Monday, August 30, 2010


In this hot humid weather, late on the last Monday in August, I can hear the voices of people outside, voices in the night. They're unaware of being overheard, all those people, I imagine. It makes an odd soundtrack, their interactions. The night is still and heavy, so even though the doors of the house are open front and back, to catch any breeze or hint of freshening air, there's not much coolness happening.

It's not easy to think in this heat, or indeed to do anything very ambitious or elaborate. Ambition just drops away. It reminds me of Ryczard Kapuscinki's book on Africa, in which he talks about how lucky northern peoples are to have cloud and cold weather as part of their year. He's writing about the enervating effects of heat and and of deprivation (inadequate food and/or shelter, etc).

I'm not complaining about this heat. In fact I'm enjoying it. But I also can be grateful that my deadlines are a little elastic and are fairly far off, so slippage, buffer days taken in heat-induced laziness and torpor, feels fine, not scary or highly risky. And when the weather gets cold and harsh this winter, we will be able to look back on this soft weighty hot night with pleasure and longing, and perhaps also a small question: was it really that hot and soft? or did I dream it?

I've been playing around with Burma recipes. A sticky rice treat, a kind of sticky rice bun filled with palm sugar and coconut and fried until golden and crispy on the outside, is my latest pride and joy.

But today I took a break from the doing and went tasting instead. I went with three friends to a small new Burmese restaurant on Bloor Street west of Dufferin. The Mohinga (classic Burmese noodle soup, that comes in various styles) was a bit of a compromise (no banana stem, the broth light on fish, etc) but still recognisable, and it was served with great care and with sparklingly fresh condiments and toppings including coriander leaves and shredded green onion. The outstanding dishes we tasted though were the thokes, or salads, a ginger salad and another, a real emblem of food in Burma, called laphet thoke. It's made of fermented tea leaves that have an enticing tart edge. They are combined with sesame seeds, peanuts, chopped shallots etc, in a distinctive and refreshing salad. Yum.

I need to find a source for fermented tea leaves, a source in North America, so readers of my Burma book, once it's out, can make this delish combo for themselves. I will ask the guy at the restaurant where he gets his, but also, all ideas or suggestions welcome...

On Sunday evening a few friends were over for casual supper. As well as two steask, eye of round (later sliced to make a simple beef salad, Thai-style), I grilled some shallots, tomatoes, and those small round pale green Thai eggplants (the size of limes, with a stem, each of them), about a dozen of them. Then I processed all the grilled veg to a coarse salsa texture in the food processor. A little salt and fish sauce was all it needed, though you could also add chiles. (I left the heat separate, in the form of the hot tart sweet chile sauce I've come to depend on, a classic from Burma. Its base is dried red chiles, and it's my staple condiment these days.) I've never seen those small green eggplants grilled, perhaps because they are mostly seeds rather than very fleshy, but they did make a great salsa, dark red and earthy. Leftovers were a pleasure on fresh rice the next day.

This post is kind of rambling and is spending more time on food than I have been doing lately here. Perhaps it's the heat, addling my brain into short thoughts without much connection?

One thing I do want to mention: I have come to realise that although I can read without reading glasses (as long as the light is good!!!), my reading is now slower because I am not seeing the print as clearly as before. It's time to admit this, to make reading glasses (cheapo's from the drugstore) part of my life, rather than ignored hangers-on in my purse. I don't like being dependent on glasses for this most basic and pleasurable thing we call reading. But I am lucky I can see, and that there are so many books I am eager to read.

Time to head for bed, for a little reading before I pass out in sleep (that lovely deep hot-weather sleep, almost drugged, it feels). Now to find my reading glasses...!...

Happy late summer everyone. And for those of you heading into a school year of packing lunches, my sympathy. It does eventually end, but not soon enough!!

Monday, August 23, 2010


Today is the birthdate of my long-dead mother and her very alive identical twin sister, who turns eighty-nine this year. They were born several months early in a log cabin in the Bulkley Valley, thirty miles or so east of Smithers. Some kind of tenacity and luck meant they both survived their rocky start and grew tall and strong...

As on other anniversary days of various kinds, of course my head turns to the passing of time, the where we are now in relation to where we have been or where we might be in time future. It's the old pattern of wondering about past-present-future that starts I think as soon as we are old enough to have any concept of those "categories", fluid and ever-shifting as they are.

Time past can come alive sometimes, and amaze us. It does for me in an amazing gallery of photos from old greater Russia. I mean by that Russia proper and also Georgia, Dagestan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and more. The photos were taken before the first war, around 1910. They're on this website (and here's the address in case the link doesn't work:

Do go and have a long look. Seeing the Armenian women, of course we wonder whether they were killed in the genocide or escaped to perhaps Georgia or Syria; seeing Dagestan I think about all the fighting there has been in that region, and wonder whether the descendants of the people in the photos are still there. Have they seen these photos? Probably not, is my guess.

The view of Tbilisi shows a small city by a river, not the sprawling messier place it has of course become. But you can see the old baths, the churches, the winding river, and get a feel for the place. And the power of the Emir of Bukhara is palpable, as he sits formally for his portrait, dressed in a gorgeous blue robe.

Mostly we glimpse the past in our mind's eye, stimulated by the words of a novel or a passing scent that evokes another time and place, or a tune that transports us. So it is astonishing to have these images, captured so carefully by a photographer who did his best to make colour images in a time when colour film was not available, by shooting through filters, three takes of the same shot, then combining them. The article that accompanies the gallery explains the technique a little.

There's a respect for the moment in this work that is all too easy to lose in theis era of easy digital shooting. I find the images haunting, and the idea of this photo project awe-inspiring. It reminds me of the movie footage shot in the late 1940's in small Ontario towns - another project of documentation that honours its subjects. And now, so many years later, these images and films, documenting time and people that are firmly in time past, are like a gift handed to us across the years...

What will we leave for future generations to find and marvel at?

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Last week I mentioned deluges in the title of my blog posting, and this week I have more drenching and storming in mind as I write. I always think of August as a rainy month, but this second half of August is outdoing itself, all monsoony, warm and dripping with lushness everywhere. Little frogs were hopping across the wet black pavement as I was driving down a country road today and my car smells damp because I've left the windows open several times recently and been caught out. The rain has come pouring in and getting things dried out hasn't been a very successful affair. I feel extra-foolish because this is a shared car. No fun for my co-owner to sit in a car that smells of damp underwear!!

I was dismayed yesterday morning when I awoke early, to realise that it's already that time of year, when the days aren't bright until after six. Yikes! The overcast sky didn't help of course, but it sure seemed dark and autumnal out at 5.45. I was up early because I had a dish to make for a potluck, and needed to be on the road by seven. The event? The all-day southern Ontario Sacred Harp singing at the Detweiler Meeting House, in Roseville, near Waterloo. Singers came from Michigan and Illinois, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as from many parts of Ontario, so that we had over seventy-five people altogether. The sound was intense and wonderful, and the mood very buoyant.

I raced away early from the singing, dashing northward to a hand-fasting, a druidic wedding you might say, in Grey County. I got there in time, just, to find another group of about seventy people, this one also happy and full of good energy. We were garlanded with flowers and helped ourselves to a little food and drink in a big marquee tent, then we all walked up a grassy track across a green meadowy hill. From there the track led into an austerely beautiful pine forest, all vertical lines, with a cushiony pine-needled floor. We formed a circle in the forest and watched as the couple made vows and received blessings. A small fire was lit, we were smudged in all directions, and there were words about the power and generosity of the earth air, wind, rocks, trees... But as we watched the couple's vows, the trees started swaying high above and then suddenly the heavens opened and cold cold raindrops came pelting down on us. It took only moments to drench us through.

There was no point in rushing away, and there was something intimate, however odd it sounds, abut sharing the rain and cold together. So we didn't hurry. Instead we all walked in a straggling long line back up the track through the forest, chatting, laughing, shivering, across the big open green field, now windswept, wet and chilling, and back to the tent. I had dry clothes in the car; many others lived within twenty minutes' drive, so they headed home to change. The couple we had come to celebrate went into the farmhouse and changed into comfy warm clothing. When we all reassembled in the big dining tent, it was as happy survivors, who knew that none of us would forget our friends' wedding, our shared drenching, or the feeling of community we all shared. Druid magic? Perhaps so.

No-one seemed put out, or upset. No-one there had illusions that they were in charge of the weather. We'd put ourselves in the hands of mother nature and she'd spoken, reminding us to enjoy things as they come. And we did!

On the food front:
For the wedding potluck, Philly made a pair of small round loaves that were purple-red, and each decorated with a large heart on top. The bread, flavored with roasted beets and a little honey, was hauntingly delicious. She's passed on the recipe. I'll post it if anyone is interested... Meantime, here is a link to the recipe that she started with (and adapted):

At the singing there was an amazing pie-like cake, layers of grated apple separated by tender crust. The man who made it said the recipe came from a newspaper and that the writer had said it was from his?her? Polish grandmother. It's very easy-sounding, and short, so here it is, roughly as he told me. I haven't yet made it myself: 3 pounds of grated apple; one cup each flour, non-instant cream of wheat, and white sugar; one teaspoon baking soda; and butter for the spring-form pan and to be dotted on top. Mix all the dry ingredients together. One third of the dries go in the bottom, then half the apples, and repeat and then the last third of the dries on top, then dotted butter. Bake at 350 for an hour, and cover for the first half-hour of baking, then uncover so it browns a little on top. The moisture in the apples wets the dries (and I guess the covering is to prevent moisture escaping as it all heats up and steam-cooks). It was not very sweet, simple and delicious, very tender, and felt like another take on the SImplest Apple Cake that is in Home Baking. That recipe is from a good friend, whose mother, a survivor from eastern Poland, used to make it with an incomparably light hand.

I gathered more fennel pollen late last week from the gone-wild black fennel plants in the back yard. it was for a friend who had found very fresh scallops at the market. We cut them in half, tossed them with a little olive oil and salt and the fennel pollen, so they had a speckling of green-yellow, and then ate them, just like that.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I feel as if this is a peasceful oasis, a haven, this bedroom of mine on the third floor, with open door to a quirky deck and night air blowing in, soft and summery still. But the weekend was very un-peaceful, as nature's power, and the possibility of plagues and floods etc at any hour, was very real.

I went north to Grey County for a film and to see friends. I left humid bright skies in Toronto and by the time I was north and swimming in magical Wilder Lake (I swam across and back and felt so weightless and timeless, it was wonderful) the sky was grey and formless. Later it turned into intense dark clouds and then the heavens opened: lightning, yes, but right overhead making the electric wires crackle, and great claps of thunder with it, and then drenching rain, and more and more. I headed out in it, in the car, with Lillian and some friends. We travelled through green fields and fog, but had little rain while we were gone. Returned to their house on a hill some hours later we learned it had continued to pour there, for three hours straight. Buckets left outside had nearly a foot of water in them. The tender greens in the garden were battered and bruised, and the smoothly gravelled laneway was like some flood plain, all scored with furrows where the water had poured along, rushing downhill.

Spent a good amount of time later on, around midnight, helping bail out a neighbour's basement, bucket after bucket scooped and poured into a big laundry sink. It felt a little sisyphean: were we making any progress? But finally we could see that the water was going down. We quite when it had gone from nearly two feet deep to about four inches.

And today? Well is that small twinge in my upper arms from swimming across the lake and back? Or is it from all that bucket scooping? Hard to tell. Lucky to be physically able to engage with the world, with its pleasures and catastrophes both.

I cannot imagine the floods in Pakistan, where deluges of at least biblical proportions have ripped people from their homes and killed hundreds. It's easy to get preoccupied with our immediate worries and comforts, but out there in the wider world, there are life and death situations, real-life, and real-death. How can we cope? How can we acknowledge them? How can we help, and not get paralysed or overwhelmed by hopelessness?

That's the task, and each of us invents the answer in our own way. For international relief, the advice is, send money
to an internationally reputable organisation such as OXFAM, rather than sending supplies that need to be shipped. People seem to be hesitating about helping Pakistan, because of all the fear-mongering there's been about the Taliban, and also because of a history of poor government over decades. But international organisations are in there, and are not the same as the discredited Pkistani government. Arguably people there need even more help because their governmetn has been so incompetent, so there's even more incentive to send aid. Here's hoping everyone hears the pleas.

On a local and mundane note, a food story: Last year I had a black fennel plant or two in my garden. This year I have masses of volunteers. But when I dug one or two up, they had no bulb, just a root. They ARE aromatic, and they are flowering now, level flowers, like all unbelliferae, yellow and cheerful. Fennel pollen is a fab ingredient, wild fennel pollen, and I know it from Italy. So dawnthebaker suggested we try gathering it.

We snipped off the fennel flowers and then tapped them on a white bowl, and there we were with golden strongly aromatic yellow fennel pollen. It's loaded with flavour. We added some salt, so the pollen would keep. Sprinkle fennel pollen on freshly roasted potatoes, or on roast chicken (that's what we did) or on eggs or as you please....

But what about the flowers, once cleaned of pollen? We dragged them through a simple batter, a pakora batter (chickpea flour and water, a little more than 1 water to 1 flour by volume to get a loose batter, and some salt), then deep-fried them. Yum again! You'd think that perhaps all the flavour is in the pollen, but no, fennel flowers are tasty. Some garlic chive flowers also got the pakora treatment, and were delish.

The huge rains will bring on a flush of shiitake's at Lillian's place, even as they drown and batter the tender greens and bring blight to potatoes and tomatoes. There's a bright and a dark side to most weather, right? Lillian, up north in Grey County, has okra in this warm summer, and also a version of winged bean, a tender lovely legume that I've seen only in Thailand and India. Amazing to see it ripen here. And we've had amazing fruit this year, from peaches to crabapples (already! on the tree out front) to elderberries... A friend, who grew up on Wolf Island, where Lake Ontario flows into the St Lawrence River, says her favorite pie is apple-elderberry.

I have other plans for the elderberries I bought last week at the farmers' market. They're precious, for on many years the birds get them all. I'll turn them into vinegar I hope, with dawnthebaker's help, using a "mother" from the organic apple cider vinegar I use (Filsingers from Grey County). We have to wait for cooler weather to start it (so meantime I've frozen the elderberries). And I was told by a friend this evening that a few simple pieces of dried pasta help vinegar along. It's the traditional Italian way, he said. He makes a very delicious red wine vinegar; I trust him on this.

Any idea why it might help or speed things along?

This is a rambling post, perhaps more than usual (and the first posting of it, late at night, was filled with typos, now all, hopefully, corrected). Sorry! Perhaps it's the ongoing heat and humidity that have scrambled my brains a little? Or maybe it's all the fresh tomatoes I'm eating, straight from the garden? No complaints. In fact it feels like a fair trade!

Monday, August 9, 2010


It's Monday morning, with a high humidex already (we're at 30 degrees Centigrade and it's only 7.30 as I write) so I'm writing this, a short morning post, rather than heading out for a jog. Yesterday's run was long, for me, and I'm trying, as I've said before here, to pace myself and not wear out my joints too soon. Instead I'll use this early morning space to write here and then to tidy up the garden, suddenly looking ragged and unkempt.

But apart from that superficial messiness, the garden news continues great in this astonishingly wonderful summer. The cherry tomatoes have been producing ripe fruit for awhile, and so have the chile plants. But now I'm also eating larger tomatoes, an heirloom variety whose name I cannot remember. The tomatoes are dull red, slightly oval, with dull green shoulders. Perhaps I can find a tag out in the garden when I head there for my tidying session. The other good news is more amazing: the wisteria has bloomed. I don't understand it blooming this late, but I have seen other wisteria vines with blooms on recently, so perhaps there's a second season? Anyway, my wisteria is white-blooming, an Asian variety, and I've seen blooms on it only twice before in the fifteen or eighteen years I've had it. The flowers on this variety are sweetly aromatic, and very beautiful.

This year's small flowering may be because I have been regularly cutting it back all season. I was once given advice, on a gardening show in Sonoma, that to get wisteria to bloom it's a good idea to trim it back, and this year I finally was regular about the trimming. Though now I wonder, in that trimming, how many other bloom-bearing fronds I cut off!. Whatever the story, I am thrilled about this unexpected treat.

Another pleasure that's come to us recently is a mouser, a beautiful tabby named Silky. We are taking care of her while friends are out of town for a year. We knew we needed her as much as (more than!) she needed us, because we had mice and couldn't get rid of them. But we hadn't anticipated how much we'd enjoy her company. The mice have fled, and she patrols (that's how it feels) the back and front yards too, so we don't have the same losses to squirrels we usually do (they take bites out of tomatoes etc, and we really detest them). The only difficulty is that we have one close friend who, because of a long-time allergy to them, detests, abhors, whatever word you want to use will do, all cats. Hmmm... For now it's wonderful to be mouse-free and also to have Silky reminding us that there are worlds out there that we don't understand, mysterious life in the jungle that is our neighbourhood from her point of view! She also makes herself comfortable on Tashi's lap in the evenings as he's on his computer. They make a cosy pair.

In the losses column: A week ago, when I was up north, I finally lost my gold keeper, a little earring. I had only one, the other having strayed long ago, and the pair being from my long-dead mother. I don't know if you've had this experience of having something (usually it's jewellry of some kind, but other items can also be candidates) that you keep checking to make sure it isn't lost. That's been my pattern with the gold keeper. I would reach up to touch my right earlobe, just to make sure the fine gold loop of keeper was still there and closed securely.

Now I need no longer fear the loss. It's happened. And so, perversely, though there's regret, there's also a kind of relief. That small worry is over. I am freed from a concern, however small. All I need to do is shed the last vestiges of regret, and also let go of the small hope that it will turn up somewhere. This time it's gone for good, out in a field somewhere or by a road. Maybe someone will find it and enjoy it. I hope so. Nice to think that my small loss could be someone else's unexpected pleasure.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


It's late on a muggy Tuesday evening. No not muggy: Muggy is too negative a word for the soft warm air that bathes me as I sit here in Toronto writing. It's a word used by people who find this summer heat too aggressive and hard to live in. Winter cold is so chilling, and lowering to the spirits, at least by late February, that it seems unwise and in fact deeply ungrateful to complain about life-giving summer heat. Ah here she goes preaching again! you'll say.

Let's start again and say that it's a warm tropical-feeling evening here in Toronto!

Had another lovely time in Grey County last weekend, celebrating two seventy-fifth birthdays, one of a bookseller friend, and the other, on the same day, and at the same party, the birth of Penguin, the publisher. There was a Penguin motif at the birthday party and much pleasure and good conversation. And after, as I drove to a friend's place to overnight in peace and silence, there was time to reflect on the passage of time, on things taken for granted (publishing houses, long life) until they become fragile or threatened. As always, "in the moment" living is what we need, for sure. Enjoy the 75 year (or 25 year or 90 year...) marker, and try not to think too much about the number of years we do or do not have left.

Who knows? after all. So there's no point worrying about it, as I wrote last week. I am still working on cultivating a "so what?" looseness about eventualities. It sure has lightened my load, and added to the general happiness in my world.

And meantime I have begun to tweet. It's a wild world of haiku-like bursts, compressed thoughts, an anti-logorrhoea (sp?) tool! ( Prolixity is easier to spell...) A friend says it has led her to interesting information and people, quick connectedness with a large world.

On the subject of long and short: Longer distances beckon when I run in the morning these days. I'm loving it, but trying not to be too tempted into more kilometres. After all, I don't want to end up with knee or hip problems, and too much wear can sure lead there. On the other hand, what am I saving myself for?

It's the same balancing with money I think: Save it for a possibly long life? but who knows when it might get cut short? So why not enjoy the moment and worry about the money when the time comes, rather than ahead of time. it's an age-old issue and balancing act. The trick, the important thing, is not to get stressed about it. Just enjoy whatever decisions you make and live with them.

A friend said the other day 'Our job is to enjoy life, to be creative when we can, and otherwise to take good care of people and the earth and things generally.' It's not a bad basic code, don't you think?

Meantime, we need to eat, and the last few days have been fun: Had some amazing peach pie made by a friend up north, summer in a mouthful. I think it was a Crisco crust, but light and not soggy, the peaches perfect.

Last night, still on the yellow fruit theme, I used bright yellow tart plums to make a relish-chutney- salad. I would like to put it in the Burma book (saying clearly that I haven't eaten it there), for it's in the groove or style of the flavour palate, with minced shallots, some fish sauce and chiles, shallot oil used to heat and pop some mustard seed (a south Asian touch that gives a toasted depth) and... chopped mint or coriander leaves and salt. In any case it was great with grilled flat-iron steak, my new favorite cut. And on the grill went eggplants (long Asian ones) and shallots and garlic, for a mild, non-chile'd nam prik makeua. It was so smoky and flavorful, just way more than the sum of its parts.

Chile-garlic sauce, my favorite condiment from the Burma kitchen, with soaked dried red chiles, raw garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, salt, and fish sauce, as always had an important place on the table. I've doubled the recipe for the book, for why make a small quantity when it's getting eaten so quickly??

This evening I made an improvised salad of cooked chopped sweet potato, all beautiful colour and tender texture, tossed with cold cooked rice and fresh pea tendrils (the fine kind) and lots of minced herbs whisked into an olive oil vinaigrette. The mint and basil were from the garden, punchy and fresh. I should have put it in a purple bowl, to set off the glamorous orange of the sweet potato. It was a great pairing with grilled fresh sausages (pork with fennel seed and chiles) from Sanagan's (and again more of that chile-garlic sauce, yum!).

My charcoal grilling is getting very confident, at last. I'm working to use as little charcoal as possible. In Southeast Asia people are so skilled and economical with charcoal. It is another of those learn-it-over-a-long-time life-skills that I am happy to work on.

Simple IS good!