On becoming resourceful (or, my girlfriends are superheroes)

It just so happened that my furnace blew out Sunday evening during the coldest night of the season, when the temperature dropped to -31C with the wind chill.

After a weekend of frustrations and heartbreak, I sat on the couch and felt the air grow slowly cooler. I could feel my apartment floors through my leopard-print slippers. This city's not used to this insane weather, I thought. I grabbed another blanket. But when I peeled back my duvet Monday morning, there was no mistaking it, that startling, skin-blazing chill.

I phoned my landlord immediately, but the city was in trouble. People were having heating issues all over. After experiencing a near-asthma attack while walking to the AGO the day prior, I hailed a cab to work. I sat at my cubicle wearing my thickest pair of tights beneath my lined wool pants, two t-shirts and one of my heaviest sweaters.

With my furnace repairs delayed, I considered my options. Calling up a friend, packing up my things and crashing somewhere else for a couple nights. Buying a space heater. Burying myself beneath my blankets until conditions improved.

I thought about the old days, jacked my oven to 450F and opened the door. Within two hours, my apartment was reasonably comfortable. Take that, furnace -- name the game and I'll play it.

This was a hard weekend for many people. A pregnant friend of mine was butchering chickens with her mother when she spotted blood. She has been trying for a good long while to have a baby, and grew immediately devastated at the thought of losing this one. Fortunately she and the baby are both okay, but another friend of mine was not so lucky. Another friend of mine lost her cat. And, apart from thinking we grow increasingly complicated and complex as we grow older -- thank goodness -- I thought, my girlfriends are my superheroes. I'm fussing about my heat and others are mourning a future, gone. And also this: here we are, a collective of young women who butcher chickens, make sausages from scratch, knit clothing, sing, play instruments, develop public policies, revise national marketing materials, plan elaborate trips, move to different cities on a whim, take chances, go back to school for the third time, open businesses, and forge ahead into the great, clichéd unknown, entirely unarmed.

As Dana Velden put so eloquently this week, "You're human and you're built for this."

And so I made a giant pot of minestrone soup -- not a soup that requires several fancy ingredients, but one that insists on pantry staples. One easy to throw together at a moment's notice. No zucchini? Toss in a cup of green beans. Don't like zucchini? Use cabbage instead. It's a good soup, an easily adaptable soup, one that pleases the palate and warms the belly. Good comfort food. If I were anywhere near any of these women, I'd try to warm their spirits with a pot of this. It reminds us that while star-studded ingredients like quinoa flour and good-quality dark chocolate and amazing coffee and artisanal goat's cheese are all well and good, the bare-boned basics, when treated well, when savoured, can really shine, and are perhaps the most comforting thing available in moments of quiet desperation and sorrow.

I know what you're thinking: a bowl of beans and vegetables. Well, yes. I know it doesn't look like much -- photographing soup takes talent I just don't have -- but trust me on this. The pesto in this recipe makes for a truly superb broth. I froze half this soup, but I don't think it'll stay there for long.

Minestrone Soup

Yields 8 - 10 servings

Notes: There are a number of recipes for Minestrone. However, there are a few things I wouldn't skip on. For one, good-quality stock is, to my mind, essential; I like homemade chicken best, but any good poultry stock will do. I would hesitate to prescribe vegetable stock, because I find most far too sour-tasting. I've ruined many a pot of soup with vegetable stock. However, to each his or her own -- if you like vegetable stock, then by all means use it.

Secondly, I substituted the pasta with uncooked quinoa to up the protein and nutrients in this recipe.

Third, I think every soup needs a bright ingredient. In this instance, I've used red wine vinegar, but you can easily substitute lemon juice if you haven't red wine vinegar on hand. This recipe also calls for diced tomatoes; if you don't care for chunks of tomato in your soup, feel free to puree them or adding tomato sauce instead.

Fourth, while I love the taste of sundried tomato pesto here, I know this isn't available to everyone. Classico makes a jarred version available at most grocery store, or try experimenting. You could add pancetta or bacon to this recipe. Try adding in green beans, cabbage and/or spinach in place of the zucchini. Use whatever's on hand or looks good at the store.

1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, very finely diced or grated (roughly 1 cup)
4-5 carrots, peeled and chopped (about 2.5 cups)
1 zucchini, chopped (about 1 cup)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2lbs potatoes (3-4), peeled and diced
1 quart good-quality, low-sodium poultry stock, preferably homemade (see notes)
2 - 14oz cans diced tomatoes with juices
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp dried parsley, or 1.5 tbsp fresh
2 - 16oz cans of beans (I used kidney), about 3 cups cooked, rinsed
1/3 cup uncooked quinoa
2 heaping tbsp sundried tomato pesto
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Sea salt and pepper
Parmigiano-Reggiano, for sprinkling

1. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Once the butter is melted and the pan feels warm, add the onions. Toss to coat, and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Cook until onions soften, about five minutes.
2. Add carrots and continue to cook until slightly tender, about ten minutes more, adding additional oil as necessary.
3. Toss in the garlic and combine with carrots and onions. Once fragrant, about one minute, add tomato paste and stir to combine.
4. Add in potatoes, chicken stock, canned tomatoes, beans, zucchini, quinoa, and pesto. You may have to add the second can of beans once the soup has reduced slightly (I had to.) Salt gently again and add 1/8 tsp of cracked black pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a strong simmer.
5. Cook until the potatoes are tender, the broth thickens and the quinoa is fully cooked, about 20-30 minutes. Take the soup off the heat and add in the red wine vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
6. Serve in bowls garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.


The pleasures of the winter table

If you live in a city where the temperature drops to -20 celcius, perhaps you are the type to stay in bed, cancel your planned outing to the St. Lawrence Antique Market, and re-schedule your trip to the Maharaja exhibit at the AGO for the following week, weather permitting. It's the kind of weekend that finds you sipping on a Manhattan while watching the Golden Globes, keeping warm under a blanket. You turn up the heat just a little. You make good use of your slippers. You enjoy a leisurely breakfast and an extra cup of coffee because it just makes good sense to do so.

January is a depressing month, so they say, and I'm apt to agree. But instead of filling my weekend with errands and stuffing it to the bits with various to-do lists, I enjoyed a leisurely one filled with old-fashioned fun: knitting, reading, tea-drinking, baking, and making a terrific, simple lentil soup recipe that is, no joke, ridiculously cheap to cook up. Even if you use organic lentils as I do.

I have ideas, readers, really I do. I've been cooking up a storm. And enjoying.

Those stories will come.

Last evening, after a long working day, I walked west down Bloor until I reached St. George. Around the corner came a dapper young man and he whisked me off to a lovely little place called Bar Mercurio where everyone is in good spirits, always, and a woman with crazy blonde curly hair mixes up a mean espresso martini, slightly sweet, exceptionally creamy and absolutely divine. Your friend and this lovely woman engage in casual banter. "Done any painting recently?" he asks her, and she says, "No, no." "Just re-use your work from this year for next year's show and call it something else." She laughs and murmurs, "Yes, I'll call it 'I Changed My Mind'," as she takes a sip of espresso from her tiny white cup, and we all smile together.

The marble counter top and wall of wine are all Italian, and the low light soothes your broken mind. I sat there and drank my cocktail -- perhaps too quickly, as it disappeared all too fast for my liking -- and experienced the moment. I am trying to experience the moments, dear reades, as January is almost over already and soon it will be February and then it will be March. Spring! What will that feel like? Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming and need to move a few steps back.

Soon it will be over, dear readers. I don't want this season to pass me by; I want to celebrate its quirks. I want to make a big pot of soup on Sundays and fantasize about spring pea soup with mint. I want to decide, rather impulsively, to bake up a batch of miniature buckwheat cookies with cocao nibs on a Saturday night before heading out to catch a film, the first that I've seen at the theatre in almost a year. I want to sit down for a while doing nothing, and find myself perfectly happy doing so, and I want to bury myself under my duvet for another hour before getting up to grab a few groceries. I want to listen to Chet Baker and chop onions perfectly. The things we think about when we're left alone for too long, non? What I'm saying, I suppose, is that there's beauty in all seasons. For too long I've overlooked winter's as hers is more difficult to see and to love, I think, for someone who has always adored the summertime. I'm slowly coming around. It has taken me twenty-five years, but I'm just about there.

Eventually spring will come. Eventually, I'll write the things I've been wanting to write and share them with you. Until then I'll be here, slurping soup, and taking life as it comes because even under the snow, the slush, the salt, there's amazing things preparing to emerge.

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.  -Andrew Wyeth

There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you.... In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself. 
-Ruth Stout


A girl in the kitchen with a knife and a chicken

On a mission, I bundled up Sunday afternoon and left my pre-war walk-up in search of winter boots and chicken.

Wind-whipped and weary, I entered Sanagan's and felt myself being transported through time, back before supermarkets existed. By the time I get there -- an hour before close -- it's bustling. It's not very organic, but I only head out with a plan. I don't look to see what's best, though this sometimes influences my decision. I wonder about these choices of mine sometimes. I pick recipes and I test them out, seeing whether my tweaks and tinkering pay off. Sometimes this works. But increasingly I'm turning away from recipes and back to my own table. I like to write about the stories associated with food, but stories, at least for me, seldom emerge from this sort of cooking. The genuine, honest stories that I fall in love with time and time again extend from simple home cooking, from humble lentils and run-of-the-mill potatoes. I don't need another bowl of beet-fennel soup. Surprisingly, the only meal I like complicated is breakfast, even if I'm rarely able to muster the kind of energy and brain power such a recipe requires before 10am and two big mugs of coffee.

Sanagan's makes me consider these things, maybe because it reminds me of walking through the butcher's at five years old, a pickle or hot dog in hand. Not only is it an entirely different experience to handle a dead animal from a butcher that deals exclusively with small, local farms than to handle a cellophane-wrapped one from the grocery store, but the intimacy of it all isn't lost on me, either. Despite my stance as an uncomfortable omnivore, I've fallen in love with the place. I adore that even when it's busy, which is often, the man behind the counter will talk to you and tend to your questions as though he has all day to chat. Sunday, I buy a whole free-range chicken -- $2.99/lb, the special of the day -- and once home, my new winter boots draining on a tray by the door, go about separating the parts.

I'm no stranger to this, but it's different this time. Dana Velden, a writer over at TheKitchn.com, said that "purchasing a cut-up chicken wrapped in cello does make it too easy for people to sidestep the fact that what they are about to consume was once alive and flapping its wings." What she says is true, I think. My bird is not pale pink, the way all birds are at supermarkets, because it has not been through a chlorine bath to ensure that it is "sanitary", fit for human consumption. My bird is slightly yellow-tinged, skin dotted with blood from where the feathers were pulled out. When I pull at the twine the legs relax, and I'm aware that yes, this was once a living thing. I'm almost overcome with emotion. I find intellectual discussion sometimes confusing because I'm often left with more questions than answers. And so, for me, what I know is what I feel. My eating and shopping habits are never far from my mind. If our lives are like bodies, then in a quiet, slow sort of way, my eating and shopping habits have become limbs, and everything works together in this indivisible cycle.

When my grandmother was growing up, she lived off turnips. It goes without saying that she can't even look at them now. Here I am, decades later, choosing between chickens. This is the thing that doesn't match up for me. For years, we scrounged and saved to afford to live. There was a purpose to all of that economizing. To say otherwise now is highly laughable -- certainly there is still poverty, even in North America, and even those with well-paying jobs still have to watch their expenses. But in the same breath, so many of us are not bargain hunting so we can live. What are we saving for? Where is our money going? I'm not asking these questions because I have the answers. I know we are writing a narrative, regardless of whether we realize it, and I know that what we do know will determine, at least in some small way, how the North American (and possibly the global) culinary landscape will look in the future. This is no small thing. This is a big thing. On a local level there is me with a knife and a chicken in a rental kitchen. There's a lot of story there.

Further reading:
Weekend Meditation: The Whole Chicken by Dana Velden for thekitchn.com
A vow for 2011: No cheap chicken by Francis Lam for Salon.com


Breakfast here is

Pumpkin quinoa pancakes sprinkled with smoked paprika and doused in real, Grade A maple syrup.

Do you see what I see? A blood orange -- at last.

Some people grow impatient during these sessions. By people, I mean myself.

I really like these pancakes. They're so flavorful. It's surprising how well one flour can work in a gluten-free recipe; these are infinitely better than the white rice things of the old days. If you attempt this recipe, know that the batter will turn out a little thin, and that these are delicate pancakes -- they're tricky. But even ugly, they are delicious.

Take a look at that sky. Here, it's a beautiful, bright blue. Tree limbs are holding snow. Greg Osby playing in the background, "I Didn't Know About You." I find myself constantly uttering that phrase myself whenever I venture out. What about you?


A soaker of a Saturday

I'm sure for some Saturdays are restful days. As for me, I dream about lazy weekends. I might even talk a little in my sleep. Perhaps it's because it's January. Because we're all bright-eyed and wistful, making our affirmations and writing down our resolutions. Lose ten pounds, maybe. Live fearlessly. Be positive. Stay hydrated. Fall in love. January, that keener, is full of ambition, and so am I. Paint the bathroom, I say. Organize the closet. Find a spot for those spare towels. Commit to an area rug. Keep in better touch with your friends. Take more photographs. Plan a vacation. Mornings filled with writing and newspapers and sunshine are best left to summertime, maybe. For now there's grocery runs and a never-ending supply of dirty dishes and fridge doors that come unhinged randomly on a Wednesday night and ruin your plans. For instance.

This is not to say the weekends are painful. I might wake up a little later. I might perch myself on the couch and sip two cups of coffee, eat breakfast -- this morning I ate a glorious bowl of spiced oatmeal with grated carrots -- and listen to "The Dog Days Are Over" while catching up on my reading. But mostly they are preoccupied and busy, complete with a very, very long to-do list. The kind of list that emerges if you've spent the last four days desperately trying to ward off illness because everyone in your office is sick and the building is poorly ventilated and no one on the street has the decency to cover his or her mouth when he or she coughs! The nerve! Knock on wood, I'm still healthy, but as I came home every night this week exhausted and sore, I mostly sat down in front of the television, or in a bubble bath, and did nothing. Would it be more or less annoying just to let myself get sick, I wonder? In Toronto, there's now a store that promises to mix an individual fragrance for you, so that you, too, can smell like peppermint without sucking on a hard candy. There's a place that specializes in French furniture replicas and refurbishing. But what of the common cold?

Anyway. Now there's work to be done. I put a decent dent in the list today, trekking all over town and all, and was forced to add the following item to the list: buy winter boots. I've been ambivalent about it. Do I really need them? I admit, I've been whining about it. I already have a black leather pair that I adore and that work just fine (so I thought.) They're comfortable and my skinny jeans fold nicely into them. But walking back from the St. Lawrence Market today, I found myself with a giant soaker. It only needs to happen one time, as it turns out. My mind is made.

But tonight, apart from boot-hunting, I took a small reprieve from the world and cooked. I wanted to. I wanted to make something successful. Last week was full of flops: a beet-fennel soup that was awful and required modification of all kinds (I really should have known better),

potato-spinach cakes that were too liquidy and didn't form into, well, cakes. I planned on writing an elegant and lovely post, perhaps, or one full of passion and anger, but instead, on this snow-filled day, you get this: me eating vegetarian chili and sipping on a Manhattan. Before me lies a night of cleaning and organizing, of glancing at my new library books (I'm so excited!) --The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside and Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes, both by Amanda Hesser, My Life in France by Julia Child (so I can finish it), and Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table edited by Amanda Hesser -- and dreams of that lazy weekend I know I'll have one day (certainly by July!) Concerning all of that Amanda Hesser up there, what can I say? Lately I'm really impressed by The New York Times. The recipes are just plain solid. Ruth Reichl, Melissa Clark, Amanda Hesser -- each represents the gold standard in recipe-writing. Unlike the recipes featured in this publication.

So if you, like myself, have a night full of crazy in front of you, sip on one of these. And make the chili. It's the perfect remedy to a day of insanity and a night of (sigh) work.


Yields 1 drink

2oz whisky, preferably rye whisky (I use Forty Creek)
1/2oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes of bitters
Maraschino cherry, for garnish (optional)

Combine all ingredients (minus the cherry) and shake well in a cocktail shaker with a couple ice cubes. Strain mixture into a cocktail (martini) glass and garnish with cherry if desired.
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