Friday, July 30, 2010


It’s been awhile since I wrote here. Now the end of July is upon us, and where did July go? I find myself asking, and others too echo the question. Well it went in an apparently seamless succession of gorgeous days and heat with enough rain for the garden and early ripenings of fruits and vegetables. In other words it disappeared into a summer Eden. How lovely!

I was going to write earlier in the week about a magical full-moon nighttime I had up in Grey County last weekend, watching thin veilings of clouds swirl past the bright moon as I sat on the steps of friends’ wooden house, alone and peaceful, and grateful for it all. But somehow in the rush of getting myself to Montreal and tidying up Burma recipes and whatever other excuses I have, the blogpost didn’t happen.

Montreal? you say. Again? Yes, and with pleasure. I am always happy to see friends there, but this trip was especially to connect with Nancy Jenkins (of Maine and Tuscany) and her daughter Sara, chef-owner of the amazing Porchetta in NYC and about to open another restaurant, equally true Italian, on Seventh St East, sometime in September. I hadn’t seen them for too many years. They were planning to spend four days in Montreal, in “Europe North” as Sara now calls Canada, and I grabbed at the chance to have time with them.

Yes, we talked, and yes we ate, and yes, most of all, we had fun, extra sweet because of the perfect grandchild, as Nancy calls Sara’s son. There was the obligatory-for-new-visitors meal at Au Pied de Cochon (with the obligatory poutine with foie gras, despite the summer heat), and the ditto stop for smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s. (We were there at 10.30 in the morning, a perfect calm time, no crowds, no rush.)

That meal of medium smoked meat sandwich with pickle tided me over until evening, when we had a blow-out Italian feast courtesy Michele Forgione and his team. We ate regional Italian dishes, amazing home-made charcuterie of all kinds,, home-made pastas, a slow-roasted perfect Quebec pig, loaded with delish crackling... You get the drift. Oh and there were nicely chosen Italian wines too, of course. Lesley Chesterman of the Montreal Gazette, a fun dining companion and fine writer, was there and taking notes; do go find her online at to get details; I imagine she’ll tweet them or blog them sometime soon... not sure.

All I can say is that if Michele’s planned restaurant delivers this kind of quality and light touch, it will be packed with happy diners. He’s hoping to open in the next year.

On another food subject, I just recently stumbled into Rachel Lauden’s blog... I am in touch with her on Facebook, but had failed to check out her blog. It’s very interesting, and challenging, since she is a food historian who is a rigorous thinker too, so rather than making sweeping generalisations or indulging in romanticising the past, she’s clear-eyed and lets her curiosity, rather than wishful thinking, lead her. Have a look; I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. (I was snagged by her musings on thin rice doughs, aka ouarka/popiah etc, here

And off food as a focus.... In the last couple of months I have found myself getting too intense from time to time about decision-making and daily life. Today over coffee I talked about it with a friend, who's had a similar struggle with intensity and treating all of life as momentous these last months.

What is this all about? Well perhaps it’s first about an ongoing awareness of the frailties of life, but somehow unfiltered, so that the head gets tied in a knot, fussing about and worrying about not wasting time and opportunity. But this is such a sterile place to be. It takes the brain on round-and-round circles fruitlessly. A mind-clenched stress about details means that we are not free to imagine and enjoy, to have fresh thoughts and appreciate daily pleasures. If your eye is always on a potential future benefit or catastrophe, then it’s not attuned to the now, right?

Well, said another friend, how to get out of this stressful and paralysing feeling that every moment and every decision is momentous? Is it a matter of developing a new regimen? Or what?

My answer so far, and it seems to be working, is that now that I recognise the issue, it’s up to me to let go, that is, whenever I get clenched about a decision or worrying about tomorrow, I remind myself to step back, breathe deeply, smell the flowers, and say, so what? If things go wrong, so what? I can deal with the fall-out of whatever problems arise, and once again, so what?

I’m enjoying this growing sense of freedom. I’m feeling my full wingspan. It’s a joy and is powerful too. Like anyone, I sure can backslide. But I have to say, the lightness of heart I feel each day is growing, and so is the gratitude I feel, to have health and loving friends and family, and each new day to look forward to.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


'What a beautiful clear sunny morning!' I was thinking as I set off on my bicycle today to meet a friend for breakfast. But somehow out on College Street as I was trying to set off when the light turned green, my foot slipped off the pedal, with my full weight on it, and though I managed to get it on the ground, rather than falling over, the pedal scraped and banged up my shin pretty thoroughly. I swore a little then pedalled to our meeting place, where I asked the cafe cook and owner for some ice to sooth the swelling. I already had a goose egg on my shin, as well as scrapes oozing blood. The ice worked: now an hour and a half later the goose-egg is down and all I have is a dull ache (and unsightly scrapes that will take awhile to heal).

All it takes is a moment's inattention for our luck to change, our judgement to be off-key, our fate to turn. Examples abound. A friend told me this week about her near-drowning a couple of weeks ago. The elements there were first, a decision to try swimming across a lake that was wider than she realised, and second, a weaker swimmer with her, who needed to cling on, which started them both sinking... until my friend passed out. Luckily a third person was with them, a strong swimmer, who got them both back to shore safely. It's shocking to think that they might easily have drowned. Events can turn on a hair sometimes.

Reminders like this are painful jolts: We can get hit by a bus, or drown in a lake, tomorrow, or any time. There are no guarantees. And so there's no point worrying overly about the future, though we are inclined to (see my last week's blog about over-anticipation and min-maxing). Of course we need to anticipate it and take some precautions, as a navigator steers a ship around a coming headland or shoal, but we also need to remember that since each day could be our last, we need to live in the now as much as we can, to enjoy it, and to take responsibility for ourselves and others, in the moment.

Like the rest of life, it's a balancing act. And the attentiveness we bring to it gives life edge and meaning.

I guess part of the balancing act involves being in the moment and engaged and also capable of stepping outside it and seeing context or the wider view. It's a process a little like working with a zoom lens, focussing in on the immediate and then going wide for the wide-angle view, where each element becomes smaller but their interconnectedness is more the focus.

These are July musings, in the luxury of some of the best summer weather I can remember (we could do with more rain, but we've had rain some evenings and sun in the days, so the gardens are way ahead). It's time to enjoy local tomatoes, the purple "green beans" hanging on the bean plants out in the garden (so beautiful!), the raspberries and blackberries at the market, the last of the cherries...

And as I explore the homecooking traditions of Burma, I'm engaging with fish. (In this warm weather I leave doors and window open, so there's a breeze that carries cooking smells away. The house and garden have a very tropical feel these days, seamlessly connected by soft air and greenness flowing through the house.)

This week has been full of soups, fish broth for sour soups (there's sour soup with vegetables in it at almost all lunch tables in central Burma, delicious and refreshing in the heat), for a soup with lemongrass and ginger, and for a mohinga from the Rakhine coast (where food is more chile hot, the west coast south of Bangladesh). I also messed around with a chickpea soup, cooking chickpeas (garbanzos for some of you) unsoaked and comparing that to the cooking time if they are soaked overnight. it does indeed make a difference, soaking them. It knocks an hour or more off the cooking time. And by the way, the soup is satisfying, easy to make, a keeper for sure. (It's flavored with minced shallots fried in oil, and with lemongrass etc.)

Speaking of Burma, I had a letter from a guy in Indianapolis today who is looking for Chin recipes. The Chin are one of the cutures/ethnicities that live in Burma, mostly in Chin State, in the northwest. He says there are 6,000 refugees from Burma in the Indianapolis area, among them Chin. There is even a Chin restaurant. He wanted to know if I had any Chin recipes, for he is due to cook for the refugees in a few weeks. I wrote back to say that he is in a better place than me to gather and know about Chin food. it makes me want to head to Indianapolis this fall, to eat and ask questions.

In Burma Chin State is off-limits to foreigners. My only contact with Chin people was at several Chin villages in northern Rakhine State, up river from Mrauk U.

Sorry to ramble on and on... thinking out loud. Thinking about refugees who have had to leave their homes and landscape and start afresh, with many hardships in between, is a good reminder that our short-term aches and pains, or worries, are small indeed.... And it's also a reminder of how resourceful and resiliant human beings can be when survival is the issue.

Happy summer everyone.

SUMMER FOOD: A further thought on my "classic" potato salad, described a few posts ago: Boil new potatoes and several sweet potatoes, whole and unpeeled. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them and chop into large bite-sized pieces. Steam cook or parboil some wing beans (also called asparagus beans, tua plu in Thai) or some green beans, then chop them into the potatoes. Then chop fresh herbs from the garden and stir them into an olive oil-vinegar (or lime juice) and salt (or soy sauce) dressing. I have shiso, basil, tarragon, mint, and flat-leafed parsley, all jumbled together, so that the dressed salad yields a surprise with each mouthful. And it's beautiful, with green and dark red (the shiso) herbs, orange and white potatoes, and the green of tua plu or beans... A great potluck dish, as I've said before!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


There’s something heavy about birthdays, for me. Mine is this week, so that’s why they’re on my mind. It’s not the simple fact of a marker for time passing, aging, whatever, it’s the expectations that can come along with. As a child I just looked forward to that feeling of celebration, and a day of specialness. As an adult with kids of my own, I still find myself wanting to make the day of my birthday glow in some way. Last year I became obsessed with wanting to swim in fresh water, specifically in the Gatineau River, on my birthday, and it actually happened, thanks to the tolerance and generosity of Dom and Tashi and of friends in the Gatineau.

But having a fixed notion of what will make a day special is not a good idea. It’s bound to lead to disappointments and letdowns. The whole thing is a very small illustration of the truth of Buddha’s insight that attachment leads to suffering, in this case attachment to an idea or a plan, which if the thing doesn’t go as planned, leads to disappointment.

As my birthday has approached this year, I’ve tried not to fall into the anticipatory planning trap. It’s been a struggle. I’ve played around with ideas for a trip, with other wish-list possibilities, going over and over, rolling things around in my mind, visualising again and again various scenarios. It’s felt like a trap. And that realisation has forced me confront my tendency to be overly anticipatory.

I recently learned a term for this way of being: min-maxing. A min-maxer works hard to minimise the bad outcomes and maximise the good (= desired by me) outcomes. This involves a lot of anticipatory thinkng and planning. In struggling against the birthday optimisation urge, I’ve come to see what a waste of energy this min-maxing can be when it takes over. In other words, yes, fine, try to anticipate outcomes and avoid pitfalls, but don’t obsess and go back and forth over possibilities searching for the absolute best strategy. It’s such an uninteresting process. I guess that’s true of any repetitive or obsessive thinking or behaviour...

And so this birthday has become another opportunity to learn about letting go. In this case, it’s letting go of a whole pattern of thinking, so results are patchy!

As I was out in the garden this morning, clearing out overgrown this and that, I got started on the bindweed. Perhaps you know it, an attractive vine with small morning glory-like white flowers. But beware! For it survives by winding itself round and round other plants as it grows, strangling (“binding”) them. As I started pulling tenacious lengths of it off the delphiniums and up off the ground, I wondered how often bindweed has been used as a metaphor in sermons and talks of all kinds.

Like my min-maxing, bindweed seems attractive/useful/a good thing at first with its twining stems and pretty flowers, but then can get a stranglehold, suffocating other more tender plants, just as min-maxing closes off freer and more imaginative and engaged thoughts.

Hmmm the gardener’s musings. That time working in the morning cool is precious, wonderfully unstructured and freeing. And afterward, this morning, the garden did indeed look clearer and airier, freed up; the gardener needed a shower!

Now it’s just after ten in the morning and already the “heat bugs” are doing their whining whirr , the air is heavy, the sky thickening with cloud: it’s really summer. Yesterday I picked my first ripe cherry tomato, and a few days before that the first cucumber, sweet and juicy.

The tomato is from a plant that is growing upside-down, that is, it is in a large plastic bucket (with a handle) hanging from a hook out back. The bucket is full of soil (and can be watered from above of course); the plant emerges from a hole in the bottom of the bucket. It’s a great solution for gardeners who don’t have enough space, or who have infections in their soil or a problem with rodents or other vegetable predators. I have squirrels who like to take bites out of the tomatoes, and last year had a problem with blight in that rainy summer we had. (This year I’m trimming off any branches that look like they might touch the ground (blight is earthborn), hoping to avoid infection.)

This plant was given to me by Potz, at 4-Life, who is experimenting with bucket growing (hanging garden) techniques this year. (In return I gave him a small curry leaf plant, that I had separated off from a larger plant; they are wonderfully aromatic and of course an essential in many south Asian dishes, live indoors in winter (when they are prone to infestations, I admit) and then go outdoors in a sheltered dappled-shade spot for the summer.) One of the interesting things about hanging plants is that they still try to grow upward, to the light and away from gravity, which gives them an attractive arching upward shape, fanlike, below the bucket. It’s fine for cherry tomatoes, which are not that heavy, so the branches will hold them just fine, but I’m not sure how well it would work with heavy luscious beefsteaks or other full-sized tomatoes...

Do write to me if you want to try it next year. The main advice, apart from starting with good soil enriched with some aged manure, is to make sure you have a place to hang the bucket(s) before you plant. Once the plant is the bucket and sticking out the hole in the bottom, there’s no way you can put the bucket down!! It has to hang. If you doing a bunch of them, the ideal arrangment is to have a strong metal pole on which you can put hooks for the buckets.

Speaking of predators in the vegetable garden reminds me that we have acquired a professional pest controller. And it shows: our mouse problem (chewing sounds in the night in the kitchen area, the occasional sighting, and of course mouse poop here and there) has vanished. Thank-you Silky! Silky is a mouser, whom we are taking care of for a year while her regular family is away. She’s quiet, independent and un-needy, and best of all, effective! We’ve also realised that Silky is a guard cat, fiercely defending the house against other cats who might want to come in. We’re thinking of hiring her out as a consultant and teacher...

Thursday, July 8, 2010


There's a lot to celebrate this evening. It's mostly small and domestic in some way, but nonetheless important.

First, and most lovely, the lilies are in full glorious bloom in the back yard, yellows and tender pinks and all tints inbetween. They're generous in their beauty, but only briefly with us, especially this year with the incredible heat we've had all week.

At the tedious end: I got a lot of paperwork done this morning, the kind of bill-paying drear that we all have to do and that piles up until we get bothered enough to deal with it. Another chore done today was renewing the car licence plate, a date that comes up every year or two in July, the month of my birthday.

Speaking of birthdays, my friend Trisha has hers in a couple of days, so I took her out to lunch today. It was a real pleasure to sit unhurriedly, talking of this and that, slowed right down by the heat, enjoying each moment.

Late this afternoon I finally made some major additions to the webste. I am always nervous about the website stuff, though getting more at ease with it. The additions are to the new page, "Grand Manan Island". My friend Lianne who has a place on the island, suggested that we do an immerse session there, to entice people to discover and love the island as she does. So now we're launched, with a session planned for September 16 to 19, 2010, and also, at last, info about it all on the immersethrough website. Isn't technology wonderful? I am so pleased to be able to put a tick mark beside that job on my "to-do" list!

And finally, not just finally as the last of this list, but in the sense of “at last”, Tashi’s new computer came into being today. He’s now fully loaded, with a desk top that is silent and powerful, after going three months without his own computer (his laptop having crashed several weeks before his final exams). He has been sharing mine, when he’s here, and that’s fine, but kind of awkward too. I have felt constrained about working, having to wait until he’s done with the computer before I can, say, type in a recipe or check my mail or get writing done. He’s been graceful and appreciative throughout. But a computer is a very hard item to share, especially now that we are all so wired in, so expecting to be connected at all times.

To mark this last celebration-worthy item, Tashi took Dom and me to supper at John’s Italian Caffe, a small restaurant at the end of the street, (Tashi must be feeling most celebratory of all, for he’s now a free man, no need to seek favours or tune in to anyone else’s timetable on a computer.) The terraces outside the cafes and eateries on Baldwin Street were all full of people enjoying the soft hot night air, languidly sipping drinks, no-one in a hurry. And now we’re back home with doors and windows open to catch the breeze, and a fan on to help, each of us typing away at a different keyboard.

It’s so interesting, the independence we need with our computers, once we get hooked. The equivalent in an earlier era would be the notebook or journal I suppose, or no, not the paper, but instead the pen or pencil we would use to write with. Ballpoints democratised pens in a way, but even so we all remember having a favorite pen or pencil, right? Some of us still do. And if we had a favorite, then it was vital that the tool we depended on was with us and available all the time.

These days the tool most of us find vital is a computer: a keyboard and screen and usually internet connection too. (For many it’s a Blackberry or an I-phone; I’m behind a generation with my examples perhaps, but can only speak about what I know!) We want to control access, or rather, we want unlimited access, to our vital tool at all hours and without constraint. And we are used to having that. Consequently the idea of rationing computer time, or scheduling it, is almost unimaginable to most of us.

All of this takes my head in several directions: I think about the difference between having plenty, or unlimited access, and having to ration or share, whether it’s computer time or some other precious item, What difference does it make to the pattern of our days? to our awareness of others? (or not?)

It’s something to think about.

Meantime, I hope you’re staying cool, perhaps with Southeast Aisan style iced coffee: strong black coffee stirred with sweetened condensed milk, and poured over many ice cubes. It’s a favorite in this house. And don’t forget that the best way to feel good in the heat is to slow it down, and to shower often, three or four times a day, and always just before bed. Don’t towel yourself dry, just let the water evaporate. You’ll feel chilly!! What a treat at the end of a boiling hot day!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


A lovely calm in the city this evening, quite a contrast from the post-police heaviness of last weekend. Dom and Tashi and I are just back in our green oasis (the garden is SO spectacular) from two nights in Grey County. It was a great visit, staying with friends, dancing contra dances with friends and strangers of all ages and descriptions, having a leisurely but intense sauna this morning followed by a delicious swooshing swim in a rain-swollen river. It's so liberating to catch the current and get swept along, riding the power but without fear, a benign mother nature carrying us along.

Up in the country I was sleeping out in the forest in a little cabin-like space, a tiny trailer in fact, with screen windows all round, so that the bird calls woke me early and then kept my morning daydreams company. Last night was clear and moonless until late, so the stars seemed to hang low and for sure there were more of them than usual. "Diamonds in the sky" rarely feels like a good metaphor, but last night they were brilliants, draped across the bosom of the sky, I feel like saying.

The sauna, like all purgings, leaves me feeling aired out and light. And that feeling is carrying me along like the river's current. I feel washed of small anxieties for the moment, delighted with the world, pleased with the recipes I have already worked on for the Burma book, looking forward to telling stories and giving the whole thing shape: it's a lovely freedom, a freed-up-ness.

Now how to keep riding this wave a appreciative engagement? How to surf the happiness?

I saw an aunt of mine up north, well over eighty and still lively and beautiful and very engaged. She came too to the contra dancing and kicked up her heels with us all. S(he also taught Dom to waltz, as the band (fiddle, flute, drums, Irish-style) swept us along. She talked earlier that afternoon about how she always felt, as the youngest in her family, that she was not as smart as the others, not good enough. I said to her (after arguing with her that her inability to count up her change and remember dates doesn't mean a lack of intelligence -she has plenty, and it's lively! - just an area that some people are better at than she is, so what?), " But now surely you don't worry about what other people think of you?" She said, "Well, now mostly not, but it sure made me afraid then, afraid of getting things wrong!"

The conversation made me think about all the crippling expectations we put on ourselves, the unrealistic voices we hear in our heads hectoring us over small mistakes, or filling us with doubts about our ability to achieve. What a waste of energy! And how destructive! I don't mean that we should all strut around with chests puffed out and feeling like we're masters of the universe. But I do mean that the judgementalism of early teachers or parents or siblings can corrode us, and burden us, if we let it.

Maybe we carry it around when we are young, but surely as adults our task is to look those hideous negative chains that hold us down square on, confront them, and then laugh at them. They are our own constructions. We need to see them as papier mache, without power, and we need to laugh at them.

Feeling as I do today, thrilled by Dom's great driving (he has his learners licence and was fabulous driving down from Grey County in the red Honda Fit, loving it and confident) and by the lightness of being that's infected me, I am impatient that any of us gets caught up long-term in negative thinking. It feels anti-life, and certainly anti-pleasure and a waste of good energy.

How to purge? is the question. The sauna, by heating us right to the marrow of our bones, feels as if it's driving out all kinds of toxic crap, leaving us slimed with sweat. When the river or lake or shower washes it off, we are freed. Now what is the sauna for the soul and the trapped-in-a-hamster-wheel brain? I don't know.

But surely days out, not so much the buffer days we allow ourselves (see my earlier post from early feb 2010), but more the completely out of our element days, where we change place and pattern and disconnect from the normal, surely those times are the way we can get freer. Short term freeings-up happen when we dance and dance, into a kind of high that transports us. Heavy physical work can do it too, for sure. (Drink and drugs are other avenues, but they mire us down and we pay sooner or later.) But when we get the chance, let's remember to get out of our stucknesses, however much effort it may take.

AND AS FOR FOOD: Now that the new potatoes are appearing, if you have some spare hands around to shell peas, use them in a simple herbed potato salad: Boil the spuds whole, drain and let them cool to firm up. Meantime get the peas shelled and pick some fresh herbs: parsley, mint, plenty of it, chives, and then basil if you have it... or tarragon if you like. Be generous with the quantity of herbs. Chop the herbs and stir them into an olive oil and vinegar (or lime or lemon juice if you prefer, or a blend) dressing with some salt. A dash of Dijon mustard is an option and/or a dash of good soy sauce. Heat a small amount of water in a pot, add the peas, and cook them briefly, until just tender. Put the peas and potatoes in a large wooden bowl (or whatever bowl you have), pour the dressing over, and toss gently. It's a great dish for a potluck (Lillian made a 10 pounds-of-potatoes salad just like it for Saturday night) or for a hungry crowd, especially in hot weather.