Sunday, June 28, 2009


Roast chicken for supper tonight, an organic bird from Harmony, bought at the health food store down the street.  I did the usual, cooking it relatively hot, at 400, with a fork-pierced lime inside (lemon is classic, lime is what I had), some olive oil and salt on it, and starting breast side down for half an hour, then turning it over.  I put some peeled and tidied last-year's potatoes in slices around it, tossed in a little olive oil and salt.  With it we had plain jasmine rice (Oxhead brand from Thailand is our favorite, bought in 10 kilo bags) and asparagus I bought yesterday when I was up in Grey County.

Amazing to be eating asparagus at the end of June, but here we are, storing up enough memories of asparagus pleasures to see us through the long ten month period until it's next in season.  It's been the essential green at our meals for five weeks now, or is it six?

And because today has been rainy and a little cooler, after a week of mostly sun and heat, and because the oven was hot anyway to cook the chicken, it seeemed a good idea to make another skillet cake. Tashi did most of the work, and we put some lightly cooked sliced apple on it just before it went into the oven.  There was added incentive to make a cake this evening because tonight three extra teenagers are coming to sleep over, friends from Grey County, on their way to Montreal.  I assume they'll devour what's left of the chicken, potatoes, and rice, as well as the cake, when they get here sometime after ten.  

And by the way, the chicken carcass is now simmering with some aromatics to make a broth, the next step on the chicken's journey.  And after that?....

In Toronto this last week of June, apart from suddenly (and at last) getting a good dose of hot weather, we also have a municipal strike, which means no garbage pick-up.  But despite the heat, things aren't yet feeling too dire on the garbage front.  Partly it's because some impromptu sites have been opened where people can leave their garbage and so we aren't living with piles of garbage in the streets, not yet at least.

But another big reason things feel fairly civilized so far is that now this is a city that separates its trash.  In other words, the "smelly" part, the food waste stuff, goes in a separate "green bin".  It's pretty low volume (the bin is the size of a small in-kitchen bin).  The larger volume stuff, glass and cardboard on the one hand and non-recyclable trash on the other, is separate, so it's NOT smelly or rotting. 

 What a difference.  Remember when all garbage was lumped together, so it ALL smelled and was yucky to deal with?  Remember the garbage strike in Vancouver, with piles of stenchy garbage everywhere?  And I seem to remember a long-ago strike in London, in England, where garbage, unsorted and all stinky, piled up for weeks....

"So far so good," is how it feels here in Toronto.  

Of course the strike also makes us all aware, each time we have something to throw out - that small "oops! I wonder how long this will last?" reflexive thought - that everything we discard has to be dealt with somehow, sooner or later.  That awareness isn't such a bad thing, is it?  

Now that we are heading into a second missed pick-up of food-garbage, our small green bin, just outside the front door, is smelly when I open it.  But it's not yet smelly from the outside and it's still only about half full (we don't generate much, except the odd chicken carcass and some odds and ends of leftovers, and potato peelings).

We used to compost (though that doesn't deal with meat and fats) but we live downtown, there are restaurants nearby, and there is always the threat of rats.  Some years ago we gave up composting because of rats and I hesitate to try it again, for the same reason.  My grandparents, on their farm in northern BC, had a pail of old milk and general food discards, including peelings, etc, and over-aged leftovers, that went to the chickens; other farms have slop pails for the pig.  Meat scraps and fat go to the dog in a farm household.  But we don't have any of those options.

Which leaves us dependent.  We need the City and the workers to negotiate a settlement.  Just do it, and sooner rather than later, please.

And meantime, it's a bonus to know that acting on the environmental need to sort our garbage also has this short-term side-benefit:  living with a garbage strike is way less stressful and unpleasant than it would be with unsorted garbage.  The other side of the coin is the educational bonus of the strike: it's making us all aware of what we are throwing out and of the problems of disposal.

Are you fed up with me always counting my blessings?  Sorry.  It's one of those tiresome glass-half-full reflexes, a survival skill that is now second nature to me.

And moving from practical issues back to pleasures, where we began:  I stayed last night with a good friend who has a place an hour north of here.  Just before I left this morning, she cut masses of her peonies, still blooming, but weighted and bowed by rainwater, and handed me a huge bouquet to bring back to the city.  The peonies in my garden are all over, and I'd accepted that they were done for another year.  Now unexpectedly there's a gorgeous big vase of white and pink peonies on the counter, sweetly scented, a last hurrah of spring.  Thank-you Trisha!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


It's a rainy Saturday morning, quiet, with only the sound of drips onto window ledges and spattering raindrops on leaves, and then that sprinkling lighter sound of fine rain as it hits the ground.  Out the glass doors at the back, open to let in the slightly chilly moist air, there's a wall of green.  It's the ivy on the garage, lushly in summer leaf, a green wall at the back of our compact garden.  I have the impression that if I had different ears to hear with, I'd also catch the slurping sounds of the growing tomato and pepper and cucumber plants out there, as well as the herbs, sucking up this fresh rain.  

The problem with a rainy Saturday morning is that it does the outdoor farmers' markets no good.  There are two major ones in central Toronto, at Brickworks and at Wychwood, both of them relatively new (in the past five years).  At Brickworks there's a huge roof over everyone, so the rain is a problem "only" because it is apt to discourage shoppers from turning up.  But at Wychwood vendors must rely on tents and canopies, and shoppers are stuck walking in the rain., so it's uncomfortable as well as discouraging.  Those who usually go by bicycle, like me, will most likely stay home, as I am doing today, writing this blog rather than pedalling through the lovely empty early morning streets.

The largest farmers' market here, long-established, is downtown, at St Lawrence Market, in the "north building".  The south building has a permanent market of fishmongers and cheese merchants and butchers, etc etc (open Tuesday to Saturday).  The north market is only on Saturdays, and is packed with vendors selling meat and cheese and vegetables and fruit, and bread and sweet baking, as well as some prepared foods.  There's no hard rule about local only, as there is at the outdoor markets, nor any requirement that foods on sale be organic or sustainably grown, though as consumers' awareness of those issues and labels grows, who knows?

The St Lawrence Farmers' Market is there year-round.  So is the Wychwood Market (it moves indoors in cold weather, into a beautiful galleria space in the refurbished TTC barns).  And so too is the Thursday market at Dufferin Grove, to the west of downtown.  So people who go to those markets can and do develop the habit of going each week ... and it is habit that can sustain a market.  In fact without it, the markets have to rely each week on consumers knowing about a particular market and then deciding to go.  Habit and necessity are much more reliable sustainers of farmers' markets than last-minute whim.

And why am I going on and on musing about this, as the rain intensifies outside?  Well once you've seen how hard farmers work, especially farmers doing family-farm-scale sustainable agriculture, the fact that that hard work is not enough, that they also have to cope with the vagaries of consumer behaviour at fledgling farmers' markets, makes you anxious for them, and in fact anxious for us all.

How can we make the essential-to-life work of farming a rewarding and rewarded part of our community?  How to keep this thing called sustainable local agriculture on track?

The local markets are one element.  And we need to get in the habit of relying on the markets.  But relying in what way?

In North America we are generally rushed and have the habit of doing "one-stop shopping", getting it all over with at one large comprehensive grocery store.  Most of us don't have the luxury of a European-style set of small specialty shops: the butcher, the fish monger, the cheese-seller, all within easy walking or driving distance.  The large grocery store is the substitute for that.  And so for us "reliance" on a market means we feel confident that we will find all the food we need to shop for all at the one location.

Very few of the farmers' markets can provide that.  There is meat, and vegetables, and fruit, but no dairy apart from a little cheese.  The only exception is the St Lawrence Farmers' market in the north building.  And what buyers can't find there they can get in the permanent south building market.  So the larger better established markets will, I hope, continue to function reasonably well for farmers and for consumers, but the very small ones will probably fade away, as the cost of bringing in food for an uncertain result becomes too expensive and discouraging an equation.  

Getting locally-grown and -produced food into grocery stores is the other important piece of the puzzle.  (I'm leaving aside for the moment the CSA (community-supported agricuture) movement, which is hugely important way of ensuring reliable markets for farmers; and also the resurgence of urban gardening (urban farming is the new buzzword)).  

It is happening.  Independent grocery stores like wonderful Fiesta Farms here in Toronto, are developing long-term relationships with farmers and stocking their shelves, especially in the produce section, with locally and sustainably grown food.  Hurrah!

All this is not just about Toronto, or other cities in North America.  Most industrialising countries face the conflicting pressures of on the one hand feeding people affordably in the short term (the most food at the cheapest price), and on the other protecting local food resources and local agriculture for the long-term future (emphasis on local and sustainable).
So the question remains:  How do we keep the local food scene vibrant?  How do we discourage the importing of foods that are displacing the locally grown versions ?  (Garlic from China, which floods the market in Thailand and Vietnam as well as in North America, undercutting the better-quality locally grown garlic, is the quickest example, but there are many others.)  This is the real "health issue"...
It's still raining.  There was a heavy downpour and now we are back to drizzle.  I went out for several hours (a few paragraphs ago) to have dim sum with my friend Dina.  We found ourselves eating three-layer pork and other rich and hearty fare, as we sat in our sweaters - on June 20!  Bring on the hot weather, say I!!

And once it comes, the summer heat, I promise to be a little more light-hearted here.  Something about the chilly damp brought on this serious questing tone today.  Hope you stick with me nonetheless.
A final note, that brings me back to the garden and the rain:  The garlic and shallots that are planted in odd spots around the edge of the garden have strong aromatic leaves that I harvest in handfuls, then chop and stir-fry.  Now their lovely curling scapes have formed, and those too I snap off, chop and stir-fry.  Other green candidates in the garden include arugula and tat soi. The fresh gathered greens are all part of a mid-morning addiction that starts with leftover rice put into in my favorite bowl of the moment and then set aside.  Into a hot wok goes olive oil, then a little mustard seed until it pops, then a fresh egg, which is fried and flipped over before being lifted out onto the rice.  The wok goes back on the heat and the chopped gathered green stuff goes in to get a quick hard dose of heat.  I turn it out onto the egg and rice, then squeeze on some lime juice and drizzle on some nam pla prik (fish sauce with hot chiles chopped into it).  Sometimes some torn fresh herbs (shiso, parsely, arugula...whatever!) go on top.  There's nothing better!

I have a feeling I may have written about this earlier.  Sorry if I'm repeating myself!

Friday, June 12, 2009


Two very different experiences this week have got me thinking about groups and individuals, consistency and distinctiveness, the general and the particular... you get the idea.

On Tuesday afternoon I did a short shift with Dawnthebaker at the Incubator Kitchen making crackers for Evelyn's Crackers (named after fabulous Evelyn, Dawn and Ed's three=year=old daughter).  The crackers are hand-made, truly made by hand.  The dough is mixed by machines, then divided into pieces which are hand-shaped, then run, piece by piece, through a sheeter, a machine like a pasta-maker that squeezes it flat.  Each sheet of dough on its individual piece of parchment paper is stacked on the last and then when the stack is high, it's put aside to chill while the rest of the dough is flattened.  At this stage we're not nearly halfway in the hand-work.

The chilled sheets come back out and then once again, one by one, are put carefully through the sheeter, now set to a thinner setting.  They double in area (and fragility too, of course).  Once again, after all the sheets in the stack have been run through the sheeter and then restacked, the stack gets set aside in the cooler while the remaining stacks are run through.

Then it's time for the final pre-baking hand-work:  Sheet by sheet the crackers are cut.  You take the pizza-cutter-like roller and run it in straight lines down the dough, trying to space them evenly and keep them straight.  For the cheese crackers that we were making there were six or seven lines vertically and about 11 horizontally per baking sheet of dough.  No wonder Dawn feels her wrists get tired!  I felt it more in my back, because the work is assymetrical, when you bend sideways over the sheet to do the cross-wise cuts.

After each sheet is cut into crackers, it is pulled over onto the stack of already sliced dough. Once the stack is tall, it is covered with plastic, tightly sealed, and frozen.  The baking will take place next day or sometime in the next week.  And baking too means handling the crackers sheet by sheet, putting them into the oven, and then taking them out and leaving them on a rack to cool and crisp up.

Now that all sounds long, doesn't it?  And yet it's just a description, with no details, really.

Dawn does all this physical labour with grace and strength and skill.  Sometimes Ed is there working  with her, or a less-skilled sidekick like me, but most often she's there on her own, either making and shaping crackers, or else baking.

When we were there together, she could get crackers baked while I shaped (and she was often over helping with the shaping process in between baking chores).  The lovely scent of her Barley Noir crackers perfumed the space as we worked, and the spicy Dal Crackers too added their aroma when they were baked.  

The thing about the cracker production, the thing that is valuable (apart from the fact that they are made from local and organic ingredients, and that they taste wonderful and are a treat to eat), is the hand-made-ness.  It creates an entirely different cracker population.  They are NOT all the same.  For though each batch is made from one dough, the fact that they are rolled out and cut by hand, sheet by sheet, cut by cut, means that the crackers each have a personality and clear identity.  There's kind of a "every snowflake is unique" quality to them.

So while the goal of industrial production and chain restaurants is complete consistency and uniformity, the goal of hand-crafted anything, from crackers, to clothing, to furmiture, to home-cooking, is individual distinctiveness within a recognisable form.  That's why we love home-made food.  And that's what we lose if we buy "food" that has been extruded and cut and shaped by highly industrial processes.  

People say, but this is elitist, this emphasis on the hand-crafted; processed food is cheaper.  But it's not.  Home-made food, each of us starting with basic ingredients at home, is the least expensive and best.  Next in line is food made by someone we know, made with care and attention.  And as we tried to emphasise in our book HomeBaking, let's not, as home cooks, start to think that our food should look like food that is made by machine, all "perfect" and predictable.  Let's treasure the unpredictable, the individual, the idiosyncratic.

The big event this week felt far from crackers and hand-made:  Yesterday Dom graduated with his Honours BA from the University of Toronto and I was there, along with Tashi, in fabulous Convocation Hall.  I know from others that graduations can be long and tedious (this was my first university grad attendance, since I missed both of mine, long ago).  But I found that there was entertainment and enlightenment to be had, both at the time, and when I thought about it all afterward.

The event began for us in the quad at Victoria College, with grads and their families standing around on the grass under the trees, surrounded by gracious and lumpy old stone buildings, eating sandwiches and fruit and cheese, and drinking juices or tea or coffee.  It's an interesting problem, feeding a huge crowd of very diverse people, many of them with dietary restrictions because of culture, religion, or belief.  Sandwiches are a great solution.  And so are trays of cut cheese and trays of assorted fruit.  There was something for everyone, the meat sandwiches separated from the non-meat; the trays easily distinguishable.  And there was plenty.  

It was a happy crowd, the young grads looking fresh and yet mature (young men in white shirts and dark pant, some with ties; young women in frocks with high heels or in dark trousers with dress shoes), their dressed-up parents looking proud and sometimes a little overwhelmed.

We family and friends walked across campus to Convocation Hall around 1.15 and found seats- the place was packed.  (This was the Convocation for Victoria College grads only; during this week and next there will have been a total of 22 convocations, graduating all the grads from across all of the University of Toronto, a mind-boggling exercise in organisation!).  The grads came later, escorted by a piper, and followed by the Chancellor's procession of dignitaries, garbed in their medieval robes (the chancellor in yellow and black-striped gown; others in black with red, or in scarlet with pink, or... you get the idea).  As the grads filed in and took their seats, we looked across row upon row of figures all dressed in black robes with a rabbit-fur trimmed cowl draped front and back.  So there they all were, all alike, a class of nearly 600, the graduating class of 2009.

And yet each face was different and distinctive, and behind it, for sure we know, each life story, each set of aspirations and fears, was distinctive, important, momentous. 

They came up two by two, their names called out in pairs, to receive their degrees.  The pairings were by the chance of the alphabet.  Each grad had that moment to pause and be noted by friends and family, by all of us.  The Dean of Arts and Science had told us that 40 per cent of them reported that they were the first person in the family to graduate from university, and that 60 per cent had reported that they spoke a mother tongue that was not English.  A lot of that diversity was apparent in the wonderful mix of names called out as the pairs of grads walked up the steps.

And so no, it wasn't boring or tedious, it was amazing.  And it made me think of the crackers somehow.  It all takes work, this crafting of our lives and the lives of our nearest and dearest, and the lives of our neighbours, and the lives of strangers too.  And we need to enjoy it and be tolerant, knowing how different we all are, how even when we seem to share aspirations, we may be interpreting the world in wildly different ways.

It's easy to feel disappointed when we find a friend disagreeing with us on a fundamental issue.  But it's more important to tolerate that difference than to insist on conformity and uniformity, however hard it may be.  We are all hand-made and distinctive, but we are made of the same flesh and bone, brothers and sisters out in the world, charting our paths, just like those young grads... looking forward to what comes next.

Friday, June 5, 2009


This long chilly spring is hurting our friends and neighbours Kung and David, whose shop on Baldwin street, Chada, depends on foot traffic, especially on people shopping before or after a meal outside at one of the little restaurants nearby.  But most of us are loving the bright days and the luxuriant flowering green of trees and shrubs and gardens all over the city.

I've been out in the green a lot, now that I've broken through my fear of traffic and have started bicycling in the city.  The bicyle I'm riding is the red Diamond Back, a mountain bicycle, that I rode in 1986, first in and around Lhasa, and then, after a long trip on busses and in the train and on more busses (11 days in all) along the rocky Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Gilgit.  
Unlike then, when Jeffrey and I rode with the wind in our hair, on roads with no traffic, let me reassure you that I am wearing a helmet.  I am also picking my routes through the city very carefully, and the times at which I bicycle.  It is so great to be out and moving freely in the city.  I am grateful that I don't have to commute on a bicycle, and even more grateful to all the advocates that have succeeded over the years in getting more bike lanes opened and such a growth in the number of cyclists that motorists have become more educated and respectful, generally speaking, of people pedalling.

The other day I had a letter from Elissa Altman, a happy letter thanking us for our Nepali cucumber salad (in Mangoes & Curry Leaves), which has had a big impact on her household.  The dressing has mustard oil in it, and I was reminded by her letter of what a barrier new ingredients can be to us.  Mustard oil is especially difficult for people to take on, because most of it (imported from India) comes marked "for external use only" or some equivalent message.  In fact of course it is a staple cooking oil in Bangladesh, Indian Bengal, and much of Nepal, as well as in other communities in the subcontinent.  But first you have to get past the label, which is only there as a way of avoiding the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration or equivalent.  

Mustard oil adds heat and a lovely pungency.  So now that I'm talking about it, I'll put a precis of the salad recipe here, in case anyone is curious to follow up:  Use an English/European cucumber, cut into spears, with seeds trimmed off.  Put it in a colander, sprinkle on kosher salt, and let drain for 10 or 15 minutes while you make the dressing.  Dry roast 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, let cool a moment, and then grind both to a powder.  Combine with 2 tablespoons plain yogurt and stir to make a paste.

Rinse the cucumbers and squeeze excess water out of them.  Put in a bowl, add the spice paste, and rub it all over the the cucumbers.

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons MUSTARD OIL (or substitute peanut or raw sesame oil) over medium heat, add 1/2 teaspoon each fenugreek and nigella seeds, and 1 green slit cayenne chile, and cook until aromatic (30 seconds or so).  Add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne and a pinch of turmeric, stir, and pour the oil over the cucumbers.  Toss gently.  Add a tablespoon lemon juice, then set aside for ten minutes before serving.

Add coriander leaves and about 1/2 teaspoon salt just before serving, and toss gently to mix.

Sorry to clutter this blog with a recipe... but I hope it encourages some of you to leap into the world of mustard oil and Bengali and Nepali spicing.

And another thing, while I'm on the subject of food:  I stir-fried some tat soi leaves last night with ginger and wild leeks and a little chopped duck confit.  Fabulous.  Tat soi is a newly available green (I mean, much-more-widely-available-now green).  Do give it a try.

It's a little strange, I know, to be focussing on the domestic when Obama is breaking new ground with his speech in Cairo and other earth-shattering events both good and bad are happening all around.  But it seems to me that, as always, focussing on the everyday necessities is a way of staying grounded and of reminding ourselves of our shared humanity.