Monday, May 28, 2012


It's a hot day in May, the last Monday of the month.

I cut some peonies this morning from the very old bushes in the garden (one has pink blooms, the other white with a splash of pink in the centre) and they're in a large vase (a spare Wayne Ngan creation from long ago) right by my laptop as I write this.  The odd musty perfume of the white ones is available for such a short time each year, so distinctive that it instantly takes me back to many other late-Mays.  I've put a tall multi-flowered spear of iris in the same vase, purple with somewhat garish golden yellow beards.  I didn't pick it, but instead found it on the ground, broken right off.  It's the work of the lumpy aggressive raccoons who patrol the city rooftops and gardens by night, like armored tanks, creating flattened tracks through the garden greenery.  And breaking beautiful things.  Argh!

But I'm not here to complain.  I want to start with an apology.  I discovered, now that I've finally sorted out some glitches with google, gmail, and blogspot, that there have been a lot of comments posted in the last two years (waiting for moderation) that I never knew about.  It's all too tedious to explain the how and the why, so I'll just say, my apologies for not knowing, and thus for not posting comments from a number of you.  They are now up...very delayed, but there at last.

This morning I watered the garden early, letting the hose stay on this place and then that for a long time to deep-water, in preparation for today's promised heat.  The wet in the garden softened the earth and so a few minutes later a robin came visiting.  He was looking for worms, and finding them.  And he seemed completely oblivious of me, or at least very unworried.  It gave me a chance to look at him freshly, to notice the small elegant details.  I always think of robins as large and lumpy (for those who don't know them the North American robin is a thrush, not the small robin of the UK), but that categorisation didn't do justice to this lovely lively character.  And so I stopped and looked some more, instead of just moving on.

Looking afresh, seeing freshly, hearing freshly...thinking with fresh energy rather than along the same old lines or with the same reflexes: these are ideals to aspire to.  We can't do it all the time, but I for one could be doing a lot more of it.  The world becomes a much more interesting challenging place, and we are much better able to appreciate its wonderfulness, when the senses are alert and in tabula rasa mode.

Another fabulous reminder of fresh attentiveness occurred last Thursday night at the Tafelmusik concert, the last of the season, at Koerner Hall.  Bruno Weil conducted first a Mendelsohn symphony, then Beethoven's third.  I felt I'd never heard either of them before, so fresh and new and nuanced and intricate and alive did they sound. The concert was transporting.  As we all walked out after, the tall flowers on the huge chestnut trees along Philosophers Walk gleaming in the late-evening dusk, I felt like the whole world had been created afresh.  My entranced awakened ears pushed my whole being to see and smell and think with fresh energy, without preconception.

How do do this more often? is the question.

I think that's what art and novels and music open up for us, in lucky attentive moments...

Meantime the watered garden has survived the heat and sun, the tomato and eggplant and pepper plants are looking perky, and so is the basil; the transplanted rhubarb droops, but I see fresh leaves, so perhaps it will come through.  There are shiso plants growing in various places (they volunteer each year), and parsley plants, and mint looking healthy.  And though my last remaining delphinium is looking ill (you win a few, you lose a few and the dry spring probably didn't help), the columbines are still colourful, the roses are just starting, and the peonies are radiant and aromatic.

Happy tumbling forward into June, everyone.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.  For me it's a major contender for the title "Best of the intensities of spring."  The competition includes ramps, lilacs, lilies of the valley, the sweet aroma of cottonwoods in new leaf, the fabulous sharp light...

I'm staying this Victoria Day weekend with a friend at her new place north of Toronto, near a village called Dunedin.  Her house is built into the side of a hill, with air and wind and light in all directions.  The breezes mean that there are no flies or mosquitoes, and being up on a hill gives a full panoramic view of a ridge of the Niagara Escarpment to the south and east.  At night there's the vast starry sky.

Yesterday I went exploring early, before the heat (has the May long weekend ever been this hot?).  There's a branch of the Bruce trail nearby, starting with a wooden stile at the roadside just down the hill.  What a treat to be out in new-to-me country, with a trail to follow and birds and other morning sounds to keep me company.  There was some elegant easy boardwalk over a long swampy stretch, then a climb, a bridge across a creek, grassy fields, airy hardwood forest, sweeps of dark ploughed earth, expanses of grassy pasture...and layers of greening landscape overlapping off into the distance.

In one forested stretch clumps of ramps showed green and healthy, and out in the grass there were patches of strawberries in white bloom, flagging the spot to go back and seek them out in a few weeks.  This morning I took my friend and the other two who are staying up this weekend out on a walk on the trail.  We breathed in the air, listened to the forest, breathed it all in and felt grateful, and renewed.

My friend wants to have a garden.  But there's a problem: there are deer in these hills, tall white-tailed deer.  Three of them were grazing on a slope in front of the house a couple of days ago.  They caught sight of me as I came round the corner of the house and went leaping off, with huge bounds, but not running fast, their tails like white banners.  Herbs will be fine, but with deer around any garden greens, lettuces, etc are doomed.  We'll see if they like basil.  Does anyone know?  But at least on this sunny slope she'll be able to have lavender and the perennial herbs like thyme and tarragon and mint.  And she wants masses of lilacs... Spring will be a heady perfumed time up here next year if all goes well.

Along the trail we came upon some ramps (wild leeks) growing in clumps, and some intensely fresh mint growing near a stream.  We gathered dandelion greens and a few ramp; they'll all go into soup for lunch today, along with dried mushrooms.  And then we'll have mint tea to refresh ourselves before we head back into the city.

And rhubarb?  Well I brought some up from the city, grown locally, and cooked it up as part of supper on Saturday night.  We were four, eating local pork that had been spice-rubbed, grilled, then sliced, along with quinoa, and stir-fried amarmanth greens.  Wonderful.  Then some people dropped by yesterday and brought more rhubarb, which became dessert last night (sweetened with a mix of maple syrup and honey).

But of all the food in this rather rambling (blame it on a relaxing weekend ) post, the one I want to tell you about is not local: almonds.  My friend loves nuts.  She makes sure to wash them thoroughly, to avoid mould, then she dries them in a cool oven (at about 100 fahrenheit) overnight.  That's fine for walnuts etc.  But with almonds she goes one further:  She washes them, then soaks them for three days, changing the water each day, to get them to start sprouting.  Then it's easy to slip them out of their peel/skin.  She freezes the peeled almonds in batches.

The final goal is almond milk: almonds blended with warm water in a strong blender or osterizer make almond milk.  You can then add other fruits to them to make a smoothie.  But even more delicious was the breakfast she made for us yesterday:  Heat the freshly made almond milk in a pot, add oatmeal and cook it in the almond milk.  Then, and this will give you pause, whisk together a couple of eggs and stir them into the hot mass of oatmeal and milk.  When they're just cooked, serve in bowls, and add honey to sweetened a little, or fruit, if you want.

It sounds and reads and looks like a wild combo.  It's delicious, satisfying, a new horizon for me.

(One thing I loved about the oatmeal was that there was no milkiness to it.  I don't like fresh milk, and it doesn't like me much either!  To be eating oatmeal, which I like a lot, without having any queasy feeling, no milky bubble in my throat, was a revelation, a whole new oatmeal experience.)

Now to find organic almonds and start the soaking/sprouting process.

Sprouting...another springing-to-life idea.  How wonderful.

Monday, May 14, 2012


This is just an update or report on last night's supper.  I'd said we were planning to use a bread dough to make cake and a fruit tart, and that's what happened.  Extra dough was flattened, flavoured, rolled up, cut into lengths, and baked as cinnamon rolls.

I'm going to be talking about using bread dough for sweets in one of the workshops at the Kneading Conference West, being held north of Seattle in September (13th to 15th), and last night's pleasures were a reminder of how precious the baker's sweets tradition is.  With boxed cakes and easy access to baking powder and baking soda, many sweet bakers have not tried using yeasted dough to make cakes and tarts, but I'm saying they should, because it's fun, delicious, rewarding in lots of ways.

If this tempts you to try, here's the basic idea, to play with as you wish:
Make a dough of mostly wheat flour, using some whole wheat and/or some pastry flour if you want.. let it rise, then cut off about 3/4 pound (325 grams) dough for use in a tart.  Flatten it out with your finger tips, then spread on some soft butter, or grated cold butter, about 3 tablespoons (about 50 grams).  Fold or roll the dough up and then knead it gently to spread and incorporate the butter.  You can bake in a small baking sheet if it's heavy-weight, or in a large cast-iron frying pan.  So flatten it back out to a large rectangle or round, depending on what you're baking in, and set aside loosely covered to rest and rise a little.
 Preheat oven to 375 or a little more with a middle shelf in. Prepare your fruit (chop apples or pears or ...and add some sugar and toss; we used rhubarb, chopped, rinsed briefly several times in alternating hot and cold water).
In twenty minutes or so, prick the dough all over, add the fruit, but not any extra juice (reserve it for later), sprinkle on a little powdered clove or cinnamon if you want, and put in to bake.  When the crust-edge is golden it should be done, perhaps about twenty-five minutes.  These things vary.  Pour on a little of the reserved juice.  Serve after it's cooled and set for ten minutes.

Not hard, right?  And so delectable.

Instructions for using a dough to make kouignaman, the wonderful Breton butter cake, are in my book HomeBaking.  I'll do a descriptive recipe here at some point.  Or you could come to the Kneading Conference!  We did make a kouignaman yesterday, as well.  It's flavoured with a fabulous blend of (salted) butter and sugar and has a wonderful yielding texture.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Spring is back: The weather is moving slowly from chilly to mild, the blossoms on the wisteria are draped in white profusion and the air is intoxicating, with lilies of the valley and lilacs perfuming our passage.  The bicycle shops and cafes are busy, the streets are alive with untanned legs in shorts and sandals, new sunglasses, cotton dresses, and altogether there's the feeling that people are shedding the layers of winter and emerging, slightly fragile, pale, and fresh, into the warming sunshine.

And I too seem to once again be in spring mode. It feels great,

Perhaps it’s just that I am getting into some renewing activities. The Burma book is finally about to head to the printer: the photos have all been picked, the edits are done, with as many typos found as we could find (a few always manage to escape notice, no matter how many pairs of eyes check for them), and hurrah! the cover seems to have found its way at last (so the cover now up on Amazon is NOT what we’ll have: the fish will be safely tucked inside the book, a great shot but not for a cover, and replaced by fresh free loveliness - you’ll see).

Thrilling to have the book this far along.

With work less demanding the first renewal is that at last the spring house-cleaning thing is happening. It’s not exciting, more a (rather predictable) getting caught-up feeling.  At last! is the theme here, which it seems to me is the true essence of spring-cleaning.

The other renewal this week is about new horizons, not the food history course I’m about to start teaching this week (I am really looking forward to it, after hours of prep) but something entirely different. I mentioned last year that ligaments in my left foot had weakened and that I was not going to be able to go for my extremely pleasurable runs any more.  That remains true, alas.  I’ve replaced the runs with brisk walks, not quite the same, but way less potentially damaging for the foot and other body parts too.

I was talking about the sad fact of no longer running with a woman who came to immersethrough in Chiang Mai this last winter (and was in great shape). She told me I’d love doing weights, that it gave her great endorphin hits.  As an endorphin/adrenalin etc junkie (in a mild kind of way), I was intrigued.  It’s taken me several months to figure out how to start.  But now thanks to a friend I have met a personal trainer named Rafi, and had a first session with him.

Our phone call was funny: Rafi “what weights or equipment do you have?” me: “none” Rafi: “not even a ball?” me: “nothing at all, but there’s lots of room…” 

I had no idea what to expect when he came by yesterday.  My mother was a physio, and I’ve always been interested in how things work, body dynamics, for example why one person walks this way and another walks completely differently.  As Rafi had me lift, push against resistance etc, in various positions, he was checking out where I had muscle weakness or imbalance, in other words, where I needed work the most.  I learned a lot: glutes need work, abs too, and lats, and some other transverse muscle in my back.  hmm

And then he started getting me to do deceptively simple things: lie on my back with bent knees, breathe into my belly, tighten my abdomen and pelvic floor, then on the exhale lift one leg slowly toward my chest and then back down to the floor, keeping the abdomen etc tightened. Relax, then repeat with the other leg.  It’s not so difficult to understand, but to do it while keeping the hipbones level, the pelvis level, takes concentration I found.

And so it was with all the other things he had me do.

I made notes at the end of our session and now I have “homework”: I’m to do the full lot of exercises (a specific number of reps for each) every other day, just once for the first week, then twice in the second week, and so on.  And there are a few great stretches too, subtle and effective.  When I get comfortable, maybe in three or four weeks, he’ll come by again and add other exercises.

The day off is to let everything recover.  Logically, having done work yesterday I should have skipped today.  But I wanted to get started, and also to repeat everything right away to get my body-memory more established.

And how was it?  It was engaging and energising, a challenge that took concentration, way more than I would have imagined.  Somehow this combination of concentration and effort (side plank held for a minute for example, and knee bends with a stick held straight-armed over my head, to keep me in alignment) was exhilarating, got the old endorphins going, transported me, even though I wasn’t running happily down the street but instead working on the floor.

This is not a fascinating post, sorry, but I wanted to write about this new invigorating era in my first flush of enthusiasm and discovery.  It’s such a pleasure to embark on a new challenge and feel that I am going to get stronger day by day, through my own efforts.  We can’t ask for much more than that in life, can we?

…well, apart from the pleasures of friendship…  This evening I’m headed to eat and drink and play with friends.  I'll make a leek soup I think; we'll grill meat and vegetables; asparagus is finally here and fabulous (we had our first huge meal of it last night); and there's been talk of making a baker's cake (using a yeasted dough to make a sweet treat). Yum.  The excuse is Mothers’ Day, but really it’s all about the joys of extended family, celebrating the juiciness of life at every time of year.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I'm writing late on the Cinco de Mayo (the date the Mexicans defeated the French, quite unexpectedly since they were much less well equipped, in 1862.  The French did manage to take Mexico City a couple of years later where they proclaimed Napoleon lll's brother Maximilian emperor of Mexico).  And it's also a full moon day, an especially big fat full moon they tell us. I caught a glimpse last night as I walked through the streets late after the Beard Awards, happy to be out in the air and walking with a friend.  The moon smiled benignly down, or so it felt to me.

I wrote that first paragraph last night, then hit the hay.  New York can do that, just get the adrenalin going, and going, and then suddenly I run out of gas.  Yesterday after our Beard Cookbook committee meeting I headed up to Kitchen Arts and Letters.  Nach Waxman was not there (he's more likely to be there early in the week), which I regretted, but being in the store is always a treat.  There are treasures to discover each time.  And each time I know I've only scratched the surface, leaving many wonderful books unnoticed.

Just as well perhaps, because covetousness starts to take over - yes I'd like to own that one, and that one, oh and yes perhaps those two...  I came away with two books, one of which I am especially pleased to have.  It's by Phyllis Bober, who died about ten years ago, a tall intelligent force-of-nature woman, beautiful, with dark red hair and a distinctive style.  She taught classics at Bryn Mawr but I knew her through food.  She had a deep interest in traditional foodways, and her two passions, for history and for food, come together in this book: Art Culture & Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy.

I first met Phyllis on an Oldways trip to Tunisia.  One day five of us rented a car and drove to the ruins of a Roman city called Bulla Regia in the northwestern Tunisian plain. I'll never forget Phyllis's enthusiasm as we guided us around the site.  She knew it intimately, from her studies and reading, but had never been there.  She showed us the amazingly intact mosaics, explained the distinctive architecture (houses built with underground areas to give coolness and shelter from the summer heat), and her delight in it all brought the place alive.

And now I have her clarity on the page, helping me decipher some of the early history of emmer and other wheats, the role of barley, the food traditions in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
I need this help, to prepare for the Foods that Changed the World course that I'll be teaching at the School of Continuing Studies at U of T, starting in mid-May, for six weeks.  It's all coming together, but as always with interesting rich subjects, I now feel that I could take double the time, or more, to explore each of my topics.

From Kitchen Arts and Letters it's an easy 19 block walk to the Whitney, where I saw the Biennale.  I had read some pans of it, but I like to see for myself.  The most outstanding-to-me art that I saw (which may just mean, the things I understood at least a part of) were: a thoughtful installation by Nick Mauss, Dawn Kasper's nomadic studio; Nicole Eisenman's multi-painting collections, and her one large painting, (such versatility and intent); Tom Thayer's fragile-looking haunting birds and suspended sculptures; Liz Deschenes' subtle and somehow powerfully memorable photo print sculptures; and finally the extraordinary multi-media installation by Werner Herzog called Hearsay of the Soul, which is mesmerising.

Yes, it's a bit of a long list.

A walk back north took me to the Met to spend more time at "The Steins Collect."  What a contrast, with order and colour and form the priority.  But it's worth remembering how shockingly wild Matisse was at the time with his violent use of colour (hence that label "fauve").  Weekends are a crowded time to be at the Met, but not, I discovered, after 6 in the evening.  It's open until 9 pm, so civilised, on Friday and Saturday, and the crowds thin nicely.  Afterwards, after a look at the Byzantine and Islam show, and a little time with the Van Goghs (now there was a guy who shocked in his time - I love the Berceuse), I went to the balcony that overlooks the entrance hall and had a glass of white wine (a very pleasing Alberino) and started reading Phyllis's book.

It was dusk, with the moon up but not visible in the cloud, as I headed back south the 35 or so blocks to my hotel.  What a wonderful privileged rich day.  I'll have lovely things to think about as I sit around at JFK this evening waiting for my plane to Toronto.

Thank-you New York.