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.

Blog Template by Delicious Design Studio