Monday, September 28, 2009


I was standing out in the rain this morning, under our big pink and grey striped umbrella, holding a parking spot for a friend who is visiting from Grey County. A neighbour came by: "New job?" she said, laughing. "I love this moist air, don't you? It feels so great on the skin, so restful to the eyes." The blue of her shirt and the yellow of her handbag glowed brilliantly in the overcast light.

It's funny now to think of how much I used to love bright sharp-light days. I still like them, but now the light-box-in-the-sky that is an overcast day feels like a gift to the eyes and the imagination, with colours rich and softened edges that leave a sense of possibility, like an impressionist's water colour of the natural world.

We're upside down here, waiting for news. A young friend, a much-loved member of our extended family, is in hospital with a serious gut-ache that is not a clear case of appendicitis. So what IS it? Well the doctors at Mount Sinai are trying to puzzle that out. They're nice and communicate clearly, the nursing care has been fabulous, but meanwhile he is stuck in hospital, not allowed to eat or drink (it's now been nearly 72 hours) because they are keeping him waiting while they decide what to do. Argh!!

I went over with him to Emerg before dawn on Saturday, and as soon as we stepped through the doors we entered that other parallel world that is "hospital." It's too easy to forget about the world that all those people, from nurses to orderlies to cleaning staff to doctors, work in and make work. And it's easy to forget in our daily round how much we rely on that world functioning well. But every time we need it we can walk through those doors and re-enter it. Each time some event or illness takes me into the system I think how lucky we are to have publicly funded health care, and in our case, it's not only superb, but it's also just a block away.

As our loved one has been forcibly fasting (nutrients into an intravenous tube is all that's happening on the nutrition front for him), we have been gleaning the fresh herbs and chives from the garden, and eating them at every opportunity, and gorging on fresh fruit. I bought some peaches and pears and shallots, as well as some fabulous Cortland apples, in Stratford on the weeked. On Sunday Dawn added to the abundance when she brought over some organic Mackintoshes.

When we're rich with apples, my favorite thing to do (apart from just biting into them, that first hit so juicy and wonderful!) is make "SImplest Apple Pie" a recipe Dina passed on from her mother. It became the opening recipe in HomeBaking, an announcement about the lasting pleasures of simple home-style practical baking. The apples are grated (and the Macks were so thin skinned I didn't bother peeling them), and mounded on a crust of pastry dough that is pressed into a cake tin (I use a nine-inch square tin). The pastry dough is supposed to be 1/3 pound butter in chunks, and 1/2 cup sugar to 2 cups all-purpose flour, all rubbed to crumb-texture between the fingers and wetted with two egg yolks and about 2 tablespoons sour cream.

BUT, as always, some improvisation was needed: I had no sour cream and was a little short of butter, so I used several tablespoons of cream cheese and about 3 tablespoons full-fat plain yogurt instead. I had a lemon so added its zest to the pastry, an option in the original recipe. The pastry dough is best barely wet enough to hold together, pulled together in a plastic bag and chilled for half an hour or more while the oven heats (to 350 F) and you grate the apples (to make about 8 cups; nine Macks is what I used).

Press roughly half the pastry into the bottom of the pan; it makes a thickish crust, but is tender with all the butter, egg yolks etc so don't worry. Sprinkle on fine bread crumbs if you have them (I didn't yesterday). Mound on the grated apple, with a little extra sugar if you wish and also the juice from the lemon if it suits you. Crumble the other half of the pastry over top.

It takes about an hour to bake slowly through. The grated Mackintoshes melt into a luscious dense mass. The top is touched with brown and coalesces into a lovely broken-textured top crust. It's best to let it all cool and set firm, I find. A big square of it makes a good sustaining late night snack or happy-anchor-for-the-day breakfast. By the way, no-one complained about the fact the apples hadn't been peeled. I don't think anyone noticed!

From talk about traditional eastern European baking from the Ashkenaz tradition to thoughts of further afield culinary traditions and, I confess, a small bit of promotion:
First, I'll be doing another immersethrough tour in Chiang Mai in late January. Have a look on the Chiang Mai page of the website: It's fun, as well as intense of course, and I'm really looking forward to it.
And second, (pronounced cookster, of course, but I sometimes read it as "cookstrasse"...!?!) is going to feature me on September 30, that is, this Wednesday, as Author of the Day. Thanks to Katie Workman and the team. I'm interested to see which recipes they choose to feature...

So do go have a look at And check out too, if you have any dreams of spending eating and cooking time in northern Thailand...

Meantime, give a thought to all those working and all those suffering in hospitals near you. I am so grateful to be out in the air and sun or rain or anything at all, just air; thoughts of hospital just double or triple those feelings of gratitude!

Monday, September 21, 2009


The moist overcastness of today was almost a shock, as were the few spatterings of rain, since we've had nothing but clear blue skies and sunshine for almost four weeks. Yikes! It is about to be autumn, in a few hours. I'm not ready!!

With the new moon, and the momentousness of both Rosh Hashana and Eid (the end-of-Ramadan celebration) this weekend, as well as the equinox, everything feels full of meaning, a turning-point and a time to be especially attentive. Because of the new moon, on Saturday night, after a crystalline day, the sky was alive with every star possible. No wonder the ancients marvelled and studied the night sky. What could be more astonishing and miraculous? We in the modern industrialised world have other distractions and so we often miss out on the essentials. They, the ancients, lived face-to-face with the vastness of the universe every clear night. And on Saturday might it was so clear up in the lovely unlitness of rural Grey County that the Milky Way wasn't a hazy band but instead a number of distinct strands oriented south west to north east, split apart in places so that they trailed off in several ribbons toward the horizon in both directions. When have I ever seen it so clearly?

I looked and looked for the moon, the sliver of the new moon, but never found it, even though it was after 9 by then, so surely it was up?!

Perhaps, you'll say, you were hallucinating? Maybe the Milky Way wasn't so marvellous, it's just that you were in an altered state? Perhaps. But I don't think so, despite the fact that the late afternoon had been quite astonishing, with a long intense sauna at Jon and Lillian's: inside in the intense dry heat, outside into the chill of early evening air and the trees all around, back in for another even deeper and more penetrating dose of heat, the air burning up into my nostrils, and so on. Finally we all dashed for the car and drove the half mile to the river. In we went, into moving rippling water that carried us along, practically singing with exhilaration, the bottom clear, the water completely transparent, the sky equally limpid above. We waded slowly out, laughing with pleasure. My bones felt warm, my whole body too, except that my skin was sharply tingling with that "I am alive!" tingle that the best and luckiest sauna can give. Steam drifted off us as we stood in the road, the sun aimed straight down it from due west, our shadows crisp and long in the golden dust.

Later, on our way back into the city under that spangled sky, Ian and I talked about the shape of things in the house, the way Dom and Tashi and Ian share cooking and cleaning and how best to communicate about it all so everyone feels equally responsible and equally appreciated. It's about reciprocity, I think, and that seems to be a good thing to think about as we who live here at 45 degrees north hit the equilibrium point in the year and start to tilt (slide? creep?) toward winter.

Reciprocity is equal connection, balance, mutuality. When we're assured of it, we relax. When it's not there we feel resentful or angry, or we withdraw. It's not about alternating who pays for coffee each time we go out (though it can be I guess), but instead it's about loosely but clearly maintaining a sense of that balance of giving and taking in a relationship.

Sometimes there is no obvious balance. Sometimes the gift that we are given is so precious, like the gift of time in the magical post-sauna river, that there is no specific equivalent to balance it. But that's not the point. In the larger and longer arc of a long friendship, it's the sharing of wonder that becomes the precious gift, and sharing is by definition reciprocal, isn't it?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I started writing this blogpost late on Saturday night (despite the date on this post, it's now Monday the 14th).  Jon and Lillian (Ian's parents) had driven in from Grey County, getting here at about eleven in the evening.  They were bouncy still, so we went out for a walk in the warm night air.  Being out late on a Saturday night, watching the young people in couples and groups out on the street, led me to think about the Saturday night date, and all the hope and expectation and fear and worry that can go along with it, especially when we're young.  So when I got back in I stayed up late writing, and this is how I began:

"Here it is, Saturday night, the big night of the week, especially for young people, for heavy dates and taking risks and feeling free of the daily round.  I remember in February of first year university finding my roommate Nancy sobbing in our room one evening.  There she was, eighteen years old and a great person, attractive and popular, but in pieces.  Why?  Well, the tragedy was that for the first time since grade nine she had no Saturday night date. 

I was amazed, stunned is perhaps more accurate.  My high school life had been quite different from hers, almost date-free until the middle of my second-last year, and then once again date-free in my graduating year.  And now when I look back, all that social effort and worry on Nancy's part feels so imprisoning.  I was just an out-of-it kind of high school student, tall and awkward, so I never felt particularly entitled to a date, if you know what I mean.  And I'm grateful now not to have grown up too fast, not to have felt the huge pressure to be socially successful in high school, with all the attendant pressures (that I barely guessed at at the time) to be sexually active...

The Toronto International film festival (TIFF) is on right now, and yesterday I saw a very strong film called My Teheran for Sale which tells a story set in modern Teheran, amongst the young people, in their twenties, whose generation has been lost, squeezed out by the repressiveness of the current regime.  They go to illicit parties and make and listen to underground music, and develop plays and other theatre, and if they are caught are subject to imprisonment or whippings.  It's horrible.  And yet what is wonderful is the will to take the risks in order to try to live fully.  There's a sense of vitality that is irrepressible and heartening.  And this despite the hardships suffered by individuals as they struggle to breathe and expand their horizons, despite the regime.  Do see it if you can.

And on another topic, last Wednesday the guys all started classes.  A good friend, who is staying with us temporarily, was also due to start her first full day in the classroom this term (she's a high school math teacher) on Wednesday.  So I said I'd cook supper Tuesday night.  I bought a blade roast from Gerald at the Trinity Bellwoods market, and some yellow and green beans and two heads of vigorous romaine.  I got back from the market to find extras, good friends of the guys, who seemed pleased to stay for supper, so instead of cutting a steak off the roast and freezing the rest, I cut it into three steaks and grilled them all (over charcoal, on the domed  Weber, so simple and good).  

There were eight of us, in the end, and we almost licked the platter clean!  What a treat that meat was, freshly butchered, never frozen, and from a grass-fed cow raised in Grey County, two hours north of here.  I sliced it then dressed it in the usual Thai salad way with lime juice, fish sauce, some minced chiles, sliced shallots, and lots of fresh basil and mint (no coriander leaves on had).  We ate it with rice, the lightly cooked beans, and a huge salad.  And we all agreed that the meat was spectacular.

Tonight it was Ian's turn to cook, so he started early.  By late afternoon there was a huge batch of chocoalte chip cookies (he used good baking chocolate chopped up) and a skillet cake on the counter, keeping company with the Cretan biscotti he'd made two days ago.  And then for supper he cooked a huge stack of fresh corn (three cobs each), tender green beans I'd bought today from Ted Thorpe at the market, a cucumber salad (dressed with shredded shiso and mint, some Malden salt, and a little cider vinegar), and organic bacon from Grey County.  Everything tasted of itself, and it made us all so hungry!"

All that was all written on Saturday night.  Now it's Monday evening and in between we've had the most spectacular hot bright days and clear limpid nights with star-strewn midnight-blue skies.  Lovely!  I saw a wonderful experimental full-length documentary on Sunday morning, the film Jon and Lillian had come here to see, made by Phil Hoffman, a friend from Grey County who teaches film at York University.  He's a lovely guy, and very well respected too, by his peers.  The film is called "All Fall Down" and it was entrancing and sobering, beautiful, both its images and its soundscape, and also haunting.  And when the lights came up afterward, there were a bunch of people from Grey County, all delighted to have seen Phil's film.  It was such a pleasure to see them all in that unfamiliar place, a fairly alienating cinema complex...

Later I went with another friend to a documentary about a dynamic and extraordinary pair of performers from New Zealand, legends in their own time, called the Topp Twins.  They are so free, so themselves in every situation, and so creative and funny and serious, all at once.  A rarity at TIFF, the audience stood and cheered at the end of the film, so exhilarating was it.  

And tonight as I whizzed (well, it's all relative, but I was rushing along on my bicycle) through the warm night air, coming home from a Women's Culinary Network meeting, I had time to realise how lucky I feel these days.  This time last year I hadn't thought of getting out on a bicycle in the city.  And now it's getting to be second nature to head out on my red Diamond Back, a bike that I rode from Kashgar to Gilgit 23 years ago, yikes! and that I am absurdly attched to and sentimental about.  I fear theft, as any cyclist in Toronto does, but I feel so much more confident now out on the street, even in rush hour.  Yes, I will be careful, I AM being careful, helmet and all, but oh, the freedom!  It's just wonderful: autonomous and light as air.

Monday, September 7, 2009


We're now in our eighth day of sunny summer weather, with cicadas buzzing by noon, and blue skies interrupted by only the occasional skein of cloud, or sometimes a flotilla of little fluffy ones.  But this is summer's last gasp, as well as its first.  I'm wearing lightweight cottons and luxuriating in soft air after dark, and meanwhile the students are assembling at the university, ready to start classes on Wednesday, moving into residence or wandering around in a daze (the first-years especially of course) or in colour-co-ordinated groups of frosh weekers.

The start of the school year, for those of us from the northern hemisphere, is always connected with September and October, with their crisp days and paling autumn light.  For years and years, twelve years of primary school plus any further education, we get imprinted with the idea of this as the time for transitions and change.  And that brings me to the idea of confidence, and lack of confidence, and how much effort it sometimes takes us to navigate these changes.

Tonight, the evening of Labour Day, is the mximum stress night of the year, I figure, on average.  Think of all those kids entering kindergarten, all those teachers and kids going back to start the school year, all those kids going to a new school...  It all adds up to a lot of stress and anticipation, tummy-tingling, and for some people disablingly anxious-making.

When life is rolling along smoothly, say when teachers and kids are well launched into the new year, it's easy to forget the stress they all felt this evening, or this week.  And it's just as well that we forget, because this level of anxiety can be immobilizing over the long haul.  At the same time, I like to think that I can tap back into anxious moments, or sad moments, just to get reminded of the kinds of troubles other people may be experiencing.  It's too easy to be complacent, or else impatient with others who aren't feeling as on top of things as we think they should.

Sometimes, too, it's a good idea to talk to friends in order to get reminded that we ARE capable and that any stuckness we feel around anxiety is temporary and can be overcome or dodged.  Friends are the great resource.  Of course sometimes, as tonight, many who are anxious about the re-entry into the school year have friends who are in exactly the same position, so there's no outside viewpoint to steady them, no calm reassuring voice.

I remember lying in bed the night before school started in grade six, imagining the pale green and white dress I planned to wear to school for that first day, worrying about how it would feel to walk into a new classroom and meet a teacher I didn't know.  That turned out to be a great year for me, with a wonderful energetic and motivated teacher named Mr Cowten.  How lucky! 

 And perhaps experiences like that make me feel that often these things we dread are much worse in the anticipation than in reality.  Oh, but it's just SO hard to stay calm and free of butterflies in the stomach and that treacherous feeling of nausea!

Tomorrow morning I'll watch all those kids heading to school in their new clothes, with bright smiles hiding fears and excitement, their parents also happy and worried, and I hope to remember to feel grateful that I can participate at a distance, without having to live with the urgent pangs I once felt at this time of year.

Speaking of changes and transitions, last night out at supper with friends, I could look around and see life in many stages: one friend very pregnant, the child due in a month, another with a three-month-old, others with a three year old, and then lovely Dom and Tashi and Ian, great examples of precious children now just-into-adulthood and re-entering university this week.  Wonderful.

The company and the food were each a pleasure, from Dawn's Red Fife and buckwheat flour loaves, to D's silky handmade ravioli (two kinds, one stuffed with chorizo and dandelion and green peas, the other with the greens only, beautiful against the pale dough).  There was perfectly grilled (by Ed) rack of lamb, beef tenderloin, eggplant, and shiitake mushrooms; a gigantic potato salad (my fall-back in late summer and fall: boil good local potatoes until just done, let cool completely, then peel; chop into large bite-size into a large bowl; chop lots of fresh herbs: shiso, basil, mint, chives, etc, and stir into good olive oil, add white wine or rice vinegar, and soy sauce too; pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss gently; let stand a good half hour and then if you have it, just before serving, add several handfuls of arugula and toss, and sea salt too, to taste); and a large bowl of sambhar (south Indian lentils, tart with tamarind). 

The potato salad leftovers were delish today, topped with a fried egg, when a friend came by for a bite of lunch.  I always seem to be talking about a fried egg topping a starch (leftover rice, these potatoes, etc).  The most beautiful of this kind of combo is if you make the potato salad with purple/blue potatoes, for then the green herbs are a bright contrast, and so is the yolk of the egg.

And that reminds me: I was wrong, wrong about the raccoons stealing the purple potatoes from the back yard.  It's just that apparently ten days ago the tops of the potato plants died back very quickly, there one day and gone a few days later.  I assumed they'd been dug up, but today I went digging to check.  Magically there was a small payload in the ground.  I dug up all the spuds (hard to spot in their rich dark purple-ness, so you have to work by feel only) this afternoon.  Yes!

You can guess what I'll do with them!