I think happiness has a lot to do with the concept of “enough.”
Enough is, of course, relative. For me, it comes from a need to never be wanting, to take care of myself, and to be independent – and always in a place that I can walk away from a circumstance that makes me unhappy. Not to speak around the matter – I’m talking about material things – not my psychological or emotional wells (though the concepts are related). I’ve been this way for as long as I have understood money – that I never want it to be a limiting factor in how I live.
With this comes an odd sort of frugality I’ve cultivated over the years – one that, along with working hard, has ensured I have enough. Of course, this equation is my own circumstance and I do not want to generalize experience: hard work plus saving is just one way. But I’m grateful that it’s meant my well-being is not wound up in what I can and cannot have.
As with other parts of my life – how I mind my pennies is driven by tiny mantras:
Save the first paycheque. Spare no expense on groceries or the best restaurants. Experiences over things. Excepting underwear, old is usually better than new. Not everything is stuff, but most stuff is. Collect travel points, then pay off the full balance. Walking > subway > taxi. Borrow it from the library first. And a skilled cobbler can almost always fix worn soles.
These mantras are the context within which I buy Champagne and thrift store teacups and plane tickets without pause, and they limit me, too. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brought home a $20 top or tube of lipstick, or made dinner from the freezer section, or threw away a pair of shoes.
One thing is sure. My love of cooking has never been predicated on frugality. I love the theatre of restaurant dining and a pizza delivery straight from the box. But it is helpful that most days I’d rather grocery shop and cook and eat what I’ve made at my own table. Cooking is really the best hobby, no? I mean – we have to feed ourselves, anyway – usually three times a day. Three occasions to satisfy our needs exactly as we please. That’s pretty fantastic.
I’ve found it fitting that most of my favourite foods just happen to come from the humblest ingredients. Braised beans, whole roasted fish, stews, garden vegetables sprinkled with salt, warm craggy bread… and anything from a pâtisserie.
What the French do with butter and flour! One of my Saturday to-dos is a morning croissant and café crème from Pain Perdu – after I’ve returned the week’s library books, and checked the Salvation Army and Goodwill for pretty tablewares. Pain Perdu is my very favourite little bakery and makes Toronto’s very best croissant – delicate, shattering, deep brown, and full of sweet buttery layers – the very opposite of Starbucks’ enormous, flabby, wan specimen.
While croissant is not the easiest pastry to replicate at home (at least with my limited baking skills), chouquettes are.
Little cabbages in French – and so named for their shape – chouquettes (SHOO-ketts) are made from a cooked egg-based dough called pâte à choux that’s piped and sprinkled with coarse sugar, then baked. The savoury version are known as gougères, whose dough has a cheese such as comté or gruyère added. The little rounds puff up into golden morsels of eggy, buttery air. The proper French version of chouquette uses a crunchy large-grain sugar for topping – but I prefer a solid cinnamon-sugar crust that crisps into a sweet hat and shatters undertooth.
It’s just butter, flour, eggs, sugar and salt – but you can’t put a price on flung-open windows, the May breeze, and a cinnamon-scented afternoon.
1 cup room temperature water
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp granulated sugar, plus 1/4 c for dusting
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, in chunks
1 c all-purpose unbleached flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp cinnamon, for dusting (optional)
2 large baking sheets
small metal saucepan
large freezer bag or piping bag
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line both baking sheets with parchment paper.
In saucepan, combine water, salt, 2 tsp sugar and butter. Bring to a very rapid boil (it will almost overflow the sides of the saucepan). Remove immediately from heat and vigourously stir in flour. The dough will pull away from the pan and look a bit like a mound of marzipan. Let dough rest 5 minutes.
One by one, add the eggs, stirring after each is added to smoothly incorporate – the dough will get looser and looser. Don’t worry if it seems the eggs won’t combine – just keep stirring, and as if by magic, everything will come together. The final product will be a silky, shiny and smooth pale yellow paste.
Scoop dough into a piping bag or large freezer bag (if using a freezer bag, cut off 1/2 centimetre opening at one of the points). With both hands steadying the bag, pipe whole-walnut sized balls onto the parchment, well-spaced so they have room to poof – as in the above photo.
Cover each ball with a generous douse of sugar (about 1/2tsp each). If desired, gently sprinkle cinnamon over top.
Bake one tray at a time in your oven’s middle rack (no lower, or the bottoms may burn). Be cautious not to open the oven door as the chouquettes bake, so they poof properly. At 25 minutes, open the oven to let in a bit of cool air, then bake for another two minutes – the balls should be a nice caramel colour. You’ll know they are done if you tap the bottom of a ball and it sounds hollow. Popping one in your mouth is also a good test for doneness.
Eat immediately. Or store in an airtight container and freeze up to one month – slide into a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes to reheat and crisp before serving.
Makes 36 puffs.
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?