Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Ah, the last day of March, sliding past lamblike, on sunny warming feet - skipping past might be a better way to put it. There's a dense little patch of brilliantly purple crocuses in the back yard that open and glow in the sun; as shade reaches them in the afternoon they retreat into almost-anonymity.

Last Sunday as I had hoped I spent the afternoon making matzoh with Dawnthebaker. We made it from spelt and all-purpose (local organic unbleached, natch!) and flavoured it slightly with a touch of maple syrup and some lime juice. Delish! and not at all kosher for Passover, but fine for those like our friends who are attentive but not following strict rules.

We also made kibbeh for a crowd, nearly thirty servings, for the next day's seder. Kibbeh is a brilliant combo of lamb and grain and more lamb. It is usually made in round or in long bullet shaped patties. The outer shell is ground lamb and soaked bulgur in almost equal proportion by volume, salted and with some onions, kneaded into a firm dough. (We added a generous amount of lemon zest to give the bulgur-lamb mixture a lift.) The inside can vary wildly. For specific instructions on kibbeh have a look at Claudia Roden's classic Book of Middle Eastern Food, or another solid eastern Med cookbook, say something by Anissa Helou.

Our fillings were two, because Dawn had planned to use chopped almonds but then learned that one person at the seder was allergic to all nuts. So we made the non-nut ones first. The filling was ground lamb, sauteed chopped onion, tea-soaked prunes coarsely chopped, sumac powder, lemon juice, salt, and lots of chopped fresh mint. It was NOT precooked. The other filling had cinnamon and allspice in it, as I recall, and ground lamb and plenty of onions, and chopped almonds, all gently cooked beforehand.

You take about a golf ball-sized batch of bulgur mixture, shape it into a ball or bullet, poke a hole in it with your finger or thumb, fill the hole with filling mixture, seal it over, and set it on a baking sheet. When all the non-nut ones were done, we fried them in oil, oil deep enough that they were nearly covered. Dawn's lovely man Ed did the frying. The shell turned a warm brown with a firm crisp texture; the insides were moist and aromatic. The next day, just before the seder, it was easy to preheat them in the oven and serve one of each kind on a plate with a little glazed carrot....

Having promised in my last post not to go on and on about restaurants or food, here I am giving you detailed instructions! But I thought the kibbeh was so special that it deserved to be passed on. And this weekend a lot of people will be eating lamb for Easter. What better idea than kibbeh as another approach to honouring the wonderfulness of lamb?

The week is momentous for many people, with Passover and Easter following the full moon. But for some the momentousness comes another way:

Since I last wrote there have been two deaths of parents in my circle of friends: the mother of one good friend and the father of another, both beloved, both far into their eighties. The loss of a parent, at no matter what age, is so momentous that it's as if the world stops. It does stop in fact, as we slowly try to breathe outselves back to life, a different life now that the sheltering idea of that intimate lifelong relationship has turned into history and a memory. It doesn't matter that perhaps the parent has dementia or is being cared for by the child. The loss is still so profound that the planets shift in their orbits and the world is a changed place, changed forever.

And both my friends are valiant and wonderful women who will be enriched even as they grieve. I feel so lucky to know them...

Saturday, March 27, 2010


The bite of cold winds is back. This changeable March can be hard to live with - driving us crazy with its fickle weather. I am glad of this short sharp cold spell though, because I discovered a small moth invasion upstairs last week. The freezing cold outside gives me a chance to put out rugs and other woolens so that the moths get frozen out. Fingers crossed! The dread sign of a moth fluttering lazily past is such an alarm bell for me. Too many moth holes in favorite sweaters over the years have made me alert and edgy about moths. Do you have any other moth-fighting ideas to pass on?

So perhaps I'm a perpetual Polyanna, but in this case I have cause for being "glad glad glad" about the mean-feeling cold of late March.

Last night I feasted, at the house of friends, on the most delicious sauerkraut ever. It was made Latvian-style by H, slow-cooked with apple before being combined with various delicious versions of pork, all of it served, steaming and aromatic, with simple boiled potatoes. I felt greedy greedy and ate until I could fit in no more. There's another good reason for feeling glad of the cold spell: it made the sauerkraut even more warming and necessary and right!

Random thoughts from the week:
Have a look at the latest book by Joseph Heath (a philosophy prof at U of Toronto whom my kids like a lot), called Filthy Lucre. There are interesting insights and a wide and disciplined discussion and critique of many of the political and economic ideas and policy arguments made by both the right and the left. It's well-written, and very engaging, too.

Check out, if you haven't already, the food journalism site There are a lot of good writers and serious food journalists now contributing to it. As the pages of local and national papers shrink and food editors and writers all over arelooking for other avenues, they are turning to writing online. Some of us just blog quietly in our little corners, but some are more ambitious and disciplined. ZesterDaily is the product of just such hard work and dedication.

For people in Toronto and area: I found myself on Donlands just south of O'Connor this week... and stumbled on a place that has been around forever, apparently. It's a large Greek bakery called the Select, with baklava and kadaif and all their relations in amazing array, as well as a huge choice of feta cheeses, other Greek cheese, and some delicious fresh-tasting olives. Other treats include frozen moussaka which a friend of mine says makes great food for a crowd, unctuous and full of all the right stuff. Across the street is a place called Fresh from the Farm, with Amish and Mennonite products, from grass-fed meats (pork, beef, lamb) to pears and peaches in glass jars, home-made. Worth a repeat visit, for sure.

That chance to explore new areas of town was a reminder that I don't do enough of it. Being a traveller in your own city or region of countryside is a great opportunity to see things with fresh eyes and appreciatively.

The other day a friend was in from out of town and said "no argument" that she was taking me out for a meal. it was a Sunday and so our choices were narrowed. We went, on Dawnthebaker's recommendation, to the Black Hoof, a new bar-restaurant on Dundas Street West. It reminded me of a cocktail bar in New York, the new ones that are springing up in the lower East Side. But at Black Hoof the emphasis is on the food as well as the drink. They do a wide range of clean-tasting and delicious charcuterie, a brilliant tongue sandwich (presented finely sliced like smoked meat), and the cocktails are very very special. I have only tasted the one, so I am generalising about the others based on what other people have told me. Mine was gin (plain old Beefeaters) with a little lovage (a hint of celery taste) and lavender and lemon and I don't remember what else, sorry!. It was not sweet, just somehow perfect... Jen, the mistress of cocktails, is a co-owner. We sat at the bar and felt brilliantly cared for. Her wine advice was generous and right on too.

And finally, on local stuff, the new butcher in Kensington Market, who has taken over the spot long occupied by Max the kosher butcher (who sold up and retired), is called Sanagan's. What a treat to have locally sourced meat at reasonable prices, knowledgeably presented. Bring on the new wave of food producers and purveyors!

I promise this blog will not become a restaurant review spot, nor focussed on out-and-about-in-Toronto kinds of topics, but on a cold day, with no large thoughts in mind except how to will myself to get my tax paperwork done, I have ended up here. Hope you don't mind...

And finally, here we are almost at full moon again. The fattening moon was bright and high in the clear blue sky last night just after sunset as I walked to that sauerkraut feast. This week brings Passover and both Western and Orthodox holy weeks, with Easter as the huge punctuation mark next weekend. I'm going tomorrow to help Dawnthebaker make some matzoh (not kosher for Passover, but made attentively and with love for friends with a relaxed seder table), using Red Fife wheat . We'll make some spelt ones too, and we'll be working in her apartment kitchen.

I love working with friends to make seasonal food or food for a party. Collegial collaboration is so warming and energising!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I'm just back from a short excursion up to Grey County, and bursting with the amazingness of it. It began with a lovely drive, through bare bleached landscape, all its bones and contours showing, since no grass or leaves or shrubs or any new life has sprung up to camouflage or dress up the landscape.

One stretch of road was spectacular in a special trippy way. It was on Mulock Road, which is straight and spare, heading through bare fields and then forest, then fields again. As I drove north through the forest, the sun due west at this equinoctial time of year, the bare trunks of ash and maple cast perfect spare striped shadows straight across the road. Stripes thin, and thick, stripes in all dimensions, overlapping and alone, sharp-edged and pure, made a perfect living abstract work of art on the bare moist dirt road. Hallucinatory it was, in the best way, like a living abstract painting unscrolling before me as I drove through it, heading on north. And then it was over.

The next gorgeousness unfolded through the evening. First I sat out in sunshine with Lillian, magical spring sunshine, after six in the evening, on her wooden deck, sipping wine and eating her fresh muffins and some cheese I'd brought up from the city. We lit the sauna and later, under a midnight blue sky walked over to it through the trees, each of us wrapped only in a towel. We'd step out of the cedar-scented heat every once in awhile, each time finding the sky a blacker blue, with scintillating stars piercing the dome, stars bright enough that we could see them not only overhead but also through the forest. And again, it was the transparency of the trees with just their bone-structure and no leaves that made it extra-special.

The sauna allowed us to walk outside bare, our skin in the air, breathing in life and the optimism of spring.

The third gorgeousness was in the morning, in two parts. We walked over to the neighbours to see a newly arrived pair of swans. They floated at a distance, ethereal on the still-looking surface of the swollen river. And as we stared out at the bare trees and the shining surface of the water, a goose (noisy pairs of them, newly arrived from the south, nest by the river) flew over our heads, low and coming in for a landing. As the goose approached the surface of the river, its reflection came up to meet it, all white and grey and sharp, and then there was the brilliant silver slash as it planed onto the water. Art in motion.

Almost breathless with the loveliness of it all, we headed back to the house and had the first shoots of green onion and the first tender sorrel leaves from the garden, fresh-gathered by Lillian, as part of breakfast.

As I began the drive back toward the city I felt filled, over-full of wonder. Then, watch out!!! Reality check!! Two huge white-tailed deer were suddenly right there, running beside the car. In a panic one accelerated ahead and dashed across the road right in front of me. Yikes!!!

I braked sharply, pulled over to get my heart to stop racing, and watched the deer spring away across a sunlit marsh, full of life and freedom.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


The ides of March and the long shadow of Julius Caesar welcome us to spring... Here in Toronto, after some lovely sun, we’ve had three days of rain and drizzle and wind and more rain. The ground is sodden and the first dark-red-edged green tulip leaves are an inch or two above the ground, as are the pale pointed leaves of the clumps of iris in the back garden.

My friend Cassandra is here from Vancouver, staying over tonight. I made her a quick diabetic-friendly late supper (meaning low-carb): chopped fennel and radicchio stir-fried in olive oil flavoured with mustard seed and dried chile and ginger, topped with a fried egg. The egg is from Potz at the market, pale green-blue and fresh, almost too beautiful to crack open. There was some Bleubry, a Quebec cheese new to me, to follow. Cassandra manages her pre-diabetic state with diligence and care and real discipline. I so feel lucky to be able to be casual and unplanned about my eating.

Cassandra is heading to the Maldives tomorrow with her daughter to go diving, a big treat for them both. (She and I long ago took a diving course together, then went diving in Cozumel and in the Red Sea. I've let it drop, but she's kept her certification..) Her fins are packed! So as I sit here writing this, she is busy doing advanced check-in: Toronto-DC-Doha-Male on Qatar Airways. It all feels very exotic to me, a lovely escape from chores such as taxes, the next entry on my “to-do” list.

I’ve been slowly gathering myself together this last week, unpacking not just my bags but also my head, from my long weeks in Chiang Mai and Burma. There was the first brilliant red tender Ontario rhubarb at the market the other day, so I used it to top a skillet cake. The colour was just glorious and the cake vanished. I’ve also done some banking, amended the immersethrough website to show the dates for next year, done my laundry, and seen a few friends, but I have still not managed to find my Canadian SIM card. And that pattern, of some things achieved and others very much NOT done, is somehow a familiar one from other times of travel and change.

Misplacing the SIM card reminds me that loss and finding seem to have been themes of my days this last while. I wrote earlier here about dropping my money-purse at Muang Mai market and having it returned to me before I had even realised it was gone. Well the next loss was more worrisome: I got to Canadian immigration in Toronto, after my flight from Bangkok via Tokyo, and when I reached into my zip pocket for my passport it wasn’t there. Nor was it anywhere else in my handcarry.

The Immigration guy was fabulous, as I started to get flustered: “Don’t worry, he said, we have to let you in if we’re satisfied you’re a citizen, even if you don’t have a passport.” That felt good. “Just go straight dowstairs and talk to the Air Canada people. They can check if you left it on the plane.” I did, and they did, again very kindly and without condescension (for which I was grateful; I felt so stupid!!). And by the time my checked bag had arrived, they’d run back to the plane, retrieved my passport, and had it waiting for me.

The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing. Time to pass it on!

Meantime the pot of daffodils a friend brought by a week ago is still in bloom, yellow and optimistic, and the almost garishly intense pink-red cyclamen brought by another friend is still a hot spot in the kitchen. All we need now is more spring warmth and sunshine outside too.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


International Women’s Day is almost over, another March 8 come and gone. Last year I was in Chiang Mai and feeling rather bedraggled, just back from a trip to Burma. About twelve years ago, I remember another March 8. I was in northern Laos, in the small market town of Muang Sing. Someone in the local government had decided that International Women’s Day should be marked by a formal celebration. Word had gone out to the villages all around and the women had responded.

The market in Muang Sing happens early in the morning. People walk in from far and wide in the dark, carrying produce to sell, then return home on foot in the middle of the morning. That day, instead of heading back out to their villages in the hills and nearby valleys, the women stuck around. As noontime approached they checked out their hair, rewound their turbans, adjusted their skirts and jewellry. Finally they all walked over to stand in the open area by the local hall.

They were a glorious sight. There were Tai Dam women in indigo, their turbans finally embroidered, their jackets tight-fitting and elegant; there were Akha women in heavily decorated headdresses, beautiful leggings, pleated skirts, and elegant elaborate jackets; there were Hmong in indigo, not as proud, because the local Hmong village was a very poor one, made up of newly arrived refugees; there were Yao women in finely embroidered trousers and long elegant indigo coats trimmed with red, with turbans rivalling those of the Tai Dam.... and then there were others, lowland Lao and Kamu and people I could only wonder at but not identify. It was a bit of a letdown to see the rather dull man who stood before these strong women to talk to them about the significance of March 8! He went on and on talking in that government officialese way, as we all stood in the bright sun.

And the scene made me ask myself: who is this “Women’s Day” designation for? Many women know that they are powerful and necessary, the glue and the hard-workers that hold the family together. So they don’t need telling that they are special. Is it for the men who rely on them? Or is it for women who may not realise their own strength and need to be told? In the end I think that its value may lie in reminding all of us that all around the world women struggle for education and respect, for acknowledgement and political equality. Like other struggles, this one needs celebrating.

And on a more basic level, it’s important, I think, to pause for a moment to contemplate the achievements of individual women we know and to be amazed at women’s tenacity generally.

When I talk about achievements, I’m not talking about gold medals or fame and fortune. I’m talking abut the strength and tenacity it takes for a young mother to get through a day with small children gracefully and with positive equilibrium, or for a middle-aged woman to care for an ailing parent or a partner with Alzheimers; or for any woman who is relied upon for support day in and day out. These women often get very little appreciation, for their achievement is a quiet day to day effort, with no clashing cymbals to announce it.

So let’s remember as March 8 passes for another year, to appreciate each other, and also to pause and appreciate ourselves for ourselves.