Monday, October 19, 2009


I've been warmed all week by the memory, strongly physical as well as emotional, of holding a fabulously fresh baby for a long time the other evening. I was and am so grateful to her tolerant parents, who smiled indulgently as we all hung around their kitchen getting supper ready, admiring the baby, eating and drinking, admiring the baby... you get the idea.

She was awake and almost wide-eyed when I got to their house. Her father handed her over to me, and a few minutes of walking and swaying and music later, she'd sacked out. Those little puffy breaths, her tummy going pop-pop gently against me, were such a time-travel-like reminder of when my kids were infants. And it was also of course a reconnection with the miracle of babies.

These days we assume that a healthy baby will survive infancy; I can't imagine having children in an era of no birth control and high infant mortality. I know that I tried not to get too attached to my in utero children because there was a real risk that I wouldn't be able to carry them to viability. I was completely unsuccessful at trying to stay distanced! I can't imagine what it would be like to have a baby, tender and helpless and lovely, and to have to brace against the likelihood that she or he would not survive to the age of five.

Why, you may ask, can I not just rejoice in this lovely baby who has come into the lives of a network of friends here, without going to dire other scenarios? I don't know, except that it always feels important to look at both sides of life, the dire in the midst of happiness, the joyful or optimistic in the midst of pain.

This week life has been full of positives, not just the baby, but also the seven nice young people we billetted, all of them from Cornell, who were in Toronto to participate in a huge debating tournament hosted by Hart House at U of T. I like the idea of a full house and also of improvising day to day. So when Tashi said about a week ago, "Oh, I said we could billet seven or eight debaters; I hope that's OK" I was really pleased. "Don't worry about a thing," he said. "I have it under control." And in fact he did. It was entertaining to come down on tiptoe on Saturday and Sunday morning to a ground floor well furnished with recumbent sleeping guys, slip on running shoes and a jacket and head out for my small morning run. By the time I got back each day they were up and getting slowly into gear. They left the place looking remarkably orderly, with bedding stacked and folded. Now there's just a little laundry to see to!

And while they were here the weather started to warm and brighten, thank heavens. Even so, the nights are cold, so today I turned the oven to 450 and roasted a batch of beautiful red bell peppers we got from the farmers' market a week ago. Ed told me to oil them and salt them (he said pepper too, but I didn't) and so that's what I did, standing them on their heads on a rack over a roasting pan. Now they're cut into wide strips and some are in a jar in olive oil in the frig. The rest? Well I should have made a second jar, but instead they're here in a shallow bowl on the counter, out to be eaten at whim. I had a few strips with my bean soup tonight, along with some crumbled unpasteurised extra-old cheddar from Quebec. Yum.

The bean soup is a harbinger of winter menus in this house: lima beans and some navy's too if you have them (I didn't today) cooked in lots of water with a minced onion and some bay leaves, until completely tender. it takes a long time, but the creamy texture is worth the wait. I added some cubed potato and carrot fried in olive oil in a hot skillet , once the beans were close to done. They cooked to tender in the soup. A dash of red wine is a good idea, or cider vinegar, and also a generous dollop of soy sauce, then salt to finish. The last of the fresh herbs are a welcome addition, but you can do without. And bean soup is one of those great dishes that tastes even better the next day...

And finally, another autumn food note: Ten days ago Lillian and Jon gave us a basket of Courtlands from their apple tree out back. They were small, crisp, and intensely flavoured. I cut up the ones that we hadn't eaten a week later, leaving on the peel but cutting out the core and any spots, then cooked them with a little sugar and a dash of water. I suppose I started with about a quart and a half of chopped apple. It cooked down to a dense pink mass, splashed with the intenser red of peel. Then what to do? Why not use it as a tart filling?

The crust was improvised from a scant quarter pound of butter worked into a generous cup or more of whole wheat pastry flour, a pinch of salt, and about a quarter cup of sugar, then moistened with one egg and nothing more. I pressed the pastry into a nine-inch square pan, pressing the sides more than half an inch up the pan walls, and had a little pastry left over. I prebaked the shell under a piece of parchment weighted with lima beans (beans have so many uses! I use and re-use the same ones, and the parchment paper too) at 450 for about 8 minutes, then added the thick apple mass (not all of it fit) and topped it with a drizzle of honey, some turbinado sugar, and the crumbs of pastry dough that were left over. I baked it at 400 for perhaps 10 minutes then 350 for another five or so.

Those Courtland apples are so wonderful. It tastes as if I'd added a little lemon, there's such a complexity of flavour. But there's nothing extra, no cinnmon or lemon or other tricks, just mother nature's fall bounty. Hard not to wish that this season went on for longer!

But time moves on and soon I'll be heading off to the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone, in the Napa valley. It's a huge affair, each year dealing with the foods of other places and cultures under a different umbrella or theme. This year it's streetfoods and comfort foods. There will be cooks and chefs from India and Southeast Asia and Tunisia and other Mediterranean culinary cultures, as well as the Americas. And as always the conference will be a chance to catch up with people I haven't seen for awhile and to meet others I have heard of but never met. One such is Christine Manfield, from Australia, a very creative and admired chef, traveller, and cookbook author. We're scheduled to be on two different panels together. I'm looking forward to it all.

I've been sorting through images of streetfoods in various places, preparing to show them at the conference. They're mostly in slides, so once I pick them out, I'll scan them and pull together a show in digital format. This is still new technology to me, so I'm slow at it. And the decision-making is always painful: "this one or that one? How to get a balance? etc" At the same time I love the immersion in the images, a chance to travel in my imagination to places and times far away.

And from California I AM going to travel far away: I'm headed straight to Chiang Mai to catch up with friends and to do some early preparations for this January's immersethrough food session. For more information about the tour, please go to I'm also hoping to get a couple of weeks in Burma before I fly back home in mid-December.

All of this means that between now and November 11, when I leave here, the days seem very full, and the to-do list in my notebook is growing, not shrinking. But I had a kind of "aha!" today as I was jogging slowly down Philosopher's Walk: it's time I stopped thinking of obligations as urgent, as if dreadful things will happen if I don't get them done. Instead I need to just enjoy working through the to-do list, rather than feeling anxious or pressured by it.

Is this change of attitude possible? We'll see! I can just say that as I thought about all this I had a glimpse of how relaxing and productive a less amped-up approach could be, and it looked wonderful.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Dear Naomi,
I don't know if you'll recall meeting me (the last time was at the Asian Art Museum in SF, when you and Jeff were on a panel with James Oseland). I am heading to Asia for the first time in November, thinking to spend time in Vietnam and Laos. I'd love some recommendations from you—I'm interested in trying to get a bit off the beaten path and to learn about what is worthwhile in the bigger cities, particularly Hanoi and Luang Prabang. As I've always so enjoyed your explorations I'd particularly value your recommendations. I will be at World of Flavor just before I leave and see you'll be there as well—I will certainly try to find you so we can speak in person, but any recs you can send beforehand would be a terrific help. My email is jbattilanaAT7x7magDOTcom. I look forward to hearing from you!

Jessica Battilana