Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Carol and Cthulhu Droppings

Happy Boxing Day. I hope you all had a wonderful, relaxing Christmas yesterday. I know I did. I did try to do a Christmas Day post, but the Blogger monsters ate all but the first two sentences. After that I gave up and went back to relaxing.

A few years ago I decided that I didn’t want to spend my Christmas Day in the kitchen preparing a large meal. As much as I like cooking, I get too stressed trying to create a “traditional” Christmas dinner, so we decided to start our own tradition. We get really good steaks and we barbeque. Less fuss, minimal clean up and more time to enjoy the day. (e.g. playing with new toys, napping, walking, napping…)

Because I didn’t have to prep a big dinner, I was able to spend part of Christmas Day re-reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s a man who can write about food. Reading this book always makes me hungry, and I find myself making repeated trips to the kitchen for snacks. From time to time I’ll even try to replicate some of the Victorian-era foods he mentions. My book club was most appreciative the year I contributed Negus to our holiday feast.

Yesterday’s reading inspired me to make onion marmalade to go with our steaks. At least, I assume it was my reading. I certainly didn’t have onion marmalade on the menu for Christmas dinner prior to reading about the fruiterer’s, where “ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.”

I used Warren Ellis’ instructions for the marmalade. His descriptions of food are as memorable as Dickens', but in a completely different way. He’s rather obscene, and his humour is much more in your face. A rather refreshing change from the likes of Tiny Tim actually. I will admit that I felt a little bad about slicing the skull off my little Spanish Friar, what with it being Christmas and all, but the results were worth it. And I was able to have something onion-y to write about for my first Christmas post. I kinda like the way that worked out.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oranges Poranges. Who cares?

I’m sitting here at my computer, hot coffee at hand, waiting for my fingers and my brain to thaw enough to write properly. I’ve just come in from shovelling snow. While it is beautiful out there, I’m not impressed. Snow is rare here, which is part of the attraction of island life. It does rain a lot, but you don’t have to shovel rain. Still, I shouldn’t feel too sorry for myself. Vegas got 3.6 inches of snow overnight. I imagine they are less prepared for it than we are. I’m sure I’ll feel much more philosophical about the weather once the coffee has kicked in. Which brings me to the point of today’s post.

I can’t imagine trying to go without coffee. I usually have one cup a day, but it’s an addictive cup. Coffee-free days lead to headaches and crankiness and other unpleasantness, so I try to avoid those days. I even keep a jar of instant on hand in case of “emergency”. You know, like if the power goes out and my coffee maker won’t work and I have to resort to boiling water on the barbeque to make instant coffee. Those kinds of emergencies.

Given this dependence, I was truly astounded by the accomplishment of Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, authors of “The 100 Mile Diet”. I recently read their book. In it they describe how they drew a 100-mile-radius circle around their Vancouver home and ate only foods from within that circle for a full year. This means no coffee or caffeine of any kind. Yikes.

I am impressed by their, good grief, I don’t even know what word to use here. Tenacity? Dedication? Determination? Resolve? Willpower? Insanity? Whatever trait kept them to their experiment, I’m sure I don’t have it. Unless it’s insanity, but I fear mine is not the same variety as the crazy determination that saw James and Alisa through to the end of their project.

When I decided to eat more locally produced food I didn’t make many specific resolutions. I certainly didn’t limit myself to food produced within 100 miles of my home, though I’m sure I could live comfortably if I did. One thing I did decide was that I wasn’t going to buy produce shipped from China. I didn’t have any particular reason for this rule. China is the fashionable scapegoat of the moment, so I randomly chose to jump on that bandwagon.

My determination to forgo Chinese produce held for a short while. Then a flyer arrived advertising organic Chinese mandarins for less than $5 per box. This flyer arrived at about the same time as a lingering head cold. I couldn’t resist. All my good intentions vanished in one giant sniffle. I managed to convince myself that the organic-ness of the oranges balanced that fact that they were better travelled than I am. Imagined images of child labourers toiling to pick and pack oranges were of no use. I had a cold. I wanted oranges. Argument over. I am now half way through my third box of Chinese mandarins. And my sixth box of Kleenex.

Even after reading their book I’m still not sure what kept Alisa and James to their self-imposed limit. How did they stick with it when they weren’t at their best and craved the foods that bring comfort? The answer may be in their blog. I haven’t spent much time there. I don’t want to discourage my novice-blogger-self through overexposure to the work of these superstars of the blogosphere. Feel free to check them out yourself though, and get back to me if you figure it out. I’m off to enjoy another orange. Sniffle.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sid Delicious

A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

‘Good evening,’ it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, ‘I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?’*

Shortly after I was hired to teach in the teeny, tiny town, I was required to attend end-of-year staff meetings. I had not yet found my teeny, tiny apartment, and the nearest hotel was two hours away. I was dreading having to make a good impression with my new co-workers after an early morning wake-up call and a long drive. Still, it was an improvement over making the trip from my hometown four hours away. Fortunately a friend of a friend from university heard of my dilemma. Her parents had a farm in the area and were kind enough to let me stay with them.

I arrived at their place in the afternoon on the day before my meetings. My acquaintance from school had not arrived, but her mother welcomed me and gave me a tour of the farmyard. She told me about their field crops and showed me her vegetable garden. She explained how the guinea fowl that roamed the yard helped to keep the earwig population under control. In a small, fenced pasture near the house there was a cow and her ten-day-old calf. My hostess introduced us. Both mother and son were picture-book pretty. The son was particularly adorable in that downy, big-eyed way of all babies.

My hostess was just finishing up our tour when her daughter arrived. The three of us headed to the kitchen to prepare dinner. We were having salad, potatoes and steak. It sounded delicious and I said so. That was before I found out about the steak.

I eat steak. That wasn’t the issue, but when I eat steak it’s barbequed. There is a chemistry, a magic, that happens to a steak on the grill. These steaks were being fried. I loathe fried steak. It’s one of the few foods that can make me gag, and I can eat liver without flinching. I don’t mean the kind of gagging that causes you to grimace and soldier on. I’m talking about body-convulsing, eye-watering retching. I began to worry about our shared meal.

Add to this the fact that even when a steak is barbequed I prefer it to be on the rare side of medium-rare. These steaks had passed that stage several minutes before leaving the pan. And they were huge. Really, really huge. Hanging-over-the-edge-of-your-dinner-plate huge. Things did not look good, but I was determined to be a good guest, so I sat quietly at the table and whittled away at my steak.

I had actually made some progress with my meal, and was feeling confident that I could get through dinner without mishap. In retrospect, I had probably already eaten what would be considered a serving of beef, but I had hardly made a dent in my steak when the conversation turned to the farm. That was when my hostess turned and introduced me to my steak. “This is Sid,” she informed me. “You met his brother earlier. Sid was about the same size this time last year.” Sid’s brother was the ten-day-old calf I had met in the farmyard. Needless to say things did not go well after that. It was one of the most uncomfortable meals of my life. I feel like I failed some arcane farmer’s test that day.

I was reminded of this episode when out for dinner recently. I will state right now that the food was wonderful. There was no gagging whatsoever. I tell you this so you don’t get the wrong idea. The connection between the two meals is that both relied on local food. In the case of the farm, the food was so local that future dinners were standing right outside the back door. The restaurant’s ingredients were found a bit further afield, but were definitely local.

The chef of this restaurant is on a mission. He not only showcases local foods in his creations, but he is trying to narrow the gap between producers and consumers. To promote his mission, the menu includes stories about the producers and their products. The restaurant is decorated with photos of the producers and their offerings. Hanging above our table were photos of local farmers along with their fruits, vegetables and fuzzy farmyard creatures.

I was able to convince myself that the chickens in the pictures were for egg production, and that the cattle were dairy animals, but I couldn’t find an alternate use for the pigs. They looked happy, and healthy. Their curly little tails were still intact, but they were definitely examples of pork in its early stages. Across the aisle from our table there were pictures from the local bison farm. More examples of dinner on foot.

I can’t say that these pictures influenced my decision to order a vegetarian meal that night. If they did I wasn’t conscious of it. I did reflect on their impact later though, and once again I wondered about the ethics of eating meat when I can’t look my dinner in the eye. I’d like to be able to say that I’m all about food transparency, but in the case of meat, I’m obviously not ready for complete transparency yet. Maybe some day I’ll get there. In the mean time I’ll try to celebrate baby steps in getting to know my food. And hope that they never develop an Ameglian Major Cow:

’Well,’ said the animal, ‘I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.’*

* From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Wisdom of Soup

“Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!”

OK, none of it was green, and I don’t own a tureen, but it certainly was a week for soup. Hubbie had his wisdom teeth out last Tuesday, so nourishing, comforting and squishy foods were in order. Thus the soup. By the end of the week I could throw together a pot of soup with only a brief glimpse at a recipe for seasoning ideas and preparation shortcuts. Not bad, as until last week I hadn’t made many pureed soups.

I usually avoided pureed soups, as I thought that they were high in fat, boring and took too much effort for an item that could easily be purchased in a can. I’m happy to say I got over those ideas, and the results were quite good. There’s nothing boring about pear and gouda soup or Senegalese peanut soup. Even the more mundane soups like potato-leek and cream of mushroom were worth the extra effort.

The soups I prepared at the beginning of the week probably were higher in fat than necessary. By the end of the week, when I realized how flexible the recipes were, I started experimenting with lower fat ingredients. The last two soups had no dairy in them whatsoever, where at the beginning of the week I was using cream.

One of my biggest concerns about making pureed soup was the clean-up. For some reason I had the idea that these soups had to be pureed in a proper blender rather than with an immersion blender. We don’t have a dishwasher, and I’m not a big fan of cleaning small appliances. With this in mind I was hesitant to try making pureed soups, particularly last week when my blender was already being heavily used for smoothies. The idea of cleaning the blender several times a day was off-putting. Fortunately, I tried my immersion blender. It worked just fine, and is much easier to clean.

Best of all the soups were economical. All yielded more than one meal, and most could be made with local ingredients. I was glad I had planned ahead and made my own broth for freezing. In spite of this, by the end of the week I had exhausted my “stock” and had to use prepared broth. This added a bit to the expense, particularly since I opted for organic broth as opposed to the store brand. Still, it was worth the extra few cents for the satisfaction of knowing what was going into my soups.

While I’m happy that hubbie is on the mend and is now able to eat chewable foods, I’m also pleased that I had this chance to experiment with soups. Amazingly, I’m still not tired of it, even considering the vast quantities we consumed last week, and I’m looking forward to testing some of the recipes I found on the internet. Except for the mock turtle, of course.

“Soo-oop of the e-e-evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!”

Thursday, December 4, 2008


In spite of my best efforts, today's post is not yet ready, and I am in desperate need of a nap before I head off to work. Look for my exciting saga of soup tomorrow. In the mean time, here is a picture of my cat to keep you amused until I can proofread and post today's article.

And if you just can't wait for thoughtful articles about what and how we eat, may I recommend "The Goods Are Odd" until I feel more awake. See you tomorrow.

PS I didn't realize that Sage's post was also about soup when I linked to her blog. Must be a case of great minds. :)