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.
Every kitchen has its quirks. In mine growing up, mom refused to buy Fruit Rollups and made baby food from scratch and packed lunches each weekday. But amidst the dry goods in our homemade pantry, she kept a curious side-dish staple: Betty Crocker Instant Scalloped Potatoes.
Was it hypocrisy that my only-from-scratch mom made boxed potatoes – with a Wonderbread crouton topping, no less? It might have been. I wasn’t complaining. It was one of my favourite things to eat, though the dehydrated science-project potatoes were off-putting in theory.
Scalloped potatoes have their own kind of deliciousness that only comes in thin layers of starch, sauce and melted cheese with a crunchy lid. Some recipes call for dubious additions: canned cream of cheddar soup, American cheese slices or a tub of Philly. Others elevate these layered potatoes to an elegant side, adding leeks, blue cheese, fennel or even coconut milk. The French combine cream and garlic and forgo the cheese to create Gratin Dauphinois.
But where potatoes are concerned, my heart belongs to the simplest of recipes – just milk, flour, butter, old cheddar and starchy potatoes slouching together in a baking dish. My heretic spin is the addition of mom’s bread-cube topping to finish the dish, as opposed to a traditional crumb crust.
It’s not quite what I ate as a kid – lacking bright orange cheese powder and reconstituted potatoes, after all. But come fall, when the sky darkens before dinner and my creaky old house gets a chill, it’s delicious.
Simple scalloped potatoes
(makes one 11×7-inch baking dish, with about 5 layers of potato)
I was always reluctant to make scalloped potatoes without a mandolin. But as long as the slices are relatively even, and you cook this thoroughly, slicing with a knife works well. And the age-old debate of nutmeg-or-no-nutmeg rages on. The Greek inside of me says a little never hurts in milk-based sauces. But if you prefer, leave it out. Also – this dish is fantastic with sweet potatoes in lieu of white. It gives the dish a sweet-savoury contrast, with pretty orange layers. Sweet potatoes take less time to cook – check after 60 minutes for doneness.
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
5 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup white unbleached flour
2 cups 2% or whole milk
7 oz old white cheddar, grated
2 cups soft white bread, cubed
nutmeg, salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook for about 4-5 minutes, continually whisking. Once golden and giving a toasty scent, slowly add milk. Bring to a boil and whisk over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until thickened (the sauce should coat your finger).
Remove saucepan from heat, and add three-fourths of the cheese, whisking into sauce. If using nutmeg, add a few good grates at this point. Taste sauce for salt and adjust. Because the potatoes are bland, the sauce should be slightly saltier than your ideal seasoning.
In a metal or glass 11×7-inch baking dish, alternate slightly-overlapping layers of potato and sauce, starting with potatoes. You will likely get about 5 layers. Spread remaining cheese over the final layer and cover with foil.
Bake covered for approximately 90 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a bread knife into the centre of the casserole. It should slide through with ease. If resistant, continue to bake covered for 10 minute intervals until cooked through. A little overdone is okay, but nothing is worse than raw potatoes!
Top evenly with bread cubes and place uncovered under broiler until crust is toasted and golden, about 3-4 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, slice, and serve. This refrigerates and freezes very well. If freezing the whole pan, leave the bread topping off until you intend to reheat and serve.
Over time, I’ve collected many tiny mantras to live by.
Always hold the door. Keep my feet on the ground. Make time for kale and champagne. Walk, don’t run. Examine everything. Write it down.
Those are a few. They’re not literal – most are merely cues for other actions – like recognizing others and finding balance and humility and looking really hard at the world, always. But they work. Now and again I glance over my little list, and they remind me to be more as I’d like to be.
Here is one more:
When in doubt, remember anchovies.
I know, I know. Anchovies. Funky salty pungent greasy messy anchovies.
My family often ate pizza on Friday nights growing up, after my littler sisters were born and we moved to the “new house.” We ordered from a Windsor restaurant called Koolini, and my dad was on to something, because they make really delicious pies. Always on the side would be an oil-slicked plastic container, stuffed with anchovies.
Dad probably got a kick that his eight-year-old daughter would dominate those little fish – draping them over pizza slices and licking the salty remnants off her fingers. But once I tried them, they just made sense, and still do – savoury and intense and cured to the best possible texture.
Anchovies, like so many things in life, are better – delicious – if you can get past a false impression. Like so many things in life, we often don’t.
My day job has taken over my weeknights for the last while. On those evenings when more work looms past dinner, when time spent cooking is replaced with computer time, it’s been anchovies to the rescue. Draped over buratta on some baguette, bracing acidic tomatoes in a quick sauce, whirred into vinaigrette to douse over romaine or roasted cauliflower. Dinners with rewards so much greater than their efforts.
I eat these little fish and I think of all the wonderful things – people, places, foods, experiences – that we never get to know because they are gross, or not our type, or out of the norm. As I am remembering anchovies, I am remembering joys that are gained through an open heart and willingness to be less dogmatic about who I am and what I like.
What are your tiny mantras? And when did you eat your first anchovy?
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 am my father’s daughter. Dad is my slightly taller, male equivalent. I’ve been told we have an identical gait. We hold a fork the same way. When I waitressed at my parents’ restaurant through high school, customers inevitably said, as I filled their water glasses: “Oh, you must be Nick’s eldest!” I would smile and cringe inwardly, as teenage girls do. I am my father’s daughter.
Dad likes to shop for clothes – alone – and tell everyone about the incredible deal he got on a cashmere sweater. He read every high school and university paper I wrote, and instilled in me a love of grammar and structure as he slashed misused commas. Dad and I like our coffee strong, though he tempers his with cream. At family dinners, we wince together at the weak dishwater my grandparents on either side brew. Dad will vouch that he and I even wear the same socks. (Mainly because I raid his pairs of stripes and argyle a few times each year.)
As much as we’re alike, we disagree more often than not. Because of the fierce stubbornness I inherited (from dad, of course), disagreement has led to a stand-off or three in my twenty-four years. But can you keep a secret? It’s good stuff, when people say I’m like my dad. He’s a pretty cool guy.
Of all the traits dad and I share, one sticks out. We both love people by feeding them. From my observation, few things bring him joy like inviting a host of people to our home, offering multiple courses of delicious things, and sending them on their way, sated and happy. Dad visits me in Toronto for the day and lets himself into the apartment to leave a three-litre jar of olives on the counter. He always has an array of garlicky Greek spreads waiting when I get off the train, be damned if it’s two in the morning. One memorable evening, he traveled the entire city of Windsor on a midnight fudge run. You see, he misheard my sister Niki’s request for a pack of paper lunch bags. White and milk chocolate fudge were delivered to a befuddled 15-year-old.
My parents visited this past weekend. In true form, dad deposited fruits and vegetables for a family of six on my countertop. I’ve been digging through my crisper all week finding goodies. A mango here, a head of broccoli there. Let me tell you: having someone else stock the fridge is mighty fun. It’s the Red Lobster treasure chest I loved as a kid, only instead of scented erasers, I pull out banana bunches.
Last night, rummaging for dinner ingredients, I uncovered a produce bag of tiny red potatoes.
Potatoes are one of those funny starches in my life. I love them. But I never buy them. Into my grocery basket go yams and pastas and loaves of bread, but nary a white potato. And what a shame, because potatoes are delicious. Especially the little ones – creamy and a little sweet with yielding skins. They’re versatile, quick to prepare and nourishing.
I knew at once what to make with these little red gems: the Pioneer Woman‘s Crash Hot Potatoes. I almost want to keep this recipe a secret, it’s so easy and tasty. But Ree shared and so will I. Boiled red potatoes are lined on a sheet pan, smashed with the bottom of a water glass, doused in olive oil and salt, and slid into a scalding oven. Twenty minutes later you have perfect potatoes: crisp browned exteriors yield to creamy insides. Try if you can to transfer them to a plate before devouring the lot. And then call your dad. Tell him he has to make these potatoes.
Water Glass Potatoes
Adapted from Ree Drummond‘s Crash Hot Potatoes
Serves two, as a side
10-12 small new potatoes, whole
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
kosher or sea salt, to taste
cracked black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Boil the scrubbed potatoes in salted water until they’re very tender. Drain the potatoes. Line them on a generously oiled sheet pan – much like you would to bake cookies. With a water glass, gently smash each potato to flatten it, being sure to expose the white flesh. Drizzle the potato tops with more olive oil, and sprinkle generously with salt. Crack black pepper over each potato.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are golden and crisp. Serve with sour cream, or sprinkle with whatever herbs you have on hand.