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.


Beth Cassian-Black said...


Awesome post...I feel as though I have been immortalized forever in a great piece of writing. Dish looks great too.
xo B.

Jess said...

I loved this post. It has a hauntingly familiar tone that I think we can all relate to at some point in our life.

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