Over the holiday, shiny new things everywhere, I thought a lot about minimalism. Now, five days into 2011, though I’ve read approximately 2746 resolutions, it’s fitting only one is stuck in my head.
I’ve always considered myself a minimalist of sorts. I rarely buy things that lack a practical purpose. I like bare surfaces and the word sparse. I treat each new year as a space to curate. But a minimalist mindset also diminishes the importance of stuff, and sometimes stuff is okay.
I uncovered all kinds of stuff during the holiday, holed up in my childhood bedroom, combing through old drawers. My dressers are treasure troves of things and enemies of minimalism. As I excavate, I thank my younger self for denying her minimalist impulses and for these souvenirs. Not magnets or keychains or seashells or snowglobes. But souvenirs of long-abandoned stories as objects, ones that honour this word’s true meaning: memories, remembrances, tokens.
On Christmas day, I marveled at the paper wrapped around a gift from my grandmother. It felt old and delicate, the white background yellowed with time. Inspecting the pattern I saw a trademark: MCMLXXXVIII. I exclaimed across the room, holding up the paper – “Gran, this paper is from 1988! It’s nearly as old as me!” She replied, ever insightful: “You don’t say! It still wrapped those presents pretty darn well, didn’t it?”
Many of us have been taught to live in the default setting of purge: our closets, our desks, our hard drives, our minds. In that process, we toss out bits and baubles that help frame tomorrow. I think about a passage I once read. The author lamented not keeping a few 50s housedresses for her daughter, relics of the everyday and the life she lived, the best kind of vintage. But reaility television tells sordid tales of hoarders and compulsive shoppers – people buried under stuff, real and imagined. Holding on to common objects defies the magazine rally cry to streamline, toss, discard!
We’ve been taught that minimalism is inherently good.
But those childhood drawers. Hidden deep in one is a cheap spiral-bound notebook from a summer in Greece. Lining its pages, recipes. Recipes dictated by my YiaYia, translated and transcribed in my hand – spinach pie, walnut cake, stuffed tomatoes, baked lima beans, honey-soaked custard pastry … versions of classic dishes that live only in her mind and this notebook. A goldmine, and all mine.
From dime stores spring prehistoric wrapping paper and notebooks filled with family history. Stuff, unexamined. We assign value in the game of toss or keep, but value is driven by meaning and context and future memories. Objective assessment is impossible. How do we separate the trinkets from the treasures, so the best recipes don’t get thrown away?
Aside: I’m humbled to be amidst some of Canada’s best food writers as a nominee at the 2010 Canadian Food Blog Awards. I hope you’ll head that way to discover some wonderful Canadian-made food writing.
Revithosoupa (lemon-chickpea soup)
This chickpea soup made many appearances at our island table: a peasant dish that we’d sop up with paximadia, rye husks that are a specialty of Crete. (If you subscribe to the Art of Eating, issue no. 82/fall 2009 had an in-depth feature on paximadia, well worth a read.) Traditionally, this soup requires advanced planning to prepare the chickpeas overnight, but I’ve modified YiaYia’s recipe for a speedier version.
I include oregano in my soup, which isn’t standard. You could omit it, but I love the herbal quality it gives. I also use half stock, half water – traditional recipes use only water, but given the reduced cooking time, stock lends richness. The amount of lemon I prescribe makes a bright-but-gentle broth. Lemon enthusiasts could up the quantity to one-half cup. For a less-bracing soup, reduce the lemon to one-eighth cup.
1/2 large onion, minced (~1 cup)
3 Tbsp good-tasting olive oil – this is for flavour as much as fat
1/2 tsp dried oragano
1 can (540 mL/19 oz) chickpeas with liquid
3 cups your best stock, vegetable or chicken
3 cups water
1 large piece (~1×1 inch) lemon zest
1/4 c fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
lemon slices and olive oil to serve
1 large heavy-bottom soup pot with lid
1 potato masher
In soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-low. Add the onions and oregano, and sweat until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not let the onions brown. Increase heat to medium-high, and add the chickpeas with liquid, stock, water and lemon zest. Let this mixture come to a rapid boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in the lemon juice and taste for salt, adjusting to your preferences. If your stock or chickpeas were particularly salty, you may need to add more water.
Simmer, covered, for approximately one hour. You’ll know the soup is ready when you can easily mush a chickpea between two fingers. Before serving, mash soup slightly with a potato masher to thicken the broth (or if you prefer a brothier soup, skip this step).
Ladle into bowls, and serve drizzled with olive oil and extra lemon wedges. Serves four for dinner with some crusty bread for dipping, or six as a starter.
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?
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.
Ms. Dagg was my grade ten English teacher. She was just as an English teacher should be: a bit crass, dressed all in black, with a penchant for nice shoes and cat-rimmed glasses. She read Don Delillo and Graham Greene and didn’t roll her eyes (at least, I never noticed) when 15-year-olds made sweeping statements about human nature. I idolized her.
One day, in the most complimentary way, she called my writing purple prose. I had never heard this expression, so when class ended, I ran to the library for an OED, as keen 15-year-olds do. (This whole act strikes me as funny now, trying to recall the last time I physically opened a dictionary.) I pulled the tome from the shelf and flipped quickly to the letter P. Dear reader, I was a frequent dictionary flipper. I was awesome at landing on just the right page.
Purple prose: n. extravagant or flowery writing, especially in a literary work.
It’s funny how the slightest, most innocuous comments shape us. Since that day, purple prose has hung over my head. It’s followed me like a hazy violet shroud. Crept up behind me as I type sentences and craft paragraphs. See, that there? I just did it. “Hazy violet shroud” is a very purple-prosey way of saying purple prose.
And here’s the thing: it makes me cringe a little. Purple prose is a real burden to carry. Whenever I return to my writing, old pieces I’ve crafted, I see the (sometimes unnecessary) embellishment. That I get hung up on the tiniest visual details. That I spend whole paragraphs teasing out a memory just so, replicating it with my fingers across the keyboard. I spent my university years slashing passages out of papers, ridding myself of my purple plague. Concision and clarity – adjectives be damned!
But then I think about writing I love. I think about the paragraphs I collect, because they make my insides tingle (does anyone else do that, collect nice paragraphs like treasures?). Writing and reading is so wonderful because it is vast and disparate. There is not a right way to write or right thing to read. If I choose one reason why I love blogging, it’s the exposure I have to other people stringing words together, trying to make something of their days. Blog posts are unfinished, by necessity – it’s up to the author when to press go, not an editorial team or publisher. These pieces are never really finished, polished, perfect. And the messiness is often so good.
My writing has evolved since I was 15-years-old, wielding a pen and some lined paper, trying to make sense of the world. As I keep writing, I see subtle shifts. I delete words, and sharpen sentences where I never used to, not because I should, but because I’ve changed. My eyes are wider to experiences and how I will document them (though probably with a flowery phrase thrown in for good measure). I’m still making sense of my hazy purple world.