Friday, June 18, 2010

Just the other day

I'm sitting in a diner and they're playing diner music in the background: ooh-maw-maw-mama-ooh-maw-maw.... It's a tired cliché, like the only reason people visit diners anymore is to relive the 1950's. I'm sure half of Flo's Diner's clientele was born after 1965 and our memories of diner culture come from watching Happy Days, not from living the real thing. It's Thursday afternoon, and Flo's is empty except for me and the waiters. They mill about in their matching black slacks and blue T-shirts, refilling ketchup bottles and restocking napkin dispensers, or whatever it is that diner waiters do when there's a lull. I'm in the corner by the window that overlooks the street from the second floor reading my book and drinking tea. A dust-filled fan oscillates, blowing air on me from across the room.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hummus for everyone!

I came across this article in today's New York Times, reminding me that I long ago promised the ladies at my sister's bridal shower to post my recipe for hummus. (Sorry!) The article, chronicling the increase in popularity of hummus for Americans over the last decade or so, highlights the basic principle of this middle eastern spread: anything goes. Making hummus is not a science. There is no exact recipe. As the matriarch to the Holy Land hummus-making enterprise Mrs. Wadi suggests, it's "eat, eat, eat, taste, taste, taste." If it's a dip that tastes good and has chick peas somewhere in the ingredients list, you can call it hummus.

I've been making hummus for a while now and my method is fairly straight-forward. Unfortunately, using a food processor for this recipe is non-negotiable. Blenders, whether hand-held or standing types, are more frustrating than this simple recipe is worth. If you like eating, however, I recommend investing in a food processor. Aside from the toaster and tea kettle, it's the one kitchen gadget I consistently use.

Makes approx. 2 cups

1 can (14 oz.) chickpeas, drained
1/4 c tahini (sesame seed) paste
1 tiny piece of garlic (about 1/2 a small clove)
juice of 1 lemon (1/4 c from bottle)
1 tsp cumin powder (optional, but tastes good)
salt to taste
cayenne for heat, if desired

In a food processor, pulse the chickpeas, tahini and garlic until a coarse paste. Add lemon juice and cumin keep pulsing. Add small amounts of water to the mixture, about 1 Tbsp at a time and pulse until the hummus has a smooth creamy texture. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I remember November

I remember November when I was eight: the sky getting dark earlier every evening, waking up before sunrise and eating breakfast while it was still night. In November, my mother would start making Christmas cake. She would take my sister and me to Nutcracker Sweet, the bulk dry goods store where she would buy candied peels, green and red cherries, Thompson and Sultana raisins and sliced almonds. She used her huge aluminum canning pot, big enough to bathe a toddler in, to hold all of the fruitcake ingredients. I remember her working the mixture with the long handled wooden spoon she would use to mix bread dough. She would turn over the fruits and nuts like she was mixing cement, resting the pot on a dining room chair so she could reach inside. Once they had been baked, I remember wrapping the cakes in aluminum foil, though not before dousing them with rum or brandy. She would put the stacks of cakes in the cold cellar, the small room in the basement that was originally used to store coal, with its hanging lightbulb and cinderblock walls. Mom kept everything she made in the cold cellar: every flavour of jam and jelly you could think of, plus the cakes. I remember my dad coveting the fruitcake once Christmas rolled around: cutting pieces for himself to go with his coffee and balancing the sticky slices on the rim of his mug.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I remember sorrel

I've been living on grilled cheese and tuna lately and obsessing over my art. The result is not much to add to this blogaroo in the way of insights and inspirations regarding all things culinary: I'm only entering my kitchen out of necessity. However, in the movie in my mind, I'm seeing the calendar pages flip away in a clichéd "time is passing" montage, so I'm here. Fortunately, I came up with a structure to at least get me writing.

My favourite book on writing remains Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. She applies her Buddhist philosophy to writing: as meditation means showing up to sit down, writing practice means showing up to the page and moving the pen. (There was a time when I put this book on reserve at the library, waited for my turn, read it, returned it and put my name on the reserve list again. This would have me re-reading Wild Mind every six weeks or so for over a year.) One of my favourite exercises is "I remember". It's very simple. Start a timed writing session (five to 10 minutes) with the words "I remember..." and let 'er rip. Whatever comes to mind, write it down. Be specific.

So, for lack of anything else to write, I'll do a five-minute "I remember":

I remember the taste of sorrel. My parents had a backyard vegetable garden at our house on Castle Knock Road. The plot was rectangular, located behind our garage and beside our cement paver patio. I remember being given the green silky leaves and told to eat them. Perhaps this was my father who gave them to me, but I can't recall. The leaves tasted sour, not repellent, but curious, and I couldn't decide if I liked them. My mother used the sorrel leaves for dinner that night. She cooked them gently in cream and served them with a pork cutlet. They had lost their bite and were a bit phlegmy, but the flavour was mellow, green and slightly sour. I recall the addition of sorrel to our meal as an event, an unusual occurrence, and surely I don't remember another time it was served. It was summer and hot, and we ate our dinner on the back patio accompanied by wasps that my father would smash with the pancake turner until he finally snapped it in two. Then, he used his bare hands, clapping the wasps between his palms so fast they would fall dead on the table.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A little housecleaning

I keep accumulating these links for interesting food-related tidbits I've read or heard on the interweb lately. Here they are:
Just this morning I listened to my first episode of Spilled Milk, a food podcast by Matthew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg. This one is all about peas, from mushy to crisp, snow to snap. They're a funny pair - lots of witty banter - and there's some good information in there too. Worth a listen.

I also happened by the debate about the dirty dozen: twelve fresh produce items that, according to some, absorb too much pesticides and thus should be purchased organic whenever possible. They say you can reduce your pesticide intake by as much as 80 percent by avoiding conventionally farmed (using chemical pesticides and fertilizers) thin skinned fruits such as berries, pears and peaches, as well as water filled veggies like celery and spinach. Now, I'm no scientist and I'm both lazy and skeptical. I eat way too much celery to go tromping all over town to find organic variety that doesn't feel like I'm eating tree bark. I think I'll continue my old standby rule that if the produce looks, smells and tastes healthy, it probably is, and is still way better for me than living on chips and beer.

Still at Salon Magazine, check out food editor (and former contributing editor to Gourmet Magazine, RIP) Francis Lam's weekly column The Eyewitness Cook for great recipes and food debates.

Finally, this recent article in the New York Times goes a long way to clarify the difference between food allergy and food sensitivity, or intolerance. While 30 percent of the population believes they have food allergies, the true incidence is only about 8 percent for children and less than 5 percent for adults. This is a big discrepancy, and the article explains that everything from inaccurate testing to confusing an allergy for an intolerance is to blame. For the record, an allergy is an immune system response to food, producing anything from hives, itchy mouth, runny nose, sneezing and difficulty breathing, to full-blown anaphylaxis. If eating a certain food gives you a stomach ache, or gas, etc., it's an intolerance, not an allergy. I learned this only after avoiding foods I thought I was allergic to for years, until finally seeing an allergist and having her explain the truth.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I can't believe it's not boring

I thought I'd quickly post this link to the best food blogger I've read in ages. In browsing Salon magazine's companion public blog service, Open Salon, I came across iamsurly (her alias says it all). Her bio reads: "Charming young lady, with sharp tongue and vocabulary of a seasoned longshoreman, who carries in her handbag worn and tattered membership cards to the Mayflower Society and Daughters of the American Revolution, for which her dues are in arrears." A real-life Lorelai Gilmore? I'm in love.

Look for her catalogue of truly hideous recipe cards from the 1970's ("Barley Casserole" takes the cake) and her previous winning entries to the Kitchen Challenge (marked by "Editor's Pick"). By pure luck, however, I found this post, "You can never have too many dress rehearsals for a swan song," a deliriously funny and tragic account of sitting at her sister's death bed while the rest of her family went crazy.

I'm looking forward to reading her nemesis, 1_Irritated_Mother (the two bloggers often battle against one another when vying for Open Salon's weekly Kitchen Challenge grand prize). Her winning KC entry this week chronicles her abandoning the challenge of developing a granola recipe and, in the true spirit of granola's origins in 1960's iconoclasm, made pancakes instead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Patience, grasshopper

We planted grass seeds around our front steps almost two weeks ago. Each day, I would go outside to check on their progress. On my hands and knees, I would examine the grass seeds laying inert on the dirt, say "c'mon guys, grow!", add some water, get up and go back inside. I was really just following the directions on the bag they came in (with the addition of verbal encouragement) but saw nothing for my efforts and was beginning to doubt we would ever succeed. Until today. This morning I looked out the front window and saw these delicate 1-inch sprouts standing tall and proud.

I hate following directions. I'd rather do something wrong my way than plod step-by-step toward someone else's successful result. This gets me into all kinds of trouble, but after so many years of being me, I've accepted my peculiarities. What's my method for achieving a successful result? I do everything twice. The first time, I learn how not to do it, and the second time I do it right.

Although this quality serves me well as an artist, it is an impediment for more activities than I care to think about. (I would make a terrible accountant.) In the kitchen, I play to my strengths: I throw most of my meals together on the fly, adding a pinch of this and a smidgen of that, tasting as I go and relying on experience of what I know works. Baking, however, has always eluded me. For as much as I would love it to be otherwise, to succeed in baking means following the directions.

A couple of months ago, I made the worst muffins I have ever tasted. Seeing a pair of bananas turning black on the counter, I decided to use them in some baking. I imagined light fluffy muffins risen to perfection, golden brown and steaming, waiting to be broken open and smothered with butter. Armed with nothing more than my big glass mixing bowl and an idea, I proceeded to throw together some ingredients I thought belonged in my fantasy muffins: flour, soda, mashed banana, yoghurt, some honey, spices. After hastily filling some muffin tins, I baked the batter, which rose successfully but didn't brown, and the muffins I pulled from the oven after 20 minutes were dense and shiny white domes. Undeterred, I broke one open, added the butter and took a bite: sour and chewy with a hint of banana, only the too-green taste rather than sweet ripeness. They were so bad, we decided it would have been cruel to feed them to the animals, so they went in the bin.

When the opportunity for baking scones for my sister's bridal shower arose a few weeks ago, I decided I had to go against my instincts and follow directions. I wanted them to be great and I didn't want another muffin fiasco on my hands. I went to the source of foolproof cooking: Canadian Living's "Tested Til Perfect" recipes were the only ones I would consider for my task. Fortunately, Canadian Living magazine now has a vast online database of their wonderful recipes with the added features of recalculating for different portion sizes and auto-generated grocery lists. I chose their "mini lemon scones" for my baking project and followed the directions to the letter. They turned out perfectly. In fact, I was so impressed with the result, that I tried other recipes: sugar cookies, vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream frosting, lemon poppyseed cake, pecan shortbread, all step-by-step and with grand results.

So, I'm bending a little. I'm beginning to see the benefits of relying on someone else's perfected method. It's not easy, and I have doubts; one more day, and I would have declared our grass project hopeless and the seed manufacturers a bunch of idiots. Today, those fine green shoots reminded me yet again of the value of occasionally trusting another, a task made far easier on a stomach full of fresh-baked scones.