Before, my commute looked like this: exit front door, cross park on diagonal, walk two more blocks, cut through building courtyard, enter office, sit at desk. It was a 20-minute stroll, and one of the best parts of my morning.
Now, my commute involves a streetcar and subway train, and while it’s not all that bad – at least a week in – thirty minutes on public transit demands some light reading. (I say light reading, because I always scratch my head at someone poring over Ulysses or Derrida’s collected works on the subway. I hardly understand these things sitting still, let alone with a stranger’s armpit jostling my nose.)
This is how I found myself trolling the magazine section at Shoppers Drug Mart on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., in search of something to match my new ride. Real Simple’s August 2010 issue ended up wedged against my fried-egg-and-arugula sandwich.
I’ll be honest, I’m at once fascinated and repulsed by the kind of effortless charmed world Real Simple presents as truth. Real Simple is like that friend whose perfectly edited life you’d love to hate, but can’t – because she really is just that fabulous. And don’t we all crop the messy bits from our photographs? Still, reading this magazine always leads to a loaded internal dialogue about how we frame our lives for one-another. Perhaps not what I was seeking for light subway reading.
To the task at hand – my praise to the editor who decided “Spectacular Three-Ingredient Recipes” should be this month’s lead cover story. As those who eat with me will attest, that I share recipes here at all is odd, because I never cook from recipes. I love to read cookbooks, and cobble together dishes from flavours I think make sense in my head. I’m fastidious about documenting combinations I’ve enjoyed at restaurants the moment I get home. But in matters of food, if not life, I’m pretty much an ambler – through markets and grocery stores – picking up what makes sense in that moment.
I loved these three ingredient recipes for many reasons. For me, it was a little idea map – how smart to create an icebox cake of pureed ricotta and melted chocolate, or douse balls of honeydew and torn basil with cava for a simple dessert. The feature would work just as well for someone who follows recipes to the letter. And because each is only three ingredients, there’s no fear of stray components left to die in the fridge.
A recipe for plum tart from this story has consumed me with thoughts of puff pastry for days. While puff pastry is relatively easy to make, here’s a secret: buying it pre-made is okay. It’s more than okay – it’s the right thing to do. The thing is, good store-bought pastry contains the same stuff - flour, butter, salt, water – as the homemade kind, but lends elegance in a snap! (And all without flour in your hair, a bonus ’round these parts.) I’ve resolved to keep a sleeve in the freezer at all times – who knows when inspiration (or dinner guests) will strike.
In the spirit of keeping this recipe-free, here’s what to do. Buy a sleeve of puff pastry and two or three ingredients that sing together. Try to avoid anything with a high water content (it’ll make the dough soggy), and you’ll want at least one ingredient to be assertive, as puff pastry is a neutral backbone.
- quince paste + prosciutto
- ricotta + olive oil + radicchio
- blueberry + orange zest
- mascarpone + prune + hazelnut
- sliced pear + dark chocolate
- sweet pea + pancetta
- roasted pepper + goat cheese
- asparagus + fried egg
- grapes + marzipan
- cherry tomato + anchovy + black olive
- caramelized onion + bacon
…the options are many – other suggestions?
Thaw the pastry and unfold onto buttered or parchment-lined baking sheet. Score the edges to make a one-inch border. Arrange toppings inside the border and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, until things look puffy and golden and right. Tarts are good hot or cold, today or the next, with company or alone over the sink, warm or straight from the fridge.
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!)
In my mental stack of photos, here is the scene: he and I sit by the pool at his parents’ house. He holds a camera, a dented little silver point and shoot, and the grey string dangles in the annoying way that you know will end up blurring half the frame. He wields the camera haphazardly and our bare feet float in the water. I wear knockoff Ray Bans of my father’s that I found on the kitchen counter. My hair is in the half-wet state that happens when the sun is so hot it evaporates everything but laughter and the quiet in-between. He clicks and the camera’s aperture whooshes.
And I take in his pale skin, and then the blindingly bright turquoise water, and then the dangling grey camera string and I push it aside out of the next shot – one of many in the mental stack of photos I flip through.
As I typed his name into the little search box on Facebook, it was with an uneasy impulse, the kind that I act on to spite my better judgment. Never mind that the relationship’s been over for years (and I’ve been over the relationship for years). Having spent a disproportionate chunk of my relatively young life with the boy by the pool, these photo albums were heavy.
I ended up flipping through some sets he had made public before closing the tab with reddened cheeks. Ever since, I sift through these photo-memories and they remind me of people once loved. How do they become fleeting thoughts from something so permanent? This man, under ever-so-slightly different circumstances, probably would be here now, sitting across the room as I write. He’d look up over his glasses and cock his head and flip the long bang from his eyes and return to his very serious reading. It’s kept me up at night – that I hadn’t given him a thought for months, maybe even years. (For a very long time.) That my subconscious was so impolite to not offer him even a nod here and again. But now, look! He is stuck in my head taking photos.
Photos are powerful things. Maybe that’s why I have a difficult time keeping them around, why I never want to be frozen in anyone’s lens. The memory above is stop motion and lens flare on a sunny day. It’s all photographs: the ones tucked in some drawer in my childhood bedroom, the ones stuck on an old hard drive, the ones taking up space in the tiniest place in that far corner of my brain reserved for unrequited nostalgia. (For reference: it’s the same place old song lyrics hide, the ones you sing from heart ten years later with a huh.)
Involuntary memory. Proust and his tired madeleines, his volumes of things past reduced to tear-shaped cookies and an easy analogy. The truth is, I hate that people-as-memories come and go as they please. Forever is presumptuous. But we put so much stock in creating memories, moments, things to look back on when the trigger hits – with no assurance that it ever will.
Like Proust’s protagonist, my easiest analogies involve food, and here is another. Memories are the recipes we make over and again, only to forget them. The boy by the pool could have returned bearing many forgotten dishes: split pea soup or sweet-sour caponata… but he’s brought along aglio e olio. At first it seemed an odd choice – a hot day and hearty pasta, but it makes sense now. Starchy and familiar and comforting and just foreign enough – exactly what the person I remember would bring.
It makes me sad and hopeful at once, thinking about these memories I am still making. Maybe I should keep a recipe box of the very best ones to revisit years from now, knowing I will forget. Perhaps I should let others with cameras freeze me in time, that I may accidentally stumble out of their farthest corners one day. There: at the side of a swimming pool, holding hands, laughing.
Aglio e olio
There are many versions for this classic Italian peasant dish of pasta, garlic and cheese. Some use chili pepper flakes, which I omit. Others use anchovy at the base. This makes for a richer sauce – break a couple down in the olive oil before cooking the garlic if you use them. While most people chop the garlic, I slice the cloves thinly. It makes for a gentler sauce and crisp nibs through the pasta.
100g uncooked spaghetti
2Tbsp of your favourite cooking olive oil
6-10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
a heavy handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2Tbsp shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, or another hard cheese like Gruyère or Asiago
salt and pepper, as needed
Bring well-salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti al dente. Drain in a colander.
In the same pasta pan, fry the sliced garlic over low heat in the olive oil, letting it brown just barely (any more and it will burn). This should take a couple minutes. Your kitchen will smell like heaven as garlic.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the pasta, stirring quickly. (It will sizzle like mad.) Toss in the parsley, cheese and cracked pepper. Taste for salt. Serve piping hot.
Makes one big bowl, with enough left for tomorrow’s lunch.
I’ll just say it: if I never have to walk into another grocery store again, I will be okay.
Don’t get me wrong, I love grocery shopping more than the average person. I’ve been told by my housemate that it’s a regular anthropological study, watching me in a produce section. I fawn over the vegetables, make notes, and roam around haphazardly taking in the stock. I pick up apples one by one, run my thumb over their skins with care, much as I imagine a goodly squirrel treats his walnuts. Eventually, I gather a bagful of acceptable specimens. I pull heads of lettuce off the shelf until I find the prettiest and frilliest of the lot. Max has taken to giving me a head start when we shop together: we usually cross paths somewhere around the preserves and honey. I can’t help it. Grocery stores are nice places.
But it’s late-March in southern Ontario. I’ve finally tucked my parka away in the closet until next year. Parka-less, I’m stuck in the grocery store, under the fluorescent lights and the fake umbrella tree in its entryway. See, Toronto’s many markets won’t be open for another month or so. Count on your fingers with me: this is almost five straight months that I’ve been seeing Whole Foods. We’re entering a long-term relationship. Each year, I forget my city’s long winter. I expect a fling with the grocery store.
There’s been some strange behaviour on my part. Take today, for instance: I grocery shopped on my lunch hour. I efficiently toured the aisles. On autopilot, I packaged kale and chard and a whole bag of alphonso mangoes, yielding and begging to be peeled. My favourite produce man brought me a bouncier bunch of cilantro from storage (he’s started to anticipate my requests, after all these dates). Breakfast tea, olive bread, preserves went into my basket. Twenty minutes later, I was back in the sunshine walking to the office.
Hoisting the bag over my shoulder, I recoiled. What on earth had I become? I was – dare I say it – an efficient grocery shopper.
As it goes, efficiency has taken over my dinner table as well. A steady stream of avocados parade through my kitchen. They ripen and get squished in warm wheat tortillas, slathered in the tangiest Greek yogurt I can find, sprinkled with cumin and sea salt and cracked pepper, heated through ’til the wrapper is spotted with golden bubbles. Which – if not inventive – isn’t terrible, once you taste it.
Come May, my neighbourhood market will be back, and I’ll be back to asking a million questions about asparagus and radishes. I’ve started a countdown. Until then, efficiency will tide me over.
Warm Avocado Roll
This is hardly a recipe at all, but it is delicious and takes two minutes from pan to plate. I’ve decided, in my many samples consumed since February, that it’s just the cure for grocery store blues. Cumin – in one-sixteenth teaspoons – it’s magical stuff!
1/2 very ripe avocado, sliced
2 Tbsp whole milk yogurt (thick Greek varieties work best, here)
a sprinkle of coarse salt, a shake of ground cumin, a turn of black pepper
1 small whole wheat tortilla
Place the tortilla shell in a nonstick or greased pan over medium-high heat. Line the middle with avocado slices and dollops of yogurt. Sprinkle with salt, cumin and pepper. Pull up the sides and squish down so it all sticks together. Let it heat through. Eat, over the sink. Repeat for dinner until the markets finally open, wherever yours may be.
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.