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.
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