Available resources

A woman at my office has a plum tree in her backyard. Every week I walk into the communal kitchen to a cookie sheet piled high with thin-skinned, sweet-tart fruit. It's kept me from the grocery store for two weeks now as I try to eat through my storage supply before The Big Move, destination TBA. I have to be out of my apartment in eight days. I've applied for places. I spend all of my free time hunting for places. When this is all over, I want a long bath, a good book and a glass of wine the size of my head. A slice of peach crisp, the fruit still toothsome and the oatmeal well-done, flecked with cinnamon and a hint of nutmeg.

"I have to watch whom I let pick from my trees," the woman mentions to me one morning as we fix our coffees. "You have to be careful, otherwise all of the fruit will drop to the ground." As I've grown older, it seems my decisions hold more weight than they used to: the consequences feel heavier. I'd never minded my mistakes before; failed kitchen debacles, lousy apartment choices, money unwisely, nights that bled into mornings, were all woven into what it means to be alive. I was watering my wisdom. These days I mainly try to keep the fruit on the tree or in my belly, trying to prevent everything from spoiling along the roots of the tree.

Last summer, when I took part in a renegade-type of not-for-profit group that picked urban-grown fruit for charities, we'd discuss how we'd use our bounty. There was rarely enough to do much of anything with, but there were always leftover apples. I made several pints of applesauce that I used in baking throughout the winter. Sometimes, when I feel like I'm out of resources, I think about those apples. I think about the crab apples my sister and I picked from my Nan's yard when we were kids, removing the worms with knives and eating the crunchy, sour flesh plain, mouths puckering. They weren't perfect, but they were salvaged.

There's a lot to say about our world in light of the shooting in the Colorado movie theatre or the shooting in Little Italy or the myriad of other events that have occurred in the past few weeks. But this is what we're left to work with; this is the mess we're to pick up after. The real challenge, so it seems sometimes, is not to prevent plums from falling the ground -- this they're going to do regardless of our interference or lack thereof -- but to see what we can do with them, to work with them, and to show others by our example how to make the most of what's been left behind to rot.

Until then, I'll deam of genies and peach crisps, of wine and relief.


Slowing down

There's something about Detroit that haunts me. Not the way that Windsor haunts me, with the memories of poetry and fiction readings at Phog or Vermouth or the grad lounge, where we used to go before it was torn down, the medical building erected in its place. I remember the laughter. Half-full rock glasses clanging against the wooden tables, the nervous energy of a dozen quirky literature students, their anxieties quelled temporarily by the dreams on their shoulders. Violins played with such spark at the Dominion House by the red-headed son of a famous writer, who talks about geography the way someone might talk about romance, and with the kind of longing you might expect to hear from an unrequited love.

We picked at plates of French fries, dipped them in pools of mayonnaise and cleared our throats with swigs of hard cider. We walked home in the dead of winter, grounds covered in snow. Some say the city has no culture, but I say it's just a different sort of culture. It's not presented in the form of $27 entrees and chic coffee houses, names in fine typography; it's $5 pints of beer and boots stomping against the old, creaky floorboards and browsing antique shops in Walkerville. It's taking the boat out on Canada Day and inviting everyone you know to the twelve-foot bombfire. It's watching your friend's grandmother make homemade relish. Running through the cornfields at eight years old and eating rhubarb straight from the ground, no sugar. It's teaching your children to ice skate when the lake freezes over.

An ex-boyfriend of mine was fascinated by graffiti. We spent our weekends walking around the city taking photographs and analyzing signatures. I was curious at first as to why; I'd never given much thought to it. But it was reflective of the surrounding area and of those who lived there, of their experiences and their history. And if I had to characterize Windsor's culture, I'd say it's like that. I don't know that most people understand it or even pay attention to it. It seems people would rather cover it with white space or erase it and pretend it never happened and have everyone go on living the way they always have. But it's like that to me: anyone can get involved and anyone can have a say, and in that sense it's the People's Culture. Consumerism, capitalism, they have no value there; it's free-flowing beer on a hot day. It's honest expression.

Detroit doesn't haunt me that way because none of my memories were born there. I grew up across the river and consequently have never been Canadian enough for the Canadians nor American enough for a Green Card, and while two years in the Big Smoke have taught me something about real winter and celcius and have me listening to CBC and reading the Globe & Mail with some sort of regularity, I'm still a Windsorite, one who is continually moved and inspired by the broken working places -- like Windsor, like Detroit -- with holes that need patching and an economy in disrepair but a lot of soul. A whole lot of soul.

In a recent Food & Wine article, Phil Cooley, co-owner of Slow's in Detroit, mentioned that "Detroiters are way stronger than most people." I think it's true. I think it's sometimes true of Windsorites. I caught up with an old friend of mine last summer, and over ribs and red wine I mentioned that I was working two jobs; he laughed and said the same. "Around here, people are always asking me why," I said. He smiled and said, "it's because we're from Windsor, it's normal there."

Two years in the Big Smoke and I still think of Windsor as home. I don't yearn for it, but I feel a connection. The kind of thing that keeps you level-headed and mindful of the environment and community and homelessness. I guess all of the things that you'd file under the humanity umbrella.

And this chicken? She can compete with any bird. She's smokey and succulent and absolutely perfect with sweet potato coins roasted gently alongside her. My favourite thing to do with a whole bird is to brine it; I'm convinced of the difference it makes. Brining tenderizes the meat, yes, but it also flavours it fully and intensely. The spice mix created by chef Brian Perrone is also pretty exceptional. It's a bit of a jerk chicken riff -- the cayenne, the allspice -- but smokier. This recipe calls for a smoker, but I roasted mine at 400F for 20 minutes (uncovered) and turned the oven down to 350(covered) for the remainder of the time, about an hour (or longer, depending on size), until the legs come away from the cavity and the juices run clear. In the crazy heat we had this winter. Because I was lusting after chicken.

As three girls I know donned big white dresses this weekend, I went to a small white house party.

Everyone wore white -- except the woman dressed in black, who apparently didn't get the memo. In typical yuppie elitist fashion, the women, glamazons with perfectly toned bodies and designer clothes and long hair, were full on two cherry tomatoes and drank until they fell over and flashed a fake boob on their way down, and I ate smoked meat in the back room in my frumpy black uniform and cleaned up their cigarette butts and somehow felt like less of a woman because I'll never fill out a bikini top or figure out how to use a curling iron or be six feet tall. And that's really how it is here sometimes. And then I let it go, because honestly, there are more important things in life.

Like wine. For instance.

I arrived back at my apartment at 3am, sore and tired. So tired, in fact, that Sunday morning I was halfway through my protein shake before I realized my almond milk had in fact expired. One day I will disappear and someone will come to my rescue only to find me stuck to my bedsheets with "Body just gave up. Cheers, S." stuck to my backside.

But I insisted on this chicken, purchased from a good, reputable butcher. Sunday dinner -- the chicken, sweet potatoes, asparagus, and a fine glass of Chianti -- was perfect, and somehow made the beginning of a new week a little easier to swallow.

Detroit, you really know how to bring a girl to her knees.

Get the recipe here (I roasted a 3lb chicken and halved the recipe to great results.)


So this is June.

Dear reader, I hope you weren't holding your breath.

I've been wanting to publish something here in this small space. May was a lovely month: the weather was gorgeous; I went to my uncle's cottage and saw the Super Moon rise over the lake; my sister came to visit me and we ate delicious Italian food and shopped until our legs turned to jello and watched bad romantic comedies over cheap bottles of wine; I was there for the rooftop birthday party and at Christie Pitts when we set off the fireworks, and I was there at Detour, an alleged hidden gem in Kensington Market, and served Wild Turkey on the rocks in a reusable plastic cup. I ate Lebanese food on a patio while catching up with a new friend, and laughed with another over plates of duck confit at Table 17, a real hidden gem. My hard drive crashed. My cell phone died. I ate homemade banana frozen yogurt. I enrolled in correspondence classes. I saw a naturopath for the first time.

And then I read Marina Keegan's final column, "The Opposite of Loneliness," in the Yale Daily News regarding the impending graduation of the class of '12. Keegan died recently in a car accident after returning from spring break; she was 22.

It's been a few years since I last graced the grounds of my college campus, but her words resonate within me. A day here in Toronto is spent hurriedly getting to the next: washing dishes, throwing together meals, reading, running errands, finishing up the last jar of the organic Coral Star peaches I bought last year at the Brickworks Farmer's Market in August, a batch of seconds no one would buy because no one in their right mind would willingly turn on their gas stove in the wild, damp heat of that afternoon to preserve a batch of the sweetest fruit. The days felt longer back then somehow, as if the magical evenings we spent at the Dominion House sipping on pints, shouting and discussing literary criticism made time stand still. I remember trudging back to my apartment across the grass with such optimism, moved by the prospect that I had my entire life ahead of me to make a mark on the world.

My experience with my classmates certainly was as Keegan states: "not quite love and not quite community." But our lives were certainly interconnected. Being in graduate school was like living on the inside for the first time. I met a group of likeminded people who felt equally strange and who had the most interesting things to say. Leaving that web wasn't easy; nothing, no great city or perfect spouse or ideal career, can replace what connection does. I was lucky to have found it once, to have found it again in Tallahassee, and to have come upon it in happenstance when I started working in catering twenty-two months ago. "Why work a full-time job and a part-time job?" I've been asked, understandably. Part of it is because I'm from Windsor. That's what we do. But mostly I want to say that it's because this is rare, this sort of thing where we can pick up where we left off, where we support each other in our endeavours, where we laugh and laugh and laugh.

You were correct, Marina; they are not THE BEST years. They are the beginning of THE BEST life. And thanks to your wisdom and foresight, so many people will take a chance and live it.


Adventures still unnamed

Dear reader, I'd like to say something, but I'm all out of words lately. I'm devoting an awful lot of brain activity to a correspondance class on holistic nutrition, book research and plotting my next big move. In the event you were unaware, Torontonians are infamously loyal where neighbourhoods are concerned. In the two years I've lived here I've learned that you are either a West-ender (as in West of the Don Valley Parkway) or an East-ender, and while I consider myself an East-ender, I've been charmed by some of the West's lovely aspects: namely High Park, but also terrific coffee shops, cute diners, unique cocktail bars, old movie theatres, adorable rental apartments, and a sweet neighbourhood vibe. This year my goals include becoming a better runner, attending yoga classes regularly and, inspired by this excellent article on the so-called Danish Paradox, trolling around town on a bike.

This is my 100th post. Wee! Made it. I wish I had something significant to say, but I do not. I ate Balderson sharp white cheddar this weekend and drank some really delicious Australian Shiraz and a tasty Chianti, and there was popcorn with olive oil and cracked black pepper, so perhaps that is significant enough. Mostly I've been trying to feel very grateful and to remind myself that I am very lucky, and to take very good care of myself and my health. This seems significant enough.

This weekend was met with a slobby Golden Retriever, two gentlemen and a bottle (or five) of red wine. The first night was spent relaxing and generally unwinding from a busy week, and I spent all of Saturday studying, reading and eating -- bacon-wrapped steak, barbecued potatoes stuffed with butter and onions that caramelized perfectly over the heat, and a pile of Greek salad. We bundled up and sipped on super strong coffee while watching the Supermoon come up over the lake, the bonfire howling. And Sunday we ate a hearty breakfast and kayaked and learned about the weeds that grow in the lake, and we all grew sad at the thought of having to return to the realities and daily grind of urban life. I miss it already.

Fortunately summer is finally on spring's heels and it doesn't look like it will be long yet. I'm so excited for warm weather, for patio drinks with friends, for road trips, and for adventures still unnamed.


Digging into sounds

I don't know how I've managed to fall in love far more easily with cookbooks than with fiction, but I suppose it's because a good cookbook -- the kind I like -- manages to integrate the best elements of each. To me, it is the loveliest two-in-one, like being at a dinner party and enjoying both the meal and the company. You are greeted with a moving, terrific story, and instead of leaving it at that, you are met with a recipe so that the stories may continue, each stemming from that original, lovely story.

I rarely buy books. I was ordered to get rid of most of them prior to my move from Windsor to Toronto and I've tried to keep my collection modest and limited only to the ones I've loved, the ones I use and the ones I've been given by special people. Despite this, I still have plenty, and I'd like to think one day I will have enough space to house a small library and shelve my favourites. However, I bought Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, and I'm glad I did. It's a wonderful read. Everyone who reads it says that. It's not a glossy, full-colour cookbook filled with a lot of mediocre recipes. Instead, it guides you. Adler helps you along, showing you how to make stock, how to make the most of leftover brines and juices. It's about stretching food, not only to save money, but so that you truly appreciate the value of your food.

Tamar Adler is a former editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine and has cooked at esteemed restaurants Prune, Chez Panisse, and Farm 255.

What follows is one of my favourite excerpts from the book and rather representative of the content.

"We have different loves. Mine are food and words. Others' are how buildings slant away from dark sidewalks, or how good it feels to solve an equation. I say: Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn't lead you back to what you ate when you loved it.

It helps me to think of meals I've cooked or eaten before, if not for the food, for the light in the room or in the sky when I ate. What the light looked like, or what music was playing. It doesn't take more than my opening a window, head lifted to the air, for the sound of glass against a marble table, or the rustle of the wind to remind me that I've sat at marble tables outside, drunk out of glasses, listened to their light clatter on the table, noticing a rustling wind.

I may not remember what I ate, or whether it was the lunch where I realized I do not like black pepper to have been ground before I use it, or the one where I spilled water in my lap, but I will remember how the day felt on my face, and my creative soft self will have been awakened. So I listen hard. I listen with purpose of remembering. And this digging into sounds and into days I have heard and felt roots future meals in the unchangeable truths of past ones.

Let smells in. Let the smell of hot tarmac in the summer remind you of a meal you ate the first time you landed in a hot place, when the ground smelled like it was melting. Let the smell of salt remind you of a paper basket of fried clams you ate once, squeezing them with lemon as you walked on a boardwalk. Let it reach your deeper interest. When you smell the sea, and remember the basket of hot fried clams, and the sound of skee-balls knocking against each other, let it help you love what food can do, which is to tie this moment to that one. Then something about the wind off the sea will have settled in your mind, and carried the fried clams and squeeze of lemon with it."


The point is to live everything

I began my degree in the way I begin many things -- ardently, with good intent and little practicality. I let the glowing prospect of post-secondary billow and percolate for a long while until I settled on literature, and while I tossed around a few career possibilities (I can teach. I can edit? Maybe I'll write!) I assumed I had four years to figure it out and somehow along the way my purpose would just occur to me, like a caffeine hit half an hour in or a car accident or the sound of a heavy boot thumping against a wood plank.

It didn't occur to me.

It didn't occur to me by graduation, as others went off and pursued teaching degrees or padded off to law school or landed odd jobs. I pursued post-graduate work because I wanted to. I wasn't finished yet. I secretly (and somewhat naively) hoped that buying two more years would liberate me of my question, that at the end of the rainbow I'd strike gold.

Instead, I woke up each morning at 6:50 a.m. to make coffee and watch Laura Calder. I roasted a whole chicken for one. Like many others, I had my life changed irreparably in the summer of 2009 by the release of Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and the questions and cuorisites that emerged from my reading of it have never stopped.

It didn't occur to me by the end of my Master's degree, when most of my class had applied and been accepted to post-graduate programs across the continent, dispersed as efficiently as a murder of crows.

The thing about choice is that you are still limited to predetermined variables. What do you do with an English degree? This is not a foolish question. It's petrifying -- but immensely gratifying -- to forge your own path, to be forced through trial and error to discern what your talents are. I'd been an academic; what else might I be?

I enrolled in a post-graduate course in book publishing because I'd enjoyed the bit of editing I dabbled in while at Windsor, but while I put in the time, I derived little satisfaction from the experience. Witnessing the passion others had for books that I somehow lacked only made me loneliner.

I spent all of my time talking about food, reading about it, to the point where a classmate asked me why I hadn't gone to culinary school instead. "I don't want to be a chef," I answered, though the question lingered. Did I? Now that I've worked in a few restaurants and have served for catering companies across the city, I can say with great certainty that I do not want to be a chef. But I wondered at the time if I might want to get involved in food writing. Perhaps I'd move to British Columbia and edit cookbooks for Whitecap -- isn't that the dream? But I didn't do that, either.

As you might expect, I didn't find the answer at Humber, not in the classroom, not in the dorms, not on the sleepy Saturday mornings I spent eating breakfast and watching shoddy television in the communal living area, not in the one-on-one conversations I shared with the director of the program.

Unfortunately, these types of questions don't always inspire confidence in others. My mother in particular seemed a little concerned for a few years, which is mostly a given considering she has me for a daughter. And I've come up against a lot of people who seem very concerned with my career path. As it turns out, "I'm not really sure" is not an acceptable response at twenty-six the way it is at twenty. Nobody will tell you this, so consider this my public service announcement for the day.

Sometimes, as much as you resist things, they come hunting for you. It's your grandmother's voice that casts doubt on your decisions: "Are you sure she didn't go to school for the wrong thing?" It's the book -- on food -- that you submitted before your thesis committee. It's how you worked your way through a devastating break-up (or a few); it's the way you grew a friendship -- trips to the market, conversations over glasses of wine, shared meals; it's the bowl of chili that made a good man fall in love with you; it's the way you made it through four lonely months at Humber. It's the marinara sauce you made your first night in Tallahassee and the enchiladas that followed. It's the pots of beans and rice you lived on during the first few months in Toronto. It's the way you paid for school, the way you paid for New York City, the way you made new friends. You see with your own eyes that while you were preoccupied with trying to answer the question, you were living the answer.

"I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." That's what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, and I think it's beautiful. Sometimes it is immensely comforting. It is especially comforting when you feel hard-pressed to arrive at the answers NOW, as if the present were the only available time for action, and particularly comforting to someone like me, who is, shall we say, hopelessly neurotic.

You have to love the questions first; you have to let them swim around you for a while, letting them live rent-free in your life until you are comfortable enough to think you could live without a defined answer. I like to walk around the city with a coffee in hand, really paying attention to the architecture and the churches. I like to walk around the market, even when I don't need anything, and come home with the wedge of cheese and container of olives that I bought because I couldn't resist. I love starting off the day not knowing where I will end up, or gasping for air after a long run. Stanley Kubrick proposed that we have to make our own light and I agree. Even if you are born exceptionally lucky, which many of us are, you still have to do the work. You still have to find the switch.

And then there is only forward.

Amazing Lentil Salad (or Best Lentil Salad, Ever) adapted ever so slightly from Sarah Britton, My New Roots

Serves 4-6

2 ¼ cups (1 lb.) Du Puy (French) lentils
1 medium red onion, diced finely
1 cup dried, unsweetened cranberries (or whatever dried fruit you have on hand)
1/3 cup capers, rinsed of their brine or salt and chopped if they are large
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. real maple syrup
1 Tbsp. strong mustard (I use Double C from Kozlik's)
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
½ tsp ground cardamom
Pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

1. Rinse lentils well, drain. Place in a pot and cover with a 3-4 inches of water, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer. Check lentils for doneness after 15 minutes, but they should take about 20 minutes in total. Most of the water will have been absorbed or evaporated by then.
2. While the lentils are simmering, make the dressing by placing all ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shaking vigorously to combine.
3. When the lentils are cooked, remove from heat, drain and place under cold running water to stop the cooking process. Once cooled slightly but still a little warm, place lentils in a large serving bowl and toss with dressing. Add other onion, capers, dried fruit, and cilantro. Let sit for at least a couple hours so the flavours have a chance to befriend each other. Eat, no question.


On cooking for one

For some peculiar reason, we in North America seem to equate the number of dinner guests with degree of lavishness the meal should assume. In cooking for one, the assumption is that the meal should hardly take any effort at all. I don't mean this to sound boastful, because that's certainly not my intention, but  I'd like to think I take decent care of myself. I find it vitally important. I get up early to run before work. I do my best to cap my coffee consumption, which trust me, when you are surrounded by coffee shops all day long and free (albeit awful) coffee and former clients asking if you'd like to catch up over coffee, presents quite the challenge. I go to bed early most nights, except during the months of June and September, so insanely busy that in catering, all anyone needs to say is "It's June," so ominously, and everyone stands around in their pressed shirts and black ties nodding, setting aside their exhaustion with another java hit. And lastly, I eat well, or at least I try to, when I'm not eating potato salad out of cartons or picking at a plate of fries over martinis on a Friday night.

"Don't you find it hard, cooking for one?" people ask. Not really. I've cooked for one and two and six, and really it is all the same. Putting a meal together doesn't have to be a lot of work, especially if you are an obsessive menu planner.

Not that I would know anything about that.

When I waxed enthusiastically about a meal I'd made -- creamy white beans with leeks and creme fraiche topped with sirloin, and a salad with avocado and blood orange -- someone asked, "Just for you?" I ate that meal for three days and it tasted equally delicious every time, chilling me down to the tips of my toes.

I do have a few rules. I hold to a two pot maximum. I stick to recipes that serve four or less unless it freezes well, because that's my tolerance level for leftovers. If I will be eating the leftovers at home, they must re-heat well in a pot or in the oven, because I (gasp) live without a microwave; this one is practical. It must be the kind of thing that I can start and leave midway to fetch my laundry from the basement or to read a section of the newspaper, because these are things that invariably happen because I'm an easily distracted sort of person. I know they say to never leave the kitchen while you are cooking, but I do, unapologetically. It helps to develop a sixth sense where you just know when a pot of pasta is finished cooking or when a butternut squash has finished roasting, because you can smell it, or it occurs to you, or a little of each plus tasting.

This entry wouldn't be complete if I didn't confess the following: sometimes I wish I were cooking for more than one. Dinner parties are fun and intimate in their own way; cooking for two is pleasant because it means as you cook you will never risk an empty wine glass. You can keep conversation with this person as you stir a pot of tomatoes into a simple marinara sauce, or keep an eye out on your arborio rice, which will stubbornly stick to the bottom if not coerced otherwise. But the fortunate news is that the more often you cook and eat alone, the more you might not mind it, and sometimes, at least in my life, when the days fill up with the responsibilities beholden in a 9 to 5 or with volunteer work or with catering work or with writing or with classes or who knows what, it is welcome.

And then most nights do not involve a recipe at all. Some nights are eggs, slow poached and served with a bit of smashed avocado and lime and coarse sea salt, perhaps with some roasted sweet potatoes or a salad or sauteed, slick garlicky rapini. Many nights are a piece of fish served over a salad, or some leftover lentils tossed with who-knows-what, or a can of chickpeas dressed liberally with red wine vinegar and a bit of parmesan and maybe some arugula if there is any. Some nights are a tub of hummus and a head of broccoli, especially during the summer months when it is too humid to turn on the gas or I am too tired or I accidentally sat down for a snack and made it my meal. And sometimes the night goes like this, where there's a spaghetti squash that you roast, whole, in a 400 degree oven, because slicing it would mean your knife would get stuck in the middle of the squash as it is wont to do, and one of your deepest fears is stabbing yourself in the eye by accident with the tip of your knife.

You dress the cooked squash with some basil pesto and toss in some fresh basil, sliced ala chiffonade, a few ovendried tomatoes left from August's beautiful, sweet bounty and some greenhouse Romas whipped into submission, blistered and oozing olive oil and balsamic as they emerge, glowing like rubies, from the hot oven. You serve this over a modest amount of organic arugula and top it with plump, just-pink shrimp that have been cooked simply in butter and salt, and you take your microplane and zest a flurry of parmesan over the whole thing. Drizzle it with a nice olive oil and sprinkle chili flakes, and there you have it, a meal good enough for one that requires so little effort. Guzzle -- I've stolen that word from Avis DeVoto, who uses it when informing Julia Child how to eat lobsters -- voraciously, like your life depends on it, and savour each morsel by devoting each minute exclusively to eating and tasting.

I don't know what the secret is to living well, but this is the loveliest base I know.


The optimists

Dear reader -- are you still with me? It's awfully quiet out there. Everyone is off drinking beer on a patio or burying their noses in good books, as people are wont to do when the temperatures skyrocket to record highs in mid-March. I'd like to tell you that I've been out gallivating on patios myself, taking advantage of these prime weather conditions to work on my alcohol tolerance or to practice my cider-sipping techniques, but instead I've been sitting cozily in my living room, reading and drinking peppermint tea and feeling virtuous by digging the tines of my fork into a piece of salmon and a small mound of French lentil salad mixed with fiery, mustardy vinaigrette.

But don't go accusing me of turning Puritan. There was the six-dollar breakfast -- a sort of urban legend in the land of exorbitant rentals and forty-dollar cheeseburgers -- at a place in Kensington Market near Augusta and Baldwin, where I ate eggs and peameal bacon with two lovely ladies as we sat discussing the dreaded "five year plan", future road trips and things that generally perturb us (of which there were not that many. We are optimists.)

I was carded at the liquor store when I went in to buy a bottle of wine. That's always nice. But I also volunteered for Canada Blooms this past weekend and someone there was under the impression that I was collecting hours for my high school diploma. It is especially nice to know someone thinks you are sixteen when in fact you are twenty-six and a half. Unless that person is a prospective male interest -- never good.

Trust me.

I'm being kept company by a book on emotional intelligence, a book on finding the next Starbucks, one on French seduction, and a volume of food writing by Tamar Adler that is remarkably appropriate for these economically depressed times; that is fine company indeed. Just last week I sipped on very good wine and ate a lovely piece of salmon (of course) with white beans, mushrooms and clams -- and this ridiculously delicious sort of pan sauce -- at a place in Riverside. K. and I chatted about many good things, including her recent meditation trip, and I even tripped on a stool as I walked out.

It is always a superbly good night when somebody trips.

I don't even care that the women sitting there by the door made fun of me.

I saw a documentary on Greta Garbo with some fellow co-workers and friends of mine, and we drank Wolf Blass and talked fashion. We made our way to this very retro bar across from Honest Ed's, where we watched a woman sing Celine Dion in a red bolero. There may have been shots of "liquid cocaine." The woman singing karaoke likely had a little too much liquid cocaine. We drank whisky sours and paged through 90s fashion magazines featuring Chanel and Versace back before Donatella took over.

Just like the weather, I hope these days choose to stick around. I wouldn't mind a few more months of exactly this.


Chills down to my toes

Bacon reminds me of the mother of an ex-partner of mine.

I hadn't fathomed meeting her the way I did. I imagined I would hop off the plane, well-dressed and fresh-looking, and charm her with my sense of humour and dimpled smile (indulge me.) She'd like and approve of me and hopefully we would become friends. But traffic from Tallahassee to Tampa had been unusually brutal that day, with several accidents lining the highway. By the time my partner picked me up and we had dinner, stuffing ourselves stupid on ribs and pulled pork, fries and coleslaw -- it was late and everyone had gone to bed.

Instead we met while I was still groggy and disheveled, and looked anything but fresh. I put a brake on my neuroses and decided to just own it, crazy bedhead and all.

Her lean body was wrapped in a slinky, leopard-print robe and her straightened blonde hair lingered around her shoulders as she drank her black coffee. As I went to shake her hand, she hugged me. "We hug around here," she said, lips breaking into a loose grin, and in the time that I knew her she turned me into one, too. It seems ridiculous to associate greasy, nitrite-filled meat with one of the most elegant women I've ever met, but sparkling wine also reminds me of her, thanks to her penchant for drinking it routinely around the pool after dinner, so I suppose the two cancel each other out.

And the watermelon. Once, as we sat around the large dining table playing a game of Sequence, she breathed enthusiastically, "If I know there's a watermelon in the fridge, I will get up at 3am and eat all of it."

Where does the bacon come in, you might ask? No, don't go believing she was as much a bacon afficionado, the way she was watermelon, sparkling wine, peel and eat shrimp, and a bowl of warm, creamy grits. It was the manner in which she cooked it: flat, on a foil-lined baking sheet, in the oven. "Easy clean-up," she said to me one hot Plant City morning as we drank our coffee and put breakfast together. Not only was she lovely, as it turned out, but she was a mean cook. It's easy to clean up, certainly, but the bacon doesn't curl up the way it does in a greasy pan.

She taught me the value of letting a man win sometimes, which shells to search for and how to heal a jelly fish wound. And one day, as I expressed growing concerns over my inability to land employment, she glanced over at me and said, "I know," as sympathetic to my pains as my own mother. It was the verbal equivalent of a bear hug and the liquid equivalent of an Old Fashioned. I couldn't tell whether it was the sparkling wine going to my head or the comfort this woman so readily offered, but I felt lighter.

There is nothing particularly innovative about bacon, or watermelon, or sparkling wine, or wonderful women who slip into leopard-print robes to crack a few eggs into a hot pan or buy you a black, cowl-necked sweater because they thought it would "look so sexy on you." But I wondered how I might be as I got older, what habits I might adopt, what I might come to value. This was a woman who clipped up her hair as she waded in the ocean in search of specific shells without regard for the laws of beach combing, whose face lit up when she'd tasted something truly delicious, who kept a spare bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge when she left the Sunshine State so that when she'd return, she'd be able to promptly pour herself a glass and sit by the pool in the damp heat of the Florida night.

As Betsy, R.W. Apple Jr.'s wife allegedly said after biting into a slice of cherry pie, "I have chills down to my toes." It seems to me it chilled Johnny, too, since he included the snippet in the article. Reading it gave me chills down to my toes, made me want to dip the tines of a fork into the sweet filling and pull on the plump fruit, holding it on my tongue until the sweet-tart flavour seeped fully through my tastebuds. And like these women, I'd like to live a life that gives me chills down to my toes, that tastes so delicious I can only sigh and smile like I've gone to a heaven where the pool water is always warm and there's an abundant supply of chilled, sparkling wine, and ladies confess to leaving their warm beds in the middle of the night for sweet, red watermelon.

Baked Raisin Oatmeal with Bacon

Adapted from Bon Appetit and Sugar-Free Mom

6 strips of good-quality bacon
2 cups unsweetened applesauce, preferably homemade
2 large eggs
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup agave nectar or honey
1 tsp sea salt
3 tsp baking powder
5 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ripe banana, mashed
2 3/4 cup milk (I used unsweetened almond milk)
1/4 cup ground flaxseed/flaxseed meal
1 tsp real vanilla extract
1/2 lb raisins
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts (optional)
1/4 cup almond meal/ground almonds (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 350F.
2. Cook the bacon -- preferably in the oven!
3. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, agave nectar/honey, applesauce, banana, and vanilla. Mix well to combine.
4. Add the brown sugar, oats, sea salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and flaxseed. Mix thoroughly again to combine.
5. Finally, add the milk, raisins and walnuts. The mixture will be fairly loose.
6. Grease a 9 x 13" casserole dish and pour in the mixrture. When cooked and cool enough, crumble the bacon or chop into pieces and sprinkle over the top. Top with almond meal, if desired, and any additional raisins. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.


Something bold

Dear reader, it’s been a long while since I’ve waxed on longingly about a fruit. In the early days of Aubergine, the yearning was a bit of a constant. Red currants and Montmorency cherries provoke immense excitement, the likes of which may end in you riding mechanical bulls or jumping out or airplanes. Unlike red currants and cherries, though, my lemon love is big. It began somewhere around lemon meringue pie and swerved around the dinner table during the fourth grade, where I’d bite down into the sour flesh and bitter pith with astonishing regularity (I have the poor enamel to prove it – an interesting badge of honour.)

Lemons make for a beautiful and inexpensive table display. Their juice brightens soups and stews. Salt-cured (otherwise known as preserved), they’re fantastic in African tagines. And quite frankly, while I love chocolate as much as the next girl, hand me over a lemon-flavoured dessert and I’m as good as yours. I should probably keep that last tidbit to myself.

And so this weekend I went about making lemon curd, and the following Lemon, Almond & Cornmeal cake. When I first removed the cake from the oven, I thought the recipe had called for entirely too much butter. The parchment was drenched in grease and the cake seemed perhaps too moist. But trust me, it dries out, and the butter ensures it stays moist (does anyone actually like this word?). The crumb is loose and seems to dissolve on the tip of your tongue, and the lemon is obscenely bold. I’ve eaten this cake warm and alone (the cake, I mean) and I’ve eaten it in the company of co-workers, dressed with a dollop of crème fraiche. I’ve eaten it for dessert after dinner and with afternoon tea. It’s the kind of recipe you want in your repertoire, the kind of thing you’d serve to good friends on a Saturday, the kind of thing you fall in love with whether you are ten or twenty-six.

Find the recipe over here at Simple Bites (I used regular lemons in place of the Meyer ones.)


The past is a foreign country

The English writer Leslie Poles Hartley once said that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." As I spent my evening reviewing old conversation exchanges between my graduate classmates a few years ago, I could feel myself light up again. Those years were like pages pulled from The Dead Poet's Society, students clambering around to order pints and debate wildly about literature and politics, global warming and human rights. I sat across the round kitchen table from my roommate, where we drank bottomless cups of coffee and tea and talked, quite literally, for hours. It's still like that. And I laughed a lot.

I've been back from Varadero for a week. Everything seems different though nothing has really changed. One cold afternoon -- cold for Cuba, at any rate -- my sister and I walked down to the beach clad in jeans and sweatshirts, while the ladies by the pool wrapped themselves up in rented beach towels, trying to soak up some sun without turning blue. She took a few shots and I waded calf-deep in the water as the waves lapped at my skin, the edges foaming up around my ankles like a poorly poured pint of beer. The air felt warmer down on the shoreline. As we dodged the higher waves and attempted to save the beached jelly fish, my defenses dissolved.

If you are a girl who stands at barely over five feet and can barely pass for eighteen on a good day and still fits easily into children's clothes, navigating the corporate world certainly presents a challenge. A few months into my role, my boss, over coffee, mentioned that I let people walk all over me and advised I become more assertive. But until I stood in the sand, now knee-deep in the gulf, I hadn't realized how far down that road I'd gone. How much of my spirit I'd compromised in trying to prove myself to others, in trying to defend myself. I traded my passion for academia for a steady job and a good paycheque, and while I've never regretted it, I do regret how cold I've become, how willing I am to keep people at arm's length. Back then, we were provocative dreamers and foolish and made mistakes. We taught classes with our tails between our legs and wrote our theses frantically, hoping our ideas would amount to something substantial. And I believed in the value of what were doing, in the beauty of it, even if its purpose was immaterial. Particularly because its purpose was immaterial.

If I took one thing away from Kerouac and Twain and Montgomery and Munro, it's that life is, at its very best, an adventure; even our geography shifts and moves with the years. The most wonderful thing about life, to me, is that we get to live our all of our years. We can indulge ourselves in a night of electrifying conversation with friends and family, feasting on great food and wine. We can eat street food in Vietnam or see the Taj Mahal or walk the shoreline of a beach in Cuba, deserted at the end of the day, trying to be as present as possible. Wondering what's in store for 2012.

"He regarded a country's food as the story of its people, its culture and its history, without which one couldn't hope to understand or report on a place," Catherine Collins writes of her stepfather, R. W. Apple Jr., in the Editor's Note of the exceptional Far Flung and Well Fed. He ate fish sandwiches and drank delicious bourbons and doused his biscuits with gravy; he sought out the best espresso Italy had to offer and remarks how the Triestines claim that the fish on their side of the Adriatic tastes better than the fish on the Venice side because the sea bottom near Trieste is rocky rather than sandy. I read the book on the beach that week while sipping on Johnnie Walker Red and savoured it, trying to keep the words on my tongue. He was a man who really lived, unabashedly, merging the past with the present and the future, some kind of time machine sandwich. As I flipped to the final page, I thought, yes, the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. And I'm glad I went back, because it has made me more present.

And cheesier. Obviously. Some things don't change.


Winner takes all

So let's call a spade a spade: there's food, and then there's granola.

Before you call me a tree-hugging hippie, allow me to convince you of granola's utter hipnocity. The lovely and talented Molly Wizenberg recently posted her fourth (!) granola recipe, one adapted from this one by Nekisia Davis featured over at Melissa Clark's love child, Food52 (if you haven't heard of this brilliant and engaging initiative, get on it quick.) It's up there right now with girl hunting, salted baked goods, and foraging for wild foods as a conversation du jour.

Also, this one uses brown butter, the ultimate "I ain't messing around" ingredient if you ask me. Mashed sweet potatoes and butter -- whatever. But if suddenly you were to spike the silky concoction with a generous splash of beurre noisette, you'd witness people ooing and slobbering all over their keyboards. Cupcakes had their day, but decorate them with a browned butter icing and see how long a couple dozen of them last. Oatmeal with browned butter elevates the dish from wholesome country fare to something that might appear on the breakfast menu of a a fine dining establishment. And rolled oats coated in warm spices, amber honey, shredded coconut, torn dates, fine sea salt, and still-warm browned butter, baked until crisp, is decidedly urban (and addictive.) It's that sweet-salty thing.

Perhaps you are one of those "not into granola" people. I've heard about your type and I don't understand you. You're one of life's great mysteries, like macaroni and cheese loaf and buffalo wing-flavoured Doritos. I'll admit that I'm not so much into storebought granola. It's overpoweringly sweet for my taste. But homemade granola that fills your apartment, naturally, with the smell of cinnamon, ginger and butter? It's a beautiful thing. And quite frankly, as you wake slowly on a Tuesday morning, 6:45am, to Joni Mitchell, sunlight edging through your curtains, pouring a serving of this into a bowl and topping it with plain, whole milk yogurt is akin to being the winner, taking all.

Indian-Spiced Granola with Browned Butter & Sea Salt
Yields about 5 cups

4 cups rolled oats
1 stick of unsalted butter
2 tbsp light brown sugar
1/2 cup wild flower honey (or honey of choice)
1 tbsp fine sea salt
2 tsp garam masala
1.5 tbsp ground cinnamon
½ tbsp ground ginger
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
20 dates, torn or roughly chopped
1/2 cup sliced almonds

  1. Combine the oats with the spices and salt. Set aside.
  2. Melt the butter until it browns and smells nutty. Watch closely so it doesn’t burn. It’ll be ready once all of the milk solids have separated and floated to the sides of the pan.
  3. Carefully, combine the browned butter with the honey.
  4. Using a spatula, mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.
  5. Bake at 325 degrees for forty minutes, mixing the whole lot every ten to twelve minutes. The oats should be amber coloured. Mix in the dates, coconut and almonds. Let cool and store in an airtight container (I use mason jars.) Best used within two weeks.


The rules

As I paged through The Globe & Mail this Saturday morning over coffee and Billie Holliday, I got to wondering about limits. Articles weighing the pros and cons of open marriage. Teaching assistants developing brilliant syllabi, only to receive punishment for going outside the lines. Married graduate students sleeping with various department members, a final hurrah to their youth as their spouses foot the bills. Killings performed in the name of so-called family honour.

We fill our walls with insulation to keep the drafts out, coat our social interactions with regulations to ensure that we abide by our principles. But certainly theory often deviates from practice. How many of us have rules? How many of us follow them?
It's a Wednesday night. I'm unwinding from the day over a glass of Chianti and a container of oversalted potato salad. Expansive conversations filter into the night: I'm connecting with a couple friends of mine from the Sunshine State and a fellow co-worker who has been living in Montreal for the past four months. "Come to Paris," she says. It's very 1920s, "Lost Generation" sounding, a couple of ex-pats getting their fill of cheese and chocolate in arguably one of the most vibrant cities in the world. “Maybe for a visit,” I say. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, this city has become home to me. Bloor St. to the North, Front to the South. These are my boundaries.

As my classmates and childhood friends marry off and grow their families, I dance alone in my kitchen, buy myself flowers and can barely keep my bamboo plant alive on a good day. My desire for space and independence defies the limitations of “conventional partnership”, and the only thing I've given birth to in the past nine months fits in an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan and is commonly referred to as Banana Bread. It's not that I don't want to say those vows someday, even though I break out in hives at the thought of it. It's not that I'm too picky, as my grandmother declares. It's that I want a partner. I want someone who pushes me to my limits, who respects my boundaries, and who, at heart, possesses a bit of a rebel spirit.

"Are you a rules person?" I ask Jane.
"Like as in the rules?"
"Maybe. I mean, do you have rules in place that you abide by?"
"Yeah, I guess. I get to bed by ten every night. I allow myself one cigarette a week. And I won't date  a convicted felon. People frown on that sort of thing for some reason," she says, chuckling.
"What about when it comes to cooking? Are you a recipe follower? You are, aren't you," I say, smiling wide.
"It's called remove from packaging. Place in pre-heated oven for 35 minutes. That's my style."
"Your 'food rules'?"
"You can tell Michael Pollan he can eat his words."
It's a Sunday night and a group of co-workers gather 'round at a local bar for drinks, dancing and conversation. The night starts off slowly: everyone mingling cautiously, sipping mixed drinks, beer and red wine. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged. Disco music blares. Everything is going well for a long while. There's a tall man there who arrives late to the party. He's had too much to drink; his cerulean blue eyes betray him. He approaches one of the girls, an acquaintance of his, and she smiles at him.
"I want to say something," he says to her. "There's a night -- I remember. At the RCM. In the spring."

She nods slowly, recollecting. It was a poetry function and the few of them sat around most of the night talking. She couldn’t get the smell of the last Bar Mitzvah out of her shirt, French fries and chicken nuggets.  

"I really flirted with you that night and I'm sorry. I don't know why. I mean, I do know why. You are such a lovely person. That night, I envisioned you as my wife. I didn't want something to happen only to take off. It's pathetic, but I'm a womanizer, I am, and.."
"I don't even know what to say," she says, and this is the truth. Immediately, she feels horribly awkward. "Why are you telling me this?"
“I thought you should know.”
“What, I like you, and by the way, I just can’t help myself from sleeping with half the city? Get away from me,” she says, walking back toward the dance floor.

She meets up with B., who has been waiting for her.
“Time to blow this popsicle stand?” B. asks.
“I’ve got ten minutes before I turn into a pumpkin,” the girl answers.

I like cooking because it makes sense. If you whisk egg yolks with a bit of lemon juice and very slowly add a thin stream of oil, you will get mayonnaise. This is inevitable -- unless you break your sauce. If you cook tomatoes slow at low heat, you will whip the coconction into a silky sauce. It's comforting. Even if life throws you a curveball, you can always head into the kitchen, tie your apron strings around your neck and get to work on a cake or, say, a loaf of Banana Bread, and suddenly things make sense again. But some say that you really learn to cook when you can move away from a recipe and cook according to your five senses. That's when your culinary wings really take flight.

When it comes to cooks, there are those who follow recipes to the T and those who repeatedly stray from them. Some of us take bits and pieces from one, and as if drafting the blueprint of some kind of culinary Frankenstein, go about melding the sections together. This is one of those recipes I've taken to dinner parties that everyone loves -- the chewiness of the rice, the toothsome lentils, the subtle hit of cumin, the sweet and addictive quality of the caramelized onions. Garnished with a spiced yogurt sauce and a few pomegranate aerils, it's comforting, unusual, satisfying -- a dish that closes gaps. It's a dish shared between friends over hard conversations; it's a dish eaten, lukewarm, over laughter. A few humble, homely ingredients are tossed together and made infinitely better by the intermingling; each ingredient sings at its highest note. Despite the fact that it doesn't look like much, the flavours will defy your expectations.

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt & Pomegranate
Adapted from Food52

1 cup rice (I use a short-grain brown rice)
2 cups green or French lentils
3 tbsp ground cumin
2 onions, sliced thinly
2 tbsp unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil

Yogurt sauce:
½ cup Greek-style yogurt
2 tbsp lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 heaping tbsp chopped cilantro

Pomegranate seeds (optional)
1. Cook your lentils and rice. Lentils take about 20 minutes from dry -- bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, covered. The rice will depend on your variety. I cook exclusively with brown rice; I use a chewy, short-grain rice from California. French lentils will no doubt elevate this dish, but ordinary green lentils work just fine.
2. Add the butter to a large pan over medium-high and cook your onions. You're going to caramelize them. It takes a while to whip them into submission -- about 45 minutes or so -- but don't rush the process. You want the sugars to emerge slowly. The dish has so few ingredients that you want to make them shine as brightly as possible.
3. Assemble your yogurt sauce by combining all of the ingredients into a bowl and whisking. Refrigerate and let stand for at least 3 hours for the flavours to combine.
4. Once your onions have caramelized, your lentils have cooked and your rice is finished, mix in a little extra-virgin olive oil, if necessary, to loosen the grains. Add in the cumin and salt to taste. I'd recommend starting with about 1.5 tsps. You'll need more than you think, considering rice and lentils are exceptionally bland.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature garnished with yogurt sauce and a few pomegranate aerils, if desired.


A belly full of humble pie

Albert Einstein once theorized that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”. Perhaps that's true – who am I to argue with so-called genius – but that hypothesis insists on time as linear. And on Saturday night, as I pulled up my stockings and braved the freezing-cold weather in a wool pencil skirt for a dear friend's fiftieth birthday celebration, time did anything but stand still.
"This seat is so cold my thighs might fall off," I whined as I scooted into the front seat of the car.
"That's what sucks about being a lady," the Bostonian answers.
"No, that's what sucks about being a man. If my legs fall off, you're carrying me. Or he’s carrying me,” I said, glancing over at my uncle, grinning wide.
Arriving at the house, I’m greeted first and foremost, as always, by a big, slobbery Golden Retriever who kisses my face excitedly and never lets me go without a fight. “Is that Sarah?” I hear, faintly, from upstairs. I hand R. his birthday present – a bottle of unwrapped vodka – and soon enough we are sipping cocktails, the Golden Retriever resting at my feet.

Over a wooden platter of aged white cheddar and St. André and a couple signature caramel apple martinis, I meet Olive. She's well-dressed in her high-collared white shirt and elegant necklace, her hair cropped perfectly around her dainty ears. I learn that she’s from England, has never married and faithfully, unfailingly, mails birthday cards to friends and family every year. She was so distressed to find the post office closed this year while in Florida; instead, she has brought his card to him in person.
I meet the Bostonian, my uncle's friend whom he met while on vacation, who tells me I must visit Provincetown; his arguments -- bargain outlet shopping, fabulous seafood and fine New England scenery – have me convinced. And then there is R.'s business partner, a lovely lady decked out in a shiny, sequin-studded cardigan with an affinity for Apple products; R.'s sweet mother; and his step-father, who enjoys discussing Two and a Half Men and mortgage rates. There is more kick to this group than a package of cinnamon hearts.

I must have been around twenty when R. and I first met, which, as they say, feels like a million years ago. My family spent Thanksgiving weekend in Toronto, back when my uncle lived with a ridiculously impractical set-up. The kitchen was on the second floor and the dining area was on the third or fourth, I can't remember, and we each brought platters of food up. It was your typical fare: turkey, broccoli, squash, corn, stuffing. And then Robin set bowls down in front of us of bright, silky carrot soup, garnished with a modest swirl of sour cream and a snipping of fresh dill. I think we listened to jazz.

Though I generally try to contain it in name of the big Debbie Downer, social propriety, my sassy self emerged one late summer night. I credit my feisty spirit to my great-aunt Louise, my namesake, who, legend has it, was an indominatable spitfire up until the day she died.
As R. prepped the BBQ and began to grill the steaks, I loudly piped up, "Are you going to ask us how we would like our steaks cooked or are you going to cook them all to the same doneness?" That's not what I’d wanted to say at all. Immediately I turned beat red and tried to re-trace my steps to no avail. But to my surprise he laughed, and then I laughed, and we finished our gin martinis in jovial spirits. I like to think of that occasion as one of those tremendous growth opportunities – one where everyone eats steak and I dig my fork into yet another piece of humble pie.

Once when I was up at my uncle's cottage, we were both up obscenely early. I prefer to rise early when I’m there anyway to take advantage of the day, but I couldn’t sleep this time. I read on the pull-out couch as the sun rose, sipped a cup of very strong coffee. He came over and handed his MP3 player. I listened ironically to Adele's "Turning Tables," ironic only because collectively we’ve spent far too many years working in the hospitality industry. And between caramel apple martinis and dirty gin martinis and various other concoctions, he helped me – albeit unconsciously, I’m sure – to make sense of myself that summer when I couldn't make sense of myself; through my uncle's guidance and R.’s compassion, I dug out a place for myself in this city.

As I stood there among a hundred guests -- Olive, his mother, his step-father, my uncle, the Bostonian, family friends -- to celebrate his life of achievements – from a hockey player with wacky hair to a self-made Broadway star to a successful professional, I smiled. All of the hours collided in that moment, a merger between the past and the present and bits of the future. And when he came over to our group, I looked at him and said in my favourite of tones, "It took you long enough."

Find the recipe for Roasted Carrot Soup over here at Food52.


Strong in the broken places

Everything slows down come January, grinds to a near halt.

It's not the cruellest month of the year -- April still holds that position according to poet T. S. Eliot -- but it's close to the top. That is, at least, until it snows.

I like the lingering days of this month, the way one evening drips into the next. With fewer plans, I take my time coming home, enter my apartment, pour myself a glass of wine, and listen to Billie Holliday sing her soul out, apron strings tied around my skirt as I pad around in my black nylons. The rain brings out two types of people: the ones who are glad it isn't snow and those who wish it was. And when the snowfall finally hits, as it did in the wee hours of the morning, the dreary urban landscape meets with sweetness and romance.

I can't remember where I read it, but recently I skimmed an article where a chef said that food's primary purpose isn't to impress, but to comfort. It's always a gift when a meal succeeds in tantalizing all five senses while satisfying a real, deep hunger, but satisfaction does take precedence, doesn't it? Maybe that's what lures us back to mashed potatoes and hearty beef stews, to braised lentils or roast chicken. If we are what we eat -- oh, cliche of cliches! -- would you prefer to dazzle with your looks or your capacity to comfort?

When Amherstburg was hit with a tremendous (and inordinate) amount of snow one year, my Dad shovelled it all to the side and made a fort for my sister and I. It was a large fort, big enough to fit five or six small kids, and high. We played in it all winter long, hiding out from the world. That's how I think of my Dad: the man who unearths possibility from seemingly dead things, who offers security and comfort from nature's elements. In the years that followed, Laura and I wished for snow, our hopes dashed repeatedly. That fort at the end of our driveway was magical and special, the front yard a canvas composed of indistinguishable snow angels.

Vulerability is generally met with a great deal of hesitation. We resist putting ourselves out there; we could get hurt or injured, perhaps irreparably. We worry about slipping on black ice and being found by stray dogs (or, in the city, a wandering bum more likely) because we live alone and have no one to worry about our whereabouts. Vulnerability means getting exposed to the elements and having to cope with the backlash. It means not knowing what spices to add to which dishes, doubting our ability to follow a recipe, second-guessing our choices. As independent as I am and as difficult as it is to write the following sentence, I, too, need comfort at times. I'm not made of stone. As Ernest Hemingway writes so elegantly in A Farewell to Arms, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places." And perhaps that is exactly as it should be.

The fort, made of snow, dissolves; a great meal is eaten as quickly as it's made. Blankets and sheets wear thin. But the sense of warmth endures, no? Even in the midst of January lies the promise of spring and the heat of summer. If you allow yourself to stand out there -- unknowing and afraid -- yes, you risk being eaten by stray dogs. Or potentially Hanibal Lector. But you learn how to rely on others. You learn that you have it in you to make a meal that comforts (and possibly dazzles, too). You learn how to breathe new life into the dead things. You might learn that by letting others in you can build an army -- an army that won't fight against you, but for you, and never let you go it alone. And then you sit around the table and clang glasses, eating together and conversing together, warm on the inside.


Good luck pickles

I spent a sizeable portion of my childhood in the house my great-grandfather built, where my Nan lived through the Depression, where my father grew up on sardine sandwiches. When my sister and I were young we'd sit by the window in the entryway and watch as the cargo ships moved like slugs across the river. I haven't stepped foot in that house in years, but I remember the noise the wooden floorboards made against every step, the roar of the furnace, the sound of the off-key grand piano.

It's the place where I learned to paint with watercolours, ran amok through the cornfields with a few stray cats and picked wild apples, inspecting each one for worms. I grew my imagination on a large collection of old books with dusty hardcovers, listened to classical music and ate bologna sandwiches on white bread with yellow mustard and pickles. I snacked on sun-ripened rhubarb straight from the garden and observed as the Queen Ann's Lace came up annually, covering the estate in white flecks.

My Nan was not a good cook, but there's three things she made well: sausage rolls, which my father and I still mention nostalgically with a twinkle in our eyes; fruit salad; and, in my opinion, a combination of sliced field cucumbers and onions, gently pickled in a water, vinegar and sugar solution.

I can't say I was wild for onions, but those cucumbers were delicious. Perfectly crisp and tangy, they satisfied my deep-seated obsession for all things acidic. Perhaps you grew up on moist blueberry pancakes or peanut butter and jelly, but for me, among other notable things, it was pickles and fermented foods. A plate of olives at Christmastime. Someone's homemade pickled purple beets. Sweet pickled cucumbers, pickled cauliflower, pickled pearl onions. Tangy sauerkraut piled atop the crisp casings of a smoked bratwurst.

My adventures in pickling came about by accident, though in retrospect it hardly seems that way. While living in Tallahassee, my partner at the time and I would make the trek to Plant City every so often and stop at a stand with the best, most ridiculously inexpensive produce. I remember the ten pound bags of oranges and grapefruit, still green, and eating the first strawberries of the season one late February day, juice running down my face. And I remember the cucumbers -- field, English, mini -- abundant and cheap.

At first I pickled them as my Nan had done, sans sugar and onions, and snacked on them in the afternoons as I read novels, wrote articles, scanned through volumes about wine, and waited for work. I decided that if I was going to live south of the Mason-Dixon, I'd learn how to cook up a pot of cheesy grits, gorge on peel and eat shrimp slathered in melted butter, beach-comb for the prettiest shells while dodging the jelly fish, make sun tea, and figure out how to pickle cucumbers.

I first made this recipe a couple of years ago for Canadian Thanksgiving while I was living in the south. I put out a dish on a whim -- I liked them well enough, and having no other pickles, decided they'd work. Suffice to say, the dish vanished almost as if by magic. What I love is that I made them, and then a boyfriend of a good friend of mine made them, experimenting with hot peppers. I brought a jar to a dinner party I attended on New Year's Eve, where the host asked for the recipe.

I don't know that food is the great equalizer as they say -- I think it illustrates economic divide awfully powerfully, to be honest. But I do believe in the power of a recipe to connect us, in the practices that have the ability to unite us. In that recipe there's the girl who ran through cornfields at eight years old, who boarded a plane for another country, who moved to a city hoping for change. My recommendation for 2012: go with the gusto. Move to the rhythm of your own life, especially when it scares you. Keep your heart open: no one can enter a locked door. Don't try to own or control people; not much that's alive thrives in captivity. Be good to people, especially to those who are good to you. Make time for dinner, wine and conversation with loved ones. Try the recipes you've been handed. Visit your Nan. Laugh until your face hurts.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Refrigerator Dills
Yields approximately 2 quarts, or 4 pint-jars

Headnote: I use a vinegar and water ratio of 1:1. This yields a pretty sour pickle. If you'd prefer less sour pickles, use 2 cups of vinegar and 4 cups of water here. Also, don't skip the steps leading up to the actual pickling; it's important you treat the cucumbers before you begin in order to end up with the best product.
You can serve these the day you make them, though I like them best after about 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

1.5lbs mini cucumbers
3 cups distilled white vinegar (5%)
3 cups water
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
4 tsp brown mustard seeds
2 tbsp dried dill
2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste, plus more for treating the cucumbers
1 medium-sized pot
Glass jars/containers with lids (I use mason jars)

1. Soak your cucumbers, whole, in an ice bath for at least three hours to overnight. This helps crisp them up, especially if you're using older cucumbers from the supermarket.
2. Drain and dry the cukes and cover generously with a thick layer of kosher salt. This will help draw out any additional moisture.
3. Shake the salt off the cucumbers and slice, lengthwise, into fours.
4. Prepare your brine by adding the vinegar, water, mustard seeds, dill, and salt to the pot and bringing it to a boil. Once it begins to boil, lower the heat and simmer for another 2-3 minutes, allowing the flavours to meld together.
5. Rinse the jars in warm water to prevent cracking.
6. Pack the jars with the cucumber spears, adding about two cloves of smashed garlic per quart jar.
7. Carefully pour the hot brine over the cucumbers. I like to do this over the sink for obvious reasons.
8. Allow the brine to cool, cap, and refrigerate for at least six hours before consuming. Consume within 30 days (if they make it that long!)
Blog Template by Delicious Design Studio