to sip on a good cup of coffee with her and discuss our lives with each other as though we’re still fawning over our theses or marking student papers. As much as I miss those days – and I do, terribly and achingly – I’m enjoying celebrating the present.

How are you faring this fall?


Those otters looked a little suspicious

Dear readers, I've been sick.

There should be a clause that every lovely, perfect weekend be followed by a lovely, perfect week, for too often it seems we're punished for, oh, trying to enjoy life a little. I thought those otters looked a little suspicious.

At any rate, a girl can only live on fried eggs and bottomless bowls of soup for so long before she starts craving something a bit more substantial. Since I was away last weekend, I've been making do with some odds and ends -- a head of broccoli, some potatoes, homemade granola with yogurt. And what to do with the acorn and spaghetti squash perched in the corner?

I thought I'd give you a break from all of my pumpkin shenanigans and focus on a different squash. I'd like to imagine I'm not the only one obsessed with citrus-coloured vegetables. And this time I get to play with two varieties. I know, you're stoked. I can sense it from this side of the screen.

I pulled this meal together from what I had on hand -- an example of what you can do with good, local ingredients. I usually want to make meals that are slightly involved and interesting, but I often resort to the same types of things pretty routinely. I'm hoping to change this over the next few months and stretch my culinary legs a little. Luckily, even sick I find it easy to throw a couple squash in the oven and roast them and a bit of pork while I catch up on my blogs and television shows. It requires little energy and yields big results.

Another bonus? This meal is entirely budget friendly. Squash is super economical and plentiful this time of year and will keep for months under the right conditions. Pork can also be had for cheap if you aren't overly particular, but I buy my meat directly from a butcher and pay the premium. Even still, this meal is satisfying, nourishing and economical -- and a much-needed change from my soft food diet.

Spiced Pork Over Spaghetti Squash

Loosely adapted from Cooking Light

Serves 2

This recipe yields two servings, but you'll be left with more spaghetti and acorn squash than you really need. Fortunately, squash freezes really well, so you can always put it away for a future use. I like to keep some kicking around because I like adding squash to omelettes and soups or for incorporating in other dishes.

1 large pork loin chop (about 10oz)
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch cinnamon
Salt and pepper

1 medium-sized spaghetti squash
1 standard-sized acorn squash
1 tbsp grated parmesan
4-5 fresh sage leaves, minced
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil

1. Whisk together spices in a small bowl and coat pork with them. Salt and pepper each side generously and bring to room temperature.
2. Slice the squashes and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Place in 400F oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour, until fork-tender.
3. Bake pork until an internal temperature of 145F is reached (or 160F for very well-done.) Cover and let rest.
4. Scrape half the spaghetti squash into a bowl. In a separate bowl, scrape out flesh of one half of the acorn squash. Mash and mix with a quick drizzle of olive oil, the parmesan and sage.
5. Mix the acorn squash "sauce" with the spaghetti squash until well combined.
6. Slice the pork in two and serve over spaghetti squash. Serve immediately.


Check it out

Dear reader, while you wait for the next installment of Aubergine (humour me), you might want to check out two upcoming events if you find yourself in the Greater Toronto Area.

Tomorrow, October 16th is Foodstock, an outdoor, pay-what-you can, public food event in support of the movement to Stop The Mega Quarry. The event will feature 100 local chefs including Michael Stadtl√§nder. Stadtl√§nder is an internationally renowned chef, whose farm-to-table eatery at Eigensinn was 15 years ahead of the locavore movement and has been ranked as one of the top ten best restaurants in the world. Head out to Honeywell if you can to support this great cause and sample some fine cuisine. To donate or learn more about it, click here.

Dine out at a participating restaurant on Wednesday in support of Feast for the Fight. A portion of the proceeds will go toward the Canadian Cancer Society. To see the list of participating restaurants, click here. I'm still undecided on whether I'll be out that night or not, but if you plan on attending, please let me know!

It's chilly out there today, readers, so be sure to arm yourselves with cozy sweaters and a cup of hot tea. How am I beating the chill? A mug of strong coffee and a pair of fuzzy slippers (listening to Ben Lee doesn't hurt, either.) Enjoy your weekend.


Last cinnamon sticks standing

Dear readers, I'm back from another lovely weekend at the cottage. I'm battling what appears to be the onset of a cold and as such have resorted to things like endless mugs of peppermint tea, fried eggs on toast and granola with yogurt. Though I can appreciate the finer things in life -- single-origin raw chocolate, dark roast coffee, aged wines, expertly crafted cheeses, fresh seafood -- you'd be surprised at how often I turn to some version of a staple to keep me nourished and satisfied. When you cook for yourself, anything goes, doesn't it?

This weekend involved real comfort -- reading on the beach, leisurely breakfasts prepared to classic Motown tunes, hours spent playing board games with family members (I contend that I'm not really all that competitive), sipping hot apple cider and whisky cocktails with a cinnamon stick garnish, and watching Will and Grace while perched on the sofa, stuffed. It was about roasting marshmallows over bonfires, playing with slobbery dogs, and kayaking through the lake, the water so calm it was if we were shooting through shields of glass. I might love Thanksgiving more than Christmas if only because fall in Ontario is so beautiful and idyllic.

I don't have much to say to you today, readers, except that I have a hot pot of potato-leek soup simmering away on the stove, garlic roasting in the oven, and a book on my bed waiting for me. I'm fortunate to have the family I have -- unconditionally sweet, supportive and fun -- and friends who really are with me 24 hours a day in some capacity or another. There's a lot to love and to be thankful for this year, not least that I'm still able to appreciate a dinner of a couple eggs fried simply in butter and eaten with good bread and radishes on a warm October night.


A recipe for Thanksgiving

I do not like pumpkin pie.

There, I've said it.

I think pumpkin is an absolutely fabulous thing. In fact, along with plaid, apple picking and boots, it's what I would call a true marker of autumn. I don't know about you, but my plans include turning orange this season.

Enjoying a pumpkin spice latte while taking a mid-morning walk on a crisp, cool day. Pasta tossed with pumpkin, bacon, and sage. Pumpkin tacos, if you're so inclined. I introduced you to the joys of pumpkin oatmeal. We've eaten pumpkin pancakes. I'm a particularly big fan of pumpkin bread -- I adapted Julie's version to great success for those looking for a winner of a recipe -- and pumpkin risotto. And last year, I brought Laura Calder's squash cake to Thanksgiving dinner at my uncle's cottage.

Now, the cake was good. We all liked it and the texture was especially nice. But it was also a little on the boring side. This is all well and good after a large meal, I think, and in general I tend to prefer my dessert on the less-sweet side of the scale. However, to a family accustomed to and in love with pumpkin pie, it was a little underwhelming I'm sure.

I've gone back to the drawing board this time. Maple syrup. Whisky. Brown sugar. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Ginger. I'd like to give pumpkin pie a run for its status. I don't know about you, but I'm headed out of dodge this weekend to enjoy some time at the cottage again -- reading, kayaking, listening to Motown, playing Mexican Train, roasting marshmallows, and refining my bartending skills. It sounds promising.

And, I'll add, so does this cake.

Maple Whisky Pumpkin Cake

Yields about 8 slices

3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup pure maple syrup (dark, or Grade-C, recommended)
1/3 cornstarch
1/4 cup coconut flour or alternative
2 cups pureed pumpkin
1/4 cup whisky (I like 40 Creek)
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
21/2 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt

1. Pre-heat oven to 350F and grease a springform pan. Cream egg yolks with sugar until well combined.
2. Add in pumpkin, maple syrup, whisky,  spices and salt.
3. Mix until thoroughly combined.
4. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
5. Gently fold egg whites into the batter and mix in.
6. Add in any nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.) that you may like at this point.
7. Gently fold mixture into springform pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean and the sides are crisp, about 50 minutes - 1hr. Serve warm with cinnamon whip cream or creme fraiche.


Breakfast around here looks like this: a pumpkin oatmeal recipe

I know there are people who don't eat breakfast. I'll admit, I don't really understand these people. I love breakfast. It's the one time of the day when mixing peanut butter and wildflower honey in with my whole grains seems perfectly acceptable, when a bowl of granola sweetened with maple syrup and brown sugar passes for health food. This is not to say I'm someone who adores sweets -- I'm not. But come fall you're most likely to find me puttering around in the kitchen, nursing a pot of oats over an open flame. Gone are the days of light lunches and quick breakfasts of yogurt and fruit or fried eggs. After all, what is more soul-satisfying than a hot bowl of grains?

When I first considered a commitment to local eating a couple of months ago, I'll be honest. I searched high and low for oats. Oak Manor produces oats grown and processed in Ontario, but naturally they aren't gluten-free. Which is fine -- unless you have that pesky auto-immune disease that's so du jour. Fortunately Cream Hill Estates, out of Quebec, makes a line of gluten-free oat products that include rolled oats, oat flour and oat groats. I realize these oats aren't from Ontario, but Montreal is a heck of a lot closer than the Bob's Red Mill Wheat-Free Oats I was purchasing. Happily, these oats are also more economical - $11 for almost 5lbs, vs. $7 for 2.2lbs of Bob Red Mill's Wheat Free Rolled Oats (and this is at NoFrills -- they go from anywhere between $8 - $10 at stores such as Whole Foods, Loblaws and health food stores.)

Cream Hill Estates, according to their website, "is a small, privately-owned business producing and distributing guaranteed pure oats as rolled oats, oat flour and whole oat kernels (groats)." They're currently in the process of developing other gluten-free oat products. For those in the GTA, I purchased mine from Noah's Bloor St. (at Spadina) location.

I'll be covering alternative ways of enjoying your bowl of oats in the future, but here's one to tantalize your tastebuds for now.

Pumpkin Oatmeal

Serves 1

1/3 cup rolled oats (learn more about rolled oats here)
2 heaping tbsp pureed pumpkin (I use Stokely's, which is grown and processed in Ontario)
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice, or more to taste
1-2 tsp pure Ontario maple syrup
Dash of pure vanilla extract
Black walnuts (optional)

1. Cook your oatmeal according to package directions. Be sure to add a pinch of salt to the cooking water. I cook mine on the stovetop because I don't have a microwave, which takes about 4-6 minutes.

2. Closer to the end of cooking time, around the 3-4 minute mark, add canned pumpkin, pie spice, and vanilla. Mix thoroughly to combine.

3. Heat through and serve immediately. Stir in maple syrup and add walnuts or other add-ins if desired. You may need to add a little additional salt if the flavours aren't coming through clearly. Enjoy with a cup of local pumpkin tea or with pumpkin spice coffee.


And we're off (!). Again.

I'll come right out and say it: I've been trying to write this post for a long while now. How long? Embarassingly long. Twelve re-writes long. At least. Let's forget I just said that and all yell apple cobbler. That's better. I've been drinking a lot of mint tea and watching bad television and listening to a lot of good music, most notably Sarah Harmer and David Gray. Also, it's fall now. That happened. All around me people are getting sick and asking, "Where did August go?" Nevermind August. What happened to July? I'm still stuck in July. Maybe I'll quit this blog and take up a cigar habit and write a book called May and Everything After. It'll be a quick read.

That's what's new with me. What's new with you? I haven't heard from you in ages.

I haven't been writing much these days. It began innocently enough back in June when I was too busy to breathe and fold my laundry, let alone cook anything more elaborate than fried eggs. I fell out of the habit of documenting my life and fell into the lives of other people -- celebrating 21st birthdays, for instance, or hearing a woman wax on happily about a savoury panna cotta made with boursin cheese and served over mixed greens. I spent a morning pulling weeds out of a garden on the outskirts of the city as a group of guys plucked crabapples from tree limbs, and a stranger walked by and exclaimed, "Too bad there are more weeds there than grass."

I sat on a porch stoop drinking unsweetened iced tea with the owner of a local pizza chain, and later washed my purple-stained hands after picking mulberries. I ate amazingly delicious food and drank ridiculously delicious cocktails in New York City, walked Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge with one of the loveliest women I know. I met C., a lady who introduced me to the guys at ChocoSol and to their little-known but much-loved mysterious elixir, the drinking chocolate, that I swear to you will make you deliriously happy the moment you sip on it. I spent a lot of time canning and preserving and, inevitably, making a pile of dirty dishes. I went to baseball games and dinner parties and concerts and sat on as many patios as possible. Now I'm ready to write again.

I've also decided to commit to a bit of a challenge -- to incorporate as many local foods into my diet as possible. I've been interested in eating locally for a good while, so really this is not such a steep departure from where I left of. But too often I resort to the same dishes, cycle through the same meals -- poached egg on top of brown rice pasta, some version of rice and lentils. It's not a bad thing, but I think there's a lot of experimentation left to do and a lot of unexplored territory that beckons to be discovered. Certainly we're all aware that we live in uncertain times -- haven't we always? -- sudden deaths, job losses, budget cuts, poor crop yields. No matter where I am or what anxieties arise, I like to think that a few friends can sit down around a table -- even if it "sitting down" means hanging out on the floor -- and, with the magic of a bit of food and a good glass of wine, feel that everything is right in the world. Cheers to more of that.


A change in seasons

It's easy to feel disconnected in a large city, I think -- to feel distanced from everything that matters, some social graces or common courtesy. A trip to the market can offer a sort of cure-all for the disease that is City Irritation, a remedy for those plagued by stress and anxiety.

I woke up with the sun this morning. It usually happens despite my best intentions. I sat around drinking strongly brewed chai tea, made breakfast in a clean kitchen, read the Globe and Mail online and caught up on my reading. I walked to St. Lawrence, grabbing a coffee along the way -- you can say what you will about Starbucks, but hats off to Howard Schultz for carving that empire -- and walking by St. James Church, admiring the architecture.

I love that at the market, you are confronted by choices you once never thought possible. Freestone or clingstone peaches? Early Redhaven, Garnet Beauty, Harrow Dawn. They sound like beautiful women in a fairytale. I like the small peaches that first come out in July the best. They're amazingly sweet and the juice runs down your arm freely with wild abandon. I buy a few, but I'll need to wait a few weeks for the canning variety, I'm told. No freestones yet.

There's melons of every variety - cantaloupes, muskmelons, sugar baby, watermelon. Heirloom tomatoes and fava beans. Fresh garlic, strawberries still holding on, baby cucumbers slightly soft to the touch, corn-on-the-cob. A man stops me when he realizes I'm blindly picking my cobs. "You'd think they're all the same," he says, "but they're not." He pulls back the husk on one to expose a few black bits. "Here, this is a good one." I leave with six ears of good corn.

The blackberries have grown bigger since a couple of weeks ago. The first of the season were tiny and tart, like the Shiro plums just coming into season. These blackberries are plumper than the ones are the grocery store but still tender to the touch, still delicate, but extremely sweet.

I pick up a large cucumber from a man who drives all the way into the city from Leamington, close to my home town. I always try to purchase something from him. Maybe that's the nostalgia in me talking. Jalapenos and poblano peppers. Beautiful purple flowers from the Mennonite growers who are here every week selling the most gorgeous bouquets. They are always busy, the barrels filled with female gawkers. When you don't have a garden, it's the next best thing.


Welcome back to Aubergine Land

Some interesting things have been occurring lately in Aubergine Land.

Just last week, while walking back to work from a library lunch -- no, I did not eat the books, though I may have nibbled on some of their covers -- I so fantastically caught one of my heels in a subway grate as I caught a glimpse of this glorious book in a storefront window.  I recently discovered that a burger joint around the corner from me has been offering a gluten-free bun option on all of their burgers for some time now -- for a whopping $.75 extra. Apparently I am finished eating sausages with mustard at midnight, leaning over the counter like the uncivilized eater I am.

 On Saturday, while picking up things to can and freeze at the St. Lawrence Market (North), the owner of Acropolis came up to me. "Do a shot of olive oil with me!" he exclaimed. It's 9:30am, I thought to myself. But then again, how often do Greek men approach me asking me to do shots with them? And who would I be if I were to refuse? I'd barely recognize myself. So as I stood there in the middle of the market, weighed down with fresh local fare, I did a shot of extra-virgin olive oil with my left leg up, muttering 'Opa!', as, according to the man, it makes the oil taste more delicious. The thing is, it was. Grown in a bio region on the island of Crete, it's brought over in oak barrels and bottled in Canada. Light and grassy, I imagined it would add the perfect finish to a serving of asparagus risotto. We followed this with a shot of honey balsamic, which was terrifically sweet and syrupy, and a couple varieties of black olives. 

And most interesting, at least to me, is these veggie burgers. Now I'll be the first to admit I do not care one bit for the words "veggie" or "burgers." Too cheerful? Cheesy? I'm not sure what it is. But when I spotted this new release, I gave in. Most of the recipes that appear in the book are not gluten-free and, according to the author, not easily adapted, but a few are and they are worth trying out. This is the first and only recipe I sampled from the book and am therefore ill-equipped to provide a thorough review, but I'm impressed with the flavours and how easy so many of the recipes are to pull together. This one is no different. From beginning to end, this recipe takes a maximum of twenty minutes -- and that's stretching it.  What I loved? It's nutritious, healthy and comes together quickly. It's delicious and economical. What I didn't love? The instructions provided insufficient detail as to what the finished batter should look like, and some of it didn't make sense. I've revised the recipe here in hopes of making it easier for you so that you, too, can enjoy them. Now, these will not form easily into patties. My ingredients bound together, but they were too moist. Instead, I spooned batter into a hot cast iron pan and flipped them once the first side was cooked through. Once heated through, these burgers stay together well, though, and freeze easily.

Chickpea Spinach Burgers
Adapted from Veggie Burgers Every Which Way by Lukas Volger
Yields 5-6 burgers

1.5 chickpeas
5oz fresh baby spinach
2 eggs
2 - 3 tbsp lemon juice, or as needed
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp kosher salt
Chickpea or garbanzo bean flour

Combine 1.25 cups chickpeas, spinach, eggs, lemon juice, cumin, and salt in a food processor and process until the mixture resembles a chunky hummus. Add to a large bowl and set aside. In the bowl of the food processor, add the remaining chickpeas and process until just crumbly. Add to the other mixture and stir to combine. Sprinkle in chickpea flour until the burger mixture thickens. You may not be able to make patties with this mix exactly, but the flour will bind the burger together nicely once cooked. I take 1/3 cups of the mixture and plop it into a cast iron skillet over medium-high. 3-4 minutes on each side yields a burger that is crispy on the outside but deliciously moist on the inside. Serve with your favourite condiments on a bun, or on a bed of butter lettuce (my preferred way.)


An ode to coconut flour

It's quiet in here. I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately.

Part I is best called, "Weeks where I worked entirely too much and burnt myself out." Around here, Part II is titled, "...and then I got sick and was forced to relax and recharge." There may have been good food and some wine involved. I won't tell you how many glasses were consumed in the interest of keeping scorn and judgement at bay, but suffice to say there was plenty of spirited recklessness around these parts and it was whole-heartedly deserved. And, suffice to say, not a whole lot of writing has been going on. I'm sorry. On the plus side, I give you Kurt Elling. Swoon away.

Part III, I'm calling: "coconut flour, you scoundrel!"

My sister came to visit a couple of weekends ago. I gave her a tour of Toronto, which to me means a day at the beach and an afternoon shopping, nights spent eating and drinking and generally having a good time. I found a casual black dress to wear frolicking about town, and a rug for my living room, and I ate ice cream while walking through Pride. I watched the fireworks, and I read voraciously, and mostly I sat back and let life happen for a little while. La vie est belle, non?

And I made these pancakes. Now, I'm not much of a sweets-for-breakfast kind of girl. Mostly I eat granola and plain yogurt for breakfast, topped perhaps with some (fabulous) local peanut butter or chia seeds or fresh fruit. Sometimes I'll eat eggs in some form or another. In the cooler months, I'm partial to oatmeal and hot cereal. But every now and again, like clockwork, invariably a craving for pancakes takes up residence and I'm forced to submit. Unlike traditional pancakes made with bleached all-purpose flour, this version is healthy, slightly fluffy and full of fantastic flavour (even before the maple syrup.) Not much surprises me anymore. I don't feel like every turn in the kitchen automatically enlists me in some game-changing event. I don't need to re-invent classics or develop innovative dishes. A good meal is always worth celebrating, whether it is enjoyed at a four-star restaurant made at the hands of talented chefs, or a humble, simple meal prepared at home and eaten among old friends. I like cool techniques, well-considered approaches, fresh flavours. I'm always thrown when asked to prepare a dish. Most of what I make is simple fare, hardly impressive. But every now and then something comes around and changes my life, and let me tell you, coconut flour is one of those things. Now, I've known about it for a while. I've heard others sing its praises and virtues. But, like most things, it took me a while to catch on. You needn't wait for a special occasion. Wake up on a lazy weekend morning, start the coffee (or the tea!), and make these pancakes while the sun is dancing in your kitchen and your body is full of energy. Proceed with an adventurous spirit, head held high, and act, even if you don't believe in it, optimistic for a moment. Eat these pancakes with a smile, day ahead of you, and surrender to the next part, whatever form it takes.

(Photo credit: Laura Berneche)

Coconut Flour Pancakes with Blueberries
Adapted from Erica Kerwien
Yields 6 silver dollar-sized pancakes, or 2-3 servings

3 (room temperature) large eggs
1 tsp grapeseed or olive oil
1 tsp real vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder (make sure it's gluten-free!)
1 tsp maple syrup
2-3 tbsp coconut flour
1/8 tsp kosher or sea salt
Handful of fresh or frozen (defrosted) blueberries

Additional maple syrup and/or butter for serving

1. Separate your egg yolks from your egg whites. Beat the egg whites until they develop soft peaks. Set aside.
2. Combine all dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt) and whisk together thoroughly to incorporate.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together all wet ingredients (lightly beaten egg yolks, maple syrup, vanilla and oil), leaving the blueberries out.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients. Slowly add the wet ingredients. Beat everything together on a low until just combined. Carefully fold in the egg whites, followed by the blueberries.
5. Heat a skillet, preferably a cast iron one, to medium-high. Add the batter. Unlike traditional pancakes, you may not get the bubbles on these pancakes that signify they've finished cooking. Instead, you'll have to check the bottoms to see if they've crisped up enough. I find that you can tell if they're finished because the ends will curl up a little.

Serve immediately with maple syrup, butter and additional blueberries if desired.

*Note: these do not re-heat well.

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