When other kids were dreaming of being firefighters and ballerinas, I wanted to become a geneticist. I was a 12-year-old with a DNA obsession, a love for James Watson and Francis Crick (Maurice Wilkins, too), and a Genetics for Dummies book I carted around like a security blanket. I was set on being the first woman to grow babies in pods, Matrix-style, long before the movie was released.
A rigorous math-and-science highschool experience drove away this early love. All I’m left of my calling is an affinity for biology-themed Jeopardy! categories, and a family who tease me now and again about my childhood pod babies.
I’ve never naturally gotten on with children. Perhaps this is a product of my particular breed of introversion, but I don’t dream of becoming a mom like many women I know. If anything, the notion of responsibility for another life makes me want to run far, far away from the opposite sex. I have terrible fears of dropping babies or stepping on them or the worst case: not knowing how to love them right.
But with the birth of my nephew back in August, I changed a little. I love this little being with all my might, in an unexpected and unexplainable way. I make my sister email me photos. I have his ever-rotating picture as my desktop background at home and work. Baby Kieran is snuggly and fragile and smells nice. He even seems to like me.
I’ve warmed up to the idea of just loving, and not needing to understand the why and how.
My nephew ate his first solids this week, which was my inspiration for a whimsical way to showcase some market beets. After all, I do know how to feed people (babies included) and breakfast the colour of Play-Doh is fun for adults alike. These beet pancakes are a brilliant shade of magenta and packed with goodness – slightly sweet, very dense and almost earthy.
They’re exactly the food to fuel childhood dreams, however strange those dreams may be.
These pancakes are hefty and dense – the texture is similar to pound cake and one or two make an ample breakfast. Because of the honey in the batter, they are sweet enough plain. They’d also be delicious with some maple syrup and Greek yogurt or toasted walnuts. For a savoury take, omit the honey and up the salt to one teaspoon – then top with sour cream and dill for a non-traditional take on borscht. In coin-sized portions, the savoury version would make a terrific blini base.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup spelt or other whole grain flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp fine sea salt (increase to 1 tsp for savoury version)
1 Tbsp cocoa, non-Dutch processed (I like Nativas Naturals raw cacao or Scharffen Berger cocoa)
2 medium red beets, roasted to tender (about 1 cup)
1.5 cups warm water
2 Tbsp honey (omit for savoury version)
1 large egg, beaten
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
large metal or glass mixing bowl (beets will stain plastic)
heavy non-stick frying pan or griddle
To roast the beets: preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Scrub beets well and remove ends. Wrap individually in tin foil (as you would a baked potato) and roast for approximately one hour, until a sharp knife is easily inserted. This can be done in advance – just store the wrapped beets in the fridge.
To make the pancake batter: in bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, sea salt and cocoa until very well incorporated. Set aside.
In another bowl, dissolve honey into warm water. Add honey-water mixture and beets to blender and puree until very smooth and liquefied - there should be no beet pieces remaining.
Add the beet puree, egg and butter to the dry ingredients, stirring well to incorporate until an even bright magenta batter is achieved.
Drop 1/4 cup spoonfuls onto a heated griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook for two minutes per side until pancake is cooked through and forms a light brown crust. You will know when to flip because tiny bubbles will crack at the pancake’s surface.
Serve plain (the pancakes are slightly sweet from the honey and beet) or with maple syrup. For a savory version, see headnote. Makes 8 large pancakes. Leftovers can be refrigerated or frozen and reheated.
Seasons of the year: spring, summer, fall, winter. And seasons of life: sister, daughter, aunt, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.
Both arrive and leave before you have chance to notice. You never imagine that all this is going to change soon. Day by day it’s the same, and then you wake and it’s all gone and different and some pieces look familiar, but mostly not.
Last night I became an aunt. My sister a mother. My mom a grandmom. My grandmothers great-grandmothers.
My family is four sisters spread over an eight-year span. I’m the eldest. Sisters are a beautiful, difficult, impossibly rewarding thing, let me say. As we age the changes in our relationships are subtle but apparent. I’ve grown to appreciate more these women who are me slightly rearranged. I try harder to do good by them, knowing they will be with me all my life, friends unconditionally. Like no other, they have known me all my days, they have seen me through every season.
At moments it is so hard, being physically separated from my three sisters, who are together in Windsor. So much of the time I am jealous of them there, me here. I imagine them growing close, sharing days, living perfectly well without me. They live perfectly well without me. But proximity does not make family. Soon, Niki will head to university, Melina too. Less soon, we will each have families – whatever forms these families may take, wherever they may end up – we will gather for births and birthdays and markers of future seasons.
Our labels change and our seasons change.
Fruit trees are harbingers of the fleetingness. Last year, as peaches came and went, and I made peach-ricotta pizza to honour their visit. This year, I walked downstairs to a kitchen perfumed by another summer’s fruit. Knowing I’d soon be in Windsor – to hold a new nephew and to hug a new mother – I preserved them for later, to remember August 7, 2010 as something sweet and new.
(Makes about 4 cups)
I am a lazy preserver. I’d rather bag and freeze seasonal excess than get out bell jars and a pot of water big enough to bathe a newborn. So: I used some of this compote from the pan for a sweet-savoury French toast with herbes de Provence. I let the rest cool and ladled it into freezer bags by the cup, to enjoy later.
1 quart peaches (~20 medium)
3 Tbsp water
aromatics to taste – I used 1/2 a vanilla bean, scraped and a piece of cinnamon bark, but lemon zest, dried fruit, almond extract or nutmeg would be nice, too…
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, cook ingredients over medium heat until they reach a consistency you like. Keep in mind the fruit will thicken slightly as it cools. I cook at a low bubble for about 25 minutes until I have something more than a sauce, but less than a jam. Jar and refrigerate for up to a week, or let cool and freeze in one-cup portions to defrost mid-winter, when peaches are far away.
I have a soft spot for ritual. Not habits or routines, but the special actions we perform again and again that make us as we are.
My Great-Grandma Emmy, for example, would take toast and tea each night as part of her evening ritual. Two hot buttered slices of white toast and milky black tea in a fine-bone china cup and rattling saucer. She said it gave her good constitution. Tea and toast prevented ailments and made her strong. I never doubted it.
Every Friday when I was little, my dad brought mom three bunches of carnations wrapped in sturdy market paper. The stems were bound together with elastics. Mom carefully unwrapped her flowers, trimmed the ends. Carnations are hardy, so she’d pick through last week’s vases. She’d keep what was good, add the new blooms, stir together fresh water and food. All into the same vases on the same shelves and side tables. It was a sourdough starter that she fed each Friday, of pink and red and white and purple-flecked flowers.
My sister Eleni eats ears of corn in perfect single rows, kernel by kernel, so attentively, it sometimes makes me want to scream. She has a way of plucking the entire kernel out, so as to leave the cob completely naked. It’s not like my own cob, a sodden mess of corn-bits and fibre. Each August, I watch her, half-expecting that she might dive in and attack to make up for her years of decorous nibbles. But it hasn’t happened in the twenty-two that I’ve known her. Eleni eats corn with purpose and finely tuned ritual.
Though I love examining rituals in others, I can’t name many of my own. There is one, but it’s hardly ritual at all: each night, about 30 minutes before I sleep, I wander about the apartment turning off lights. I tidy couch cushions. I turn on my bedroom lamp and turn down the covers. I prop up my pillows and pull whatever I’m currently reading from the shelf, until I’m sleepy, 20 or so pages later. And one other: each morning I count the squirrels. My walk to work takes me through Allan Gardens, and my little friends come and go with the weather. I know spring is here, because squirrels are everywhere this week, grey and black dots flitting through the grass.
I think ritual is one reason why I love to cook. Thomas Keller has said that we cooks always want to do new things in the kitchen, but really there isn’t anything new about our pursuits. Cooking is repetition, completing a task over and again to do it better, a delicious monotony. It’s rituals: chopping an onion, sharpening a knife, stirring a pot of risotto in wide circles. I like that the more I cook, and the more things that I cook, and the better I am as a cook – the basic rituals of chopping, heating, stirring, tasting and repeating are still at heart. They create my humble morning oats and also the most mind-bogglingly complex of dishes.
Oatmeal is one of those ritualistic foods we don’t give much attention to, I think. We eat it for its virtuousness – what is more wholesome and austere than a bowl of oats? But there is something about the flaked grains, and how they swell in liquid, universally accepting of other flavours. They fill the belly uniquely, comfortingly. I think for many people, oats as breakfast are an unintended ritual, a consequence of deep-down knowing what’s good for us. They are the best kind of consistency.
I make heaps of variations of oatmeal – sometimes with fruit or nuts, seeds, chocolate, cookies – so many mix-ins! Below is a method for my staple oats – for days when I’ve run out of bananas, don’t want to chop apples and have depleted my milk stores – and it may be the nicest version of all – fluffy and soft with bits of seed.
Having chia seeds in the cupboard and hempseed in the fridge is a worthwhile investment. These oatmeal additions are satiating, textural, full of good fats and round out a simple bowl of starch so nicely.
1/3c dry old-fashioned oats
~2/3c cool water
1Tbsp chia seeds, soaked in 3Tbsp water (see photo)
1Tbsp hulled hemp seeds (I like Ruth’s SoftHemp or Mum’s Original Hempseed)
1Tbsp nut butter (I like MaraNatha Raw Almond Butter)
1Tbsp raspberry jam (or your favourite kind)
In a pan, cook the oats and water to your desired consistency, about 5 minutes. While cooking, combine the chia seeds and water in a small bowl and stir well. Let them sit to form a thick gel. Remove the cooked oats from stove. While still warm, stir in almond butter, bloomed chia seeds and hempseed. Transfer to a bowl and top with jam. This is the most basic (but still delicious) version – you can dress it up with milk, fruit, coconut, nuts, seeds, chocolate… the possibilities are many.
(And yes – those are all my bowls of oats pictured above!)
It’s no great secret: I like tabletops the very best. Tabletop photography is my favourite kind, over landscapes or portraits or fashion or anything else done behind a camera lens. Something about a birds-eye view and prettily scattered items across a surface makes me shiver.
I’ve had a lump stuck deep in my throat all afternoon, since I came across Jennifer Causey’s Simply Breakfast. She photographs tabletops of her breakfasts each morning. But more, really: she somehow encapsulates everything beautiful about living. There’s a sense of simple serenity in her images of eggs and toast and oatmeal and fruit spread on worn-wood tables with juice and mugs of warm liquid and dishcloths. I’ve shared a few images here, but it’s easy to lose yourself page after page in her archives of perfectly curated (but somehow unadorned) breakfasts.
It’s exactly how I want all my days to begin.
Lately, bowls of oats have been replaced with bowls of frozen goodness.
I love frozen concoctions. The thought of it makes me cringe a little now, but when I was little I adored that first summer Slurpee (though I hated the glowing fluorescent tongue that came along with it). Garden raspberries found their way to the freezer and then mashed up into a make-shift sorbet. Same with grapes, which became little self-contained spheres of icy granita.
Lately for breakfast, I tuck into a bowl of green soup, but nothing tops cold banana-almond soup. A couple frozen bananas get whizzed in the blender with some unsweetened almond milk, a couple ice cubes and a huge scoop of raw almond butter. The result is unlike anything else – smooth, sweet, creamy, with flecks of nutty almonds and thick enough to eat with a spoon. Like a bowl of slightly-melted banana ice cream. It’s so, so good. Sometimes I top it with sprouted cereal for crunch, but more often then not I dig into a bowl as-is.
Frozen banana-almond soup
(makes 1 serving)
I keep a dozen or so very ripe bananas sliced and in the freezer, ready for whenever I want to make something sweet and frozen. Letting bananas get very ripe (i.e. brown and spotted) before freezing makes all the difference. I use almond milk and butter in this recipe, but other milks and nut butters would work equally well. Popping the mixture in the freezer for 30 minutes gives it a firmer ice-cream texture. It also makes great popsicles.
Whiz everything but the almond butter in blender until smooth. Add the butter and blend to combine. Serve in a bowl with a spoon, or as a smoothie. Sprinkle with sprouted cereal or granola, for optional crunch.