Lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook.
One week ago, I was waiting for a streetcar on Dundas West on what was surely the coldest and windiest Toronto night this winter. Meredith and I had enjoyed dinner at Cafe 668. She said seemingly out of nowhere, I want to come over and watch you cook one of these days. At the time I thought it was just the funniest statement I’d ever heard. We agreed to a Saturday in the kitchen sometime soon.
But lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook. And what Mere said actually makes a lot of sense in this context. We each hold the same wooden spoon differently. Cooking teaches other people things besides how we form or follow a recipe – about who we are, and also about who they are.
I’m one of those funny personalities who is seduced equally by the tangible and the ephemeral, the scientific and the creative, reality and the clouds. Really: I don’t see these as dichotomies at all. Cooking, more than most things, brings my world of contrast-but-not-really to one safe place. There’s a line I like by British author Jeanette Winterson: Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough. The basic, sturdy comfort of a knife shifts my mind out from reality ever-so-slightly as I methodically slice. There are moments: facing an intimidating green wall of lettuces and kale-bunches, rinsing carrots and hearing the whoosh of my knife through their spines, ladling soup into a sturdy bowl. These pull my pin.
Cooking also uses a part of my mind that yanked me – quite suddenly – from science to political theory. Theorists discuss lofty things in abstract terms, but most arguments root in a few key themes: the good, justice, fairness, equality. Call my comparison a stretch, but I think cooking does the same basic thing. While it takes an analytical bent and well-used palate to figure out why certain things taste good together, ultimately food is grounded in fundamentals: how do sweet, salty, bitter and sour relate in a dish? Then we layer on other questions. Should textures complement one-another or contrast? Hot or cold, satiating or refreshing? Weight, size, shape, texture, aroma, mouth-feel. The variables at play in a dish – before we even include taste buds – can make the head swim, if I bring them to the front of my mind.
But I don’t break out a matrix and calculator to make multiple permutations of pasta sauce. Mostly I just think about what I want to cook, what I have to work with, and I gather some ingredients and a rough method in my head. I stir and taste and add and stir some more until the dish in my mind and the dish in front of me match up. Everything in the previous paragraph is at work, subconsciously, in cooking, though I rarely entertain it.
I can’t discount the emotional and subjective parts of cooking and eating and feeding one-another that make it so right. To prepare a meal for another is to care for that person. There’s no better feeling than contented sighs of pleasure from someone you’ve fed, of being asked to please pass the salt. I say it so often: I find community in breaking bread and sharing my table. One day (not today, but one day) I’ll tell you the story of a little girl who saw a hog slaughtered in a dusty-hot island village. I’ll tell you about how her reaction splintered a narrative that has little to do with food and everything to do with history and family. Saying I will not eat this has initiated some difficult conversations about far more than consumption.
Why I love to cook is all these things. The theory but the tangibleness, the figuring out of up-in-my-head things by proxy of sight, taste and smell. The stories it welcomes. In my mind, when I hand each of you a pan, a wooden spoon, a tomato and some salt, the experiences and results are wild and varied. Between us, we have so many recipes.
[photo, with thanks, via]
The air is brisk. Pumpkins start to arrive on grocery shelves and in market stalls. I pull tweed and sweaters from storage, at last. Everything is to love about fall. It’s dismal and rainy, yes – and the hours of sunshine through chilled air are few at best. But maybe it’s the student in me that sees autumn as a fresh slate, purging summer heat to make way for snow and new memories.
I’ve been thinking about transition a lot lately. Seasons encapsulate transition, I think. As much as I get dreamy-eyed about year-long sunshine or living somewhere more temperate, I need the seasons, so reliably ephemeral: summers marked by icy watermelon, fall’s cider, cocoa and chestnuts with the snow, and spring’s first asparagus.
Each season with its new bounty, some small cause for joy.
Come fall, I’m smitten for squash. It’s such a comforting, warming food and I love its versatility. Sweet or savoury, in a soup, roasted, stirred into oatmeal – it’s comforting and tastes like the season. And there’s something pleasantly humble about squashes: knobbly and imperfect, economical, best prepared simply.
When we recently gathered to celebrate my dear friend and a soon-to-be bride, I knew I’d bring something squash-filled along. And with Thanksgiving next weekend, pumpkin is everywhere. Tiny roasting ones, even tinier ones to display, and whole shelves lined with the pureed kind in cans … some tucked into my cart to share.
A botched streetcar ride, torrential downpour, subway interchange and short walk later, my pumpkin spice pastries arrived to the party miraculously intact, if a few minutes late. Imagine pumpkin pie rolled into a neat bundle of phyllo pastry: slightly spiced, crinkly under tooth, just sweet from brown sugar.
A dessert, I’d say, fit for transition.
Pumpkin spice pastries
(makes 10 large pieces)
A note on phyllo
Phyllo is one of those falsely intimidating doughs. But it’s actually very simple to work with. A few tips for using it successfully:
1) Cover it well with a damp dish towel as you work. This keeps it pliant and prevents cracking.
2) It’s forgiving! My Yia-Yia taught me how easy it is to patch pieces together and just keep folding. Once it’s baked, no one is the wiser that dough surgery was performed.
3) Brush the pastry with enough fat, be it butter or a neutral oil. This keeps it supple and flaky as it bakes.
A note on canned pumpkin
Don’t feel you have to laboriously roast, peel and puree pumpkin for a good filling. Pumpkins are sometimes unreliable with bitter flesh. Canned is usually good quality (I like E.D. Smith or Whole Foods’ 365 house brand). Look for 100% pureed pumpkin, and not varieties that have been mixed with other squash, and don’t mistake pure pumpkin for pre-sweetened pie filling.
2c pureed pumpkin
3/4c brown sugar
<2tsp pumpkin pie spice (mine is a combination of ground clove, ginger cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice)
1/4tsp fine sea salt
2 eggs, beaten
10 pieces phyllo pastry
1/4c melted butter (salted is okay)
additional cinnamon and brown sugar to sprinkle
1 cookie sheet, parchment paper, pastry brush
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, spices and salt. Gently incorporate the eggs. Cover and chill in fridge while you prepare your workstation for folding.
Melt the butter over low heat. Ensure your work-surface is very clean. Remove the phyllo from its packaging and unfold, covering with a damp dish towel. In a line, set the butter, pastry brush, cinnamon and a small bowl of brown sugar.
Remove the pumpkin mixture from the fridge. It will seem runny, but not to worry – it will set up nicely to a custard-like consistency once baked.
Brush one sheet of phyllo with butter and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and brown sugar. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise. Dollop about 2Tbsp of filling at the bottom centre. Fold in the sides lengthwise and loosely roll the package upward until you have a cylinder, as you would with a cabbage roll or stuffed grape leaf. Place the pastry on cookie sheet. Repeat for remaining sheets of phyllo.
Before baking, brush pastries with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake in a preheated oven for approx. 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.