Monday, December 8, 2014

No Knead To Thank Me (You're Welcome)

I've written previously about my utter incapacity to make decent bread -- somehow I don't have the touch, or I have too much touch. I would make dough and it would rise beautifully and then the minute I'd put it in the oven... plouff, it would collapse into a dense mass.

But the thing is, while I can get all sorts of beautiful produce and meat and dairy here -- straight from the farm, as fresh and pure as one could want -- it's really hard to find great bread within reasonable driving distance from my house.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Magic

I spent Thanksgiving weekend with some of my favorite people, including my pal Elaine Tin-Nyo. Elaine is an artist whose work has a lot to do with food, and she's constantly dreaming up unlikely dishes based on her really solid knowledge of cooking fundamentals. A couple of weekends before her visit here, she threw a dinner party where she "glove-boned" a duck -- which means she boned it from the inside, so the exterior remained perfectly intact -- and stuffed the critter with the meat from another duck, turned into a sort of sausage mixture. We called this feat of culinary madness a "duckducken," or "duck in duck suit," by turns.

When we talked about what the menu for Thanksgiving would be, Elaine looked at me with all seriousness and explained that she would like to sew a suit for the turkey out of duck skin, and so the turkey would roast, basted in duck fat. I blanched and started stammering, and Elaine burst out laughing at the expression of pure terror on my face.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dal Makhani

One of my most memorable meals in India happened when I was 22 years old, backpacking through the country with my trusty Lonely Planet guide and my friend Pam. We were in Jaipur, in the heart of Rajasthan. After seeing forts and riding elephants and touring havelis and shopping for jewels, we walked down the dusty main drag looking for dinner.

We were always looking for supper at the wrong time, the hours of sightseeing and our unfashionable Canadian mealtimes conspiring to make us perpetually early at every restaurant we went to. Of course, the waiters were always too polite to tell us that, and would bob their heads with big smiles when we ordered food that wouldn't possibly ready for hours since the cook just arrived in the kitchen. They would fill our glasses with water and we would sit, waiting, more and more impatient, not realizing how ridiculous we must have looked.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Serendipity and Oranges

I've written before, probably more than once, about how I feel like my whole life has been a matter of falling into things and situations, almost blindly, and just going with the flow. I berate myself sometimes that I do this -- I should be making my choices with more foresight, more planning, more skepticism. My Pollyanna tendencies and almost stupid optimism have failed me sometimes, a fact that I am painfully aware of as I enter firmly into middle age, a time of looking back as much as looking forward.

That said, if I did a full accounting of the choices I've made, and the bits of dumb luck I've had, I'm sure I would end up in the black -- I don't consider myself to be especially lucky, but I take great joy in the times when things simply fall into place, almost more joy in the falling into place than in the things themselves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

High Anxiety

My kid was totally relaxed in the days before school started: happy to be seeing her friends and to have something more stimulating than me to entertain her every day.

I, however, was in a sheer panic.

This is the thing I hate most in the world: packing lunch for my kid every day. It is only the legal repercussions and moral implications of allowing her to starve that brings me back, day after day, to the thankless task.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eating Local

It has slowly dawned on me that when people speak to me (or I to them) about eating locally, and participating in a CSA, and farm-to-table cooking, we are often not speaking of the same thing at all.

When friends spoke recently of their qualms about the carbon footprint of belonging to a CSA, and all the imported tomatoes they were eating, I was confused -- this sounded like no Community Supported Agriculture farm I was familiar with. When I queried them about the box they received every week, I balked at the use of the term CSA to describe what was simply an organic food delivery service: some items gathered from local farms, supplemented by vegetables imported from Chile and Mexico.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Secret Menu

I moved from Manhattan to upstate New York about a month before my baby was born. I wasn't thrilled about moving -- I loved living in the city -- but my ex and I decided it would be a novelty to actually live in the same place, six years into our commuting marriage. Especially with a kid on the way.

The town upstate did not have a lot to recommend it, except for a great job at a great school. It wasn't so much a college town, though, and had been laid waste by economic downturns and shuttered factories and what was called the "toxic plume," an underground river of chemicals remaining from the IBM plant in a nearby town. It felt a bit Appalachian, in fact. When the real estate agent took us around to find a house, she would treat us to lunch at a different place every day -- a sweet gesture that ended up being pretty depressing. The offerings were not impressive. I worried.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Easy as (Blueberry) Pie

I am not a terribly skilled baker -- too much precision for me, and baking is too occasional an activity for me to really get better at it. But I do love the idea of baking: I dream of turning out the perfect, frosted cake -- the kind without cake crumbs scumbled through the icing -- or of baking a pie with a flaky crust that doesn't ooze out into nothingness when you lift a wedge out of the pan.

Neither of these things is much more than a dream for me. Except, as is turns out, for blueberry pie. This is a recipe that I make so consistently well that I feel no embarrassment -- me, the mediocre-at-best-baker -- passing it along to you. If I can do it, it must mean it's foolproof. Let's call it a confidence builder.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Idiot-Proof Blueberry Jam That I Finally Got Right

Every year for the past three years I have tried to make blueberry jam. In part because living in a place where blueberries grow so freely is a novelty to me, so when I take my kid and her friends picking I always end up coming back with way more than is reasonable. I freeze some, make baked stuff out of others, and try to make jam out of the rest.

They say -- the "theys" that know -- that blueberry jam is the easiest jam to make, because blueberries are so rich in pectin (the thing that makes jam gel) that you don't have to add anything to them except for sugar to end up with jam.

I begin every year with the assumption that blueberry jam is foolproof, and every year I mess up.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ratatouille

Every August as I contemplate the bounty at my CSA farm I am struck with the entirely unoriginal thought: "I should make ratatouille."

Originality is overrated, in my opinion, so I am happy to offer you my recipe today.

This is why you make it in August: because eggplants, zucchini, and red peppers are all ripe. Because parsley and thyme are abundant in your garden. Because you make it and then leave it on your counter and eat it at room temperature for every meal, whenever or however it strikes your fancy.

Because it tastes like the south of France, even if you've never been there.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Soft Landing

I'm back from almost six weeks in Montana, almost constantly with my parents. It's hard -- maybe this is universal, or maybe this is a sign that I failed to launch -- but it's hard not to feel dragged back into adolescence, or at least into some version of childhood that struggles with one's adultness when I'm there. I did some work, I did some writing, I hiked a lot and I went to the gym. I ate less than usual, because even though my parents are excellent cooks it was not the food I would normally eat -- it was excellent but different than my habits. Eating less was not a bad thing at all, I should say.


Monday, July 7, 2014

The Purge

Just a recipe or two today, as I sit on the deck at my parent's cabin in Montana, determined to get my book manuscript finished and take care of myself in other ways for the next month or so.

Getting out of my village for the summer was a bit hectic -- I'm renting out my house to a Broadway legend this summer (don't ask) and so spent much of the weeks before my departure doing a thorough clearing of clutter. So many unnecessary things donated to goodwill or given away on Freecycle or, when neither of those were options, thrown in the trash or sent off to be recycled. I always find those moments of purging so freeing and therapeutic, but in a terrifying way -- not much different from the day I realized I'd accidentally erased a couple of thousand messages from my email inbox: 98% of those emails I would never miss and should have deleted long ago, but what crucial information might have disappeared among those remaining 2%?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Turnips are not sexy

It is perfectly fitting that I am following a post on prunes -- no matter how much you want to rebrand them "dried plums," prune industry, we all see through your trick -- with another deeply unsexy sounding ingredient: turnips.

I've been getting hakurei turnips at my CSA farm lately. Yes, they are hipster turnips; I make no apologies. They seem to be particularly popular among the organic farm, CSA set, and are a common sight these days at farmers' markets. They're a bit bigger than radishes, with smooth, creamy white, perfectly round roots attached to deep green and unblemished leaves. I pick them up and put them into my bag not because I have any particular idea what to do with them, but just because they're so darn pretty. They taste the way a regular turnip would if it had moved to the city and gone to grad school and ended up making good but not vulgar money and had conversations with friends over drinks at the local in which it had very intelligent but also funny and self-deprecating things to say about the Degenerate Art show or the latest thing at BAM or whatever fantastic television show it's binge-watching. Confident enough of its turnipness to not make a huge point of it, comfortable in its own (very tender) skin.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Try a Little Bitterness

Sometimes people send me messages -- women, mostly -- to say that they're in pain, that they're experiencing heartbreak or in the shattered aftermath of a divorce or some traumatic variation thereof. They write to me, they say, because they've been reading my blog and finding some comfort there: finding they aren't alone in their loneliness, that they're part of a community of solitary sadness, even if my loneliness and sadness is in the past, on the page, in retrospect, while theirs lives and breathes.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Stupid Things I Did Today

I don't even think I can blame Mercury in retrograde for today's suckiness. It was all me. I have days when I'm so efficient, so energetic, so ON that it makes me think that everyday will be like that. Unfortunately, it still hasn't sunk in that for every day of intensive on-ness, I usually have a couple of days of absorbing/processing/recovering, where I am the opposite of on -- which isn't OFF, exactly, but more like not-as-on-as-I-believe.

Today was one of those days. Backed into a parked car (they got some paint damage, my bumper crumpled like a piece of paper); tried to conduct a business phone call while my daughter was getting a haircut, which meant I wasn't concentrating on either activity; followed said daughter into a new Asian food market that's opening up in our tiny village while still on the phone, politely pointing at the phone and waving off the adorable family who were (I thought) trying to give me a tour, until I realized after several minutes of browsing they were trying to tell me that the store wasn't actually opening till June 1; had a pathetic workout at the gym; realized that if you don't water all those plants you bought for the garden they will in fact shrivel up; and called the insurance company to find out exactly how much (monetary) damage I've done as a result of the collision.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I've become Ma Wilder

This morning, my breakfast consisted of two eggs that came from the chicken coop of the neighbor across the street from me, and a latté made with milk straight from the cows at the farm a few miles from here. Last week, we ate hamburgers made from the cows from that same farm, and another night paneer made from their milk. Starting next week, we'll go a few more miles down the road (ten, I think) for all our vegetables. I've been thinking that my kitchen is being transformed into Little House on the Prairie, and I'm Ma (except for the anti-Native American racism and the waist that Pa can still circle with his hands). This is homestead living, my friends.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kitchen Mishaps

I have burned dinner almost every night this week.

It's true. Burned it. Totally charred, "do I have to throw out this pot?", beyond redemption, "okay, I guess we're going out for dinner" ruined. My biceps are bulging from all the heavy-duty pot scrubbing I've had to do recently. I have been a complete and total kitchen disaster.

I'm blaming it on the "blood moon," the lunar eclipse that's going on at the moment. It's plausible, trust me. I've always had insomnia around full moons. So does my dad, and I think my daughter might be inheriting this tendency. So this super special full moon is (in my estimation) wreaking havoc on my sleep patterns, and that's made me a bit incompetent.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Miss Congeniality, or This Curry Has a Great Personality

Miss Congeniality
I made a curry last night that was, for me, a revelation: cooked in a purée of herbs, coconut, spices, and yogurt, it's very different from the tomato-onion versions that I mostly make. The recipe is based on one by Sanjeev Kapoor in his book How to Cook Indian (I always want to insert an "an" in the title); I modified it a bit to suit my kitchen equipment. I was really, really happy with the results.


However, when I went to write a blog post, I realized something: it's so damned hard to take pictures of Indian food if you're not a professional food stylist. Often dishes are a big bowl of greenish-brown or yellowish-brown or reddish-brown or brownish-brown goop -- insanely delicious goop, but goop nonetheless. But why should it have to be beautiful, I think, if it tastes good? Why give in to the age of Instagrammed dinners? Why does all food have to be sexy? My indignation rises in direct proportion to the impossibility of making the food look appetizing. And of course the "OMG please don't call me a food blogger" in me also makes me completely resistant to actually learning how to take photos of delicious goop; in fact there are tricks, the internet and my food artist friends tell me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Science Experiment

When I first tasted preserved lemons -- probably in Paris, probably in some sort of North African restaurant -- I thought I had eaten something very, very wrong: salty, astringent, bitter, and with an intensely concentrated citrus aroma. But at the same time, off -- the flavor seemed a bit resinous, a taste I associated more with cleaning supplies than with food.

Not a real recommendation, is it?

The thing is, I couldn't stop thinking about that flavor, and how wrong it felt in my mouth but at the same time how much I seemed to crave it afterwards. So eventually I found a Middle Eastern grocery and bought a jar of them -- I think I must have been living in Berkeley by this time -- and began to experiment.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Language Skills

I am always amazed when I hear people (not just chefs, but actual people -- enthusiastic home cooks) talk about the combinations of flavors they imagine in their heads, especially when it comes to Indian spices and techniques. Sometimes, it's true, my amazement is more like "oh my god gross" than "eureka!", but mostly it is admiration. I like when people think outside the (spice) box, if it results in something good to eat.

Someone told me recently about a dish he made with leeks with karela (bitter melon), which is as culture-clashy as I can imagine. Another person told me about substituting daikon for grated coconut in a South Indian curry. I didn't have a chance to taste either of these concoctions, but what struck me most hearing about them was the chutzpah -- the willingness to start throwing things together to see what works.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring has sprung, sort of

Went out into the garden yesterday -- well, what passes for a garden at my house -- to see what survived the ridiculously snowy and cold winter. There are still huge piles of snow in my yard, including a mountain of solid ice right smack-dab in front of my door that has resulted in some surprisingly hostile activity on the part of my postal carrier. (The hellebore may never recover, is all I'm saying.) The winter has seemed so endlessly long, eternal almost, and even though the days are lengthening and the air smells different, it's sometimes hard to believe that the seasons will ever change. Especially when we're still getting snow on March 22.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Raising an Irish Lass

When I was pregnant, I was curious -- the casual observer might say obsessed -- with what color my child's skin would be. Would she have my nut-brown complexion, or would she be pale like her Irish-American father? I desperately wanted her to be brown, and I admitted as much to my ex one day. He was incensed -- "why wouldn't you be as happy if she looked like me?" he demanded, and I could understand his hurt feelings. But it wasn't that I didn't want her to look like him, I said. It's just that I couldn't conceive of any creature emerging from my body who didn't look like me. 

It was a conceptual disconnect, like not being able to imagine having a boy child. A failure of imagination. I could admit as much. 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Old Friends and New Tricks

As if the gods are trying to tell me something after my earlier post about how bad my memory is, who should show up at my doorstep last week but my best friend from high school, Lise, to remind me of all the things I've forgotten. Lise arrived at our school in grade 10, all Toronto sophistication, not entirely pleased to find herself plopped down in the middle of the prairies through no fault of her own. I was in awe of her -- her confidence, her seemingly constant good mood, her energy.

Our reunion consisted of 18 hours of almost constant laughter with a short interruption for sleep. We relived all the lost stories from high school -- weekend ski trips with my family, torturing my little sister, her penchant for finding boyfriends to renovate, our embarrassing crushes, her love of my mom's chicken curry, etc. We talked, too, about our divorces and our kids and the problems that come with adulthood.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Just cooking

My mind has been occupied with writing my book lately -- revisiting my old posts, making sense of them, finding new things to say. I haven't stopped cooking, but I don't have too many new words. So today I'm just posting a recipe, without too many thoughts attached.

Pan-roasted chicken with confit lemons and onions
Serves 4

This dish is actually very simple to prepare, and takes very few ingredients. Make sure you buy the best chicken you can afford (free-range, organic, locally-raised if possible) -- it'll make a difference. While the method is simple, I've explained it in some detail because it's a great technique to learn -- you can modify it endlessly. I like pan-roasted chicken because you get a unctuous sauce without giving up the crisp chicken skin.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Failures of Memory

I forget things.

I don't mean little things, like where I put my car keys -- I mean big things. Whole swaths of my life. Events and encounters that should have meant something profound to me, or that should have been lodged in my memory forever. I have no excuse -- no neurological damage to speak of, no blackout drinking binges in my past. I just... forget.

Forgetting is a terrible tendency to have when you're writing about your life, as you might imagine. Memoirists should have good memories. 


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ingesting Culture, or I am a Pork Eater

In lieu of making you read, this post takes the form of a video -- a lecture that I gave at Brandeis University this past fall on cooking, colonialism, and culture as part of the Soli Sorabjee lecture series on South Asia. I sing (briefly), and spend a lot of time pushing the bangs out of my eyes. And then there's the whole talking about food thing. You can watch the video here.

In a way, the talk is really about how my ancestors on my father's side -- the Mangaloreans -- came to eat, and love, pork. It has a tangled and violent history, a remnant of Portuguese colonization and the imposition of Catholicism in the 16th century, but isn't identity always the result of these complications and traumas? The strange byways of this history touch on rural Canada, cannibalism, Queen Victoria's illicit affairs, old boyfriends, and Le Corbusier's architecture. Among other things.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Gadgets

I have always had an overweening pride about the fact that my kitchen is not overly equipped -- I do not have endless tools and gadgets in my drawers, I proclaim loudly, no corn kerneler or breakfast sandwich maker or automatic paper towel dispenser or what have you. I make do, I say, with some basic knives, a minimum of pots and pans, and a few other things that are necessities. The sign of a good cook, I tell myself, is to be able to do a lot with a little.

Pffft. Last night, at the last session of my winter cooking class, I started talking about the kitchen gadgets I can't do without. And the list is longer than I expected -- not Williams-Sonoma long, but long. So consider this my mea culpa.

Friday, January 31, 2014

What's an art history degree good for, anyway?

The art history world was rocked this week by President Obama's total smack talk about the discipline. Speaking at a General Electrics plant in Wisconsin, Obama joked with the assembly of young people that they should learn a skilled trade, because they were sure to earn more than if they were to get a useless old art history degree. Realizing that he had just dissed a field of study of thousands of years of world culture, the president chuckled and said "please don't send me any emails complaining," or something to that effect.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Searching for a Superego

People say things to me -- or more accurately, write things to me -- that take me by surprise. Strangers, I mean. Names and avatars (not always even faces) that I know from Facebook, or from other virtual worlds. They tell me their secrets, their pain, even their shame sometimes, or sometimes they think they're having a casual conversation, even though it doesn't look so casual from my side of the screen. They come to me for reasons I can't quite figure out -- not in the hopes that I will make them feel better, or be a loving and empathetic ear to them as they reveal their struggles, because what reason would they have to expect either from me? To expect anything from me?