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.
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.
As someone who spends an awful lot of time cooking and writing about cooking, I’ve been timid about sharing my kitchen of late. Not to say that I haven’t been cooking – oh, I have – but I’ve become a boring sort. My stove produces a steady stream of baked sweet potatoes and parsnips, bowls of brown rice, salads and avocados on toast, lentils doused in olive oil, and lots of soup.
Perhaps it’s the time of year, or the thick layer of snow blanketing my street, or the pervasive scent of resolution in the air, mid-January. But my cooking has been basic.
It’s become unfashionable to make new year’s resolutions. For every promise to resolve I’ve read this month, I’ve read three more confessions to the contrary – people are allergic to resolving, refuse to jump on that bandwagon, or decry resolution-making as a task for the weak, the January Joiners. (Each of those anti-resolutions have appeared in my feed reader.) Sometimes I’ve nodded along in agreement. I’ve been hesitant to compile my own list for self improvement.
But nothing is shameful about setting goals and starting anew, however arbitrary January 1 is as a beginning. In a way, I think my humble, pared-down kitchen fare has been an unintentional resolution of sorts: to eat simply, to make uncomplicated and delicious food, and to honour my body. All darn good resolutions, I’d say.
With that in mind, I bring you more soup. A double-fennel split pea soup.
As someone who despised licorice-flavoured anything for years after an unfortunate youthful bout with ouzo, I’m still making up lost time with fennel, and this soup sure helps the task along.
It’s full of softened fennel and apple and studded with crunchy bits of the plant’s seed, a monochromatic soup fit for mid-January. It turns a traditional pea soup – smoky and slick with oil from the ham hock at its base – on its head, offering a surprisingly bright and round flavour. I often find that split pea anything has a murky and dull quality. This soup is anything but.
Perhaps my late-to-the-game resolution this year should be to eat more soup. Three weeks in, I’m off to a pretty good start.
Double fennel split pea soup
Developing this recipe, I initially used only one-half tablespoon of fennel seed. As I refined, I found the split peas really stood up to the strong anise flavour, and so increased the measure to a whole tablespoon. It seems like too much fennel going in, but I promise it’s the perfect amount, both texturally and flavour-wise. Diced carrot was also used in the initial recipe, but the soup is plenty sweet without it.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 cup onion, diced (about 1 medium)
1 cup fennel, diced (about 1/4 bulb)
1 cup green apple (Granny Smith, Crispin), diced
450 grams dried green split peas, rinsed well
4 cups neutral stock (chicken, vegetable)
3 cups water
1 large heavy-bottom soup pot with lid
In soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-low with fennel seeds for about five minutes, until fragrance is released from the seeds. Add the onions and fennel with salt, and sweat until tender and translucent, about five minutes. Do not let the onions or fennel brown. Add the ginger and apples, and continue to cook until softened slightly, about 10 minutes.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add the split peas, stock and water. Let this mixture come to a rapid boil, then reduce heat to medium. Simmer, covered, for approximately one hour. When the soup is ready, the split peas will be nearly disintegrated into a pulpy green mush. At this point, you can continue to cook to your desired consistency – for a very smooth soup, continue to cook for approximately 30 minutes.
To serve, ladle into bowls. Makes 8 generous portions and freezes very well. I pour two-cup servings into freezer bags for quick defrosting (as in the top photo).
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.