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. AndrĂ© 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!)
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