Thursday, August 14, 2014

ATTENTIVENESS & TAKING CARE OF THINGS AS NEEDED

I haven’t managed to settle down to write here since the end of July and I’m feeling a little guilty about the long gap between posts.

My explanation/excuse is that I have been making real headway on my Persian World book work, both recipe testing and writing. It's been engrossing and satisfying. Once in the groove I don’t like to interrupt it and strain away from it. On top of the book work there’s also been the prep leading up to the Grain Gathering this month.

The conference (the renamed Kneading Conference West) is August 21 to 23 this year, at the agricultural research station in Mt Vernon, Washington. As in the last two years, I am working with Dawn-the-baker (aka Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers) to give three different workshops. But this year I am also giving one of the keynotes, the opening one.

Each time I have the honour and pleasure of giving a thematic talk, I find myself turning around and around, as I try to figure out what path to take: What do I REALLY want to communicate? What useful ideas can I contribute? How best to do that? Should I show images? and so on.

It seems to me that other people must be more efficient about all this than I am. I the process of feeling my way into a talk seems to take a long time, always. Some of the problem comes because l try to express fresh ideas each time I give a talk. It’s a little like cooking: my favourite thing is to improvise with what I have on hand, rather than following a recipe or repeating a previously successful dish or meal exactly. Variety and unpredictability, and the little adrenalin that kicks in as I struggle to find a new path, a new idea, a different way of expressing a familiar idea: these are pleasures.

I’m happy to report that I’ve come out the other end of this particular labyrinth of decision-intersections. I have images picked and I know where I want to head in my talk and what I’m hoping to communicate. It feels great. And now I get to go out to that lovely part of the west coast (the Skagit Valley in northern Washington), see people who have become dear friends, learn and work and eat, and do some baking too.

In the meantime though I want to try to write here about tools and keeping things, whether it’s my bicycle or my body or my head, in good repair. Thoughts and reminders about the subject have been accumulating recently. Some people stay on top of maintenance, but I am a bit of an avoider: When something in the house breaks, a small thing like a lightbulb burning out or the caulking round the sink shredding etc, I work around it for awhile until finally it drives me a little crazy - or perhaps it’s embarrassment that pushes me - and I tend to it. The same goes for clothing that needs repair or attention of some kind.

And my bicycle? I am ashamed to say that recently I was pedalling, for a good three weeks I think, on a back tire that was very soft, stupidly soft. Of course it takes way more energy to pedal on a tire that’s not fully pumped. There’s so much more friction. I started to wonder if I was getting way out of shape, for my usual quick pedal up the hill was feeling more onerous.

Yes, what I’m saying is that I entirely failed to notice that my tire was low.

It took a good friend telling me to make me realise. On the one hand it was a relief: oh good, bike riding has been feeling like hard work because my tire is almost flat, and not because I am terribly out of shape. But on the other hand, especially once I’d stopped at a gas station and filled the tire, I was appalled. Suddenly riding was an easy dream. And how could I have been so inattentive to it? Why had I wasted the chance to have smooth pleasurable rides?

Maintenance of our tools, whether it’s keeping knives sharp (I am NOT good on this front either, I confess) or maintaining a bicycle or a car or a laptop, is a responsibility we should enjoy. After all, not only did we pay good money for them, but, more importantly I think, we owe it to ourselves to not disable ourselves through inattentiveness.

I’ve come to think that not keeping out tools and toys and environment at their best is like walking around wearing heavy dark glasses or hobbled with leg-irons. It keeps us from tuning in to our environment and from making the most of our days.

Another form of maintenance is care of our bodies. And here too I have learned that I’ve been negligent recently, stupidly ignoring good practice. I’ve had strange aches and pains in my heels (plantar-fasciitis-like but not exactly) and aching knees for a couple of weeks, a very unusual thing for me. I went to see Xiaolan, my friend who is a remarkable TCM practitioner. She and her staff tut-tutted and basically told me it was all my fault for letting my feet get cold. You should wear shoes or slippers in the house, they said. The cold (it’s the tile floor in my kitchen, where I stand in bare feet cooking, sometimes for hours in this period of recipe testing etc) is making your muscles tight and that’s why you have pain.

I then remembered that once before, about 25 years ago when my first kid was a baby, I’d had pain in my heels and another TCM practitioner had told me to keep my feet warm (again it was summertime, and the problem was cold tiles on unprotected feet). Duh!

A lot of acupuncture needles later, and with warm slippers on my feet, and presto! I have no aches, no pain. But how much better it would have been to have tuned in earlier!

So, attentiveness is vital, and then…maintenance. It sure is an uninteresting-sounding concept, maintenance/repair. But I’ve come to see that it’s part of having respect for ourselves and for what we’re lucky to have in the way of health and ability.


Waste not, want not, as they say.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

GETTING MOVING, IN ALL KINDS OF WAYS

This last day of July has started with great energy… what a thrill. And it’s all because I’ve retrieved a strategy that I’d carelessly let slip these last couple of weeks. I feel so much the better for it.

Here in Toronto we’ve had a cool summer, with frequent rain showers. It’s kept the gardeners happy, including me. But it’s also meant that mornings have often been a little discouraging weather-wise, cold and rainy. During the day I’ve found myself less energetic and also feeling chilled, as I sit inside, with the doors open, working at my laptop.

How silly! I thought to myself last night as I headed to bed. I’m cold and a little lethargic because I’ve not been getting my blood moving. My time to exercise and get revved up has always been first thing in the morning. It was the time-slot for running, lovely early-morning trots, until the ligaments in my left foot gave way a few years ago and brought that to an end. I replaced running with cycling or brisk walking, but somehow lost the pattern recently.

What a pleasure to have it back, that early morning energy! I headed out in the chill with a jacket on over my Tshirt and biking shorts topped by a short skirt. The air was fresh (more like September than late July) and the traffic still mild at 7. The intensely -green grass glowed in the slanting sun, the gardeners were out tidying at the university, the road-works people were already digging and laying pipes and moving dirt, a parks guy was riding a mower in the ravine as I headed up the Poplar Plains road hill, joggers cruised along sidewalks absorbed in their earphones and their effort, and dog-walkers were trotting and walking and sauntering everywhere I went, accompanying their assorted pooches.

That landscape of early morning activity, like a gently animated Breughel, is such fun to ride through, a reminder of the layers of life in the city.

And my ride felt great, both the effortfulness of the uphill and the thrilling whoosh of the trip back down the long curve of Russell Hill Road. I topped up the endorphins with a short stop at a small local exercise park, where I did seated arm lifts.

And now sitting by the open door, with a cool breeze wafting in carrying the scents of the garden and the sounds of morning birds, I can feel my blood moving and my brain working, both much more vigorously than yesterday. A quick jolt of activity, call it exercise or call it labour, or call it pleasurable excursion, is such a gift.


Happy end of July everyone!

Monday, July 28, 2014

"I CAN'T EVEN...": THOUGHTS ON DRAWING, & A SPUMA RECIPE


“I can’t even…” is a recent hot catchphrase, used by young people in their late teens and into their twenties, to allude to an impossible-to-talk-about kind of event or feeling. It’s a very useful tool, I find, especially as I plod away at my book project, nibbling at the edges, or sweating out recipe testing, or worrying about time and space, history and context. I’m often so enmeshed, “I can’t even…”

Meantime out in the immediate world we’re having a cool and well-watered summer. The garden is happy, drinking it up and greening. The exceptions are still the eggplants, which won’t set fruit without some assurance of warmth, an assurance only intermittent and thus not credible. The cucumbers and greens are thriving and continue to be sweet and appetising, at all hours and for every occasion.

I’m pleased because recipe testing for this Persian World book includes dishes that are traditionally accompanied by a plate of fresh herbs, such an easy task in summer time. The zip and zing of fresh tarragon and mint, basil and green onion is hard to beat. The mouth comes alive and everything tastes better, life itself in fact.

The other day a friend came by and I put a small plate of fresh arugula and tarragon on so that we could nibble at the greens as we chatted. They were so energising they made me feel as if my brain had added sparkle and energy.

What other ways are there of bringing ourselves to greater liveliness? Yes, yes, a good party, dancing, etc. I agree. But on a daily basis?

A number of close friends have urged me to try Vipassana meditation. They have gone to ten-day sessions, and each time return from them energised and radiant. I see the evidence, but just cannot imagine sitting still for ten days. Life feels too short! My attitude is short-sighted perhaps, but I’m stuck there.

This spring and summer I’ve stumbled onto a wonderfully accessible alternative, and that is drawing. I took a course in May-June, three hours every Wednesday afternoon for five weeks, and then a five days-in-a-row course just last week, both from Kelley Aitken, and both taught in the galleries at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A good drawing teacher, either in person or even in a book, teaches you to see differently. And once that happens, and you engage with looking and with transmitting what you see onto the page, well then you’re away!

It’s not about “I’m so terrible” or “See look how good I am at drawing!”. Instead it’s about concentrated focus on a non-verbal task. It’s like practising music, I suppose, or any other form of focusses attentiveness. I found I was losing myself in the process, in the best sense of “losing myself”.

And I found myself feeling relaxed and light as air (as wll as pleasurably tired) at the end of each session.

“Welcome to your meditation practice!” wrote a Vipassana-practicing friend on my FB page after I posted about the joys of drawing.

At the times when, as happens intermittently, I get overwhelmed by the scale of this current book project and all that I need to pull together, I can now opt out into a mind-cleansing place, and return refreshed, with better vision and insight (hopefully!).

And so, like those life-giving sprigs of fresh green intensity, my drawing pad and pencils can - and if I follow through they will - become an energiser, a wonderful option that is indescribably fruitful, in ways “I can’t even….”


RECIPE TALK: SPUMA
I bought some gooseberries at the market last Saturday. Dawn-the-Baker, of Evelyn’s Crackers suggested that I make “spuma” with them. What’s that? I asked. (She also suggested a gooseberry cake recipe in Jane Grigson’s FRUIT cookbook (a real treasure). And so I made both.)

Spuma is a real discovery for me, a chilled/frozen Italian dessert made with intensely fresh fruit syrup and egg-whites beaten to stiff peaks, that are folded together and then frozen.

My proportions were:
- 3 cups gooseberries (no need to top and tail them) cooked to softened with very little water and a scant 1 cup sugar, then pressed through a sieve into a bowl (discard the solids) and allowed to cool to room temperature;
- whites of 4 large eggs whisked (I used my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer) with ¼ cup sugar for less than 3 minutes, or whatever time it takes to get stiff peaks;
- a bowl into which I poured the meringue and then folded and gently stirred in 1 cup of the room-temperature gooseberry “syrup”/sweet liquid (I drank the remaining little bit of gooseberry liquid; what a tonic!);
- a plastic bag to cover the bowl tightly and a freezer to put it in.

After two to three hours you have a chilled cold dessert, delish over cake or fruit or on its own. There’s no dairy, so it feels light as air in your mouth.


AND A NOTE for next time: I found that the mixture had separated a little before it froze: there was more pale meringue on top and more gooseberry at the bottom of the bowl. Next time I will try stirring it gently after twenty minutes, when it’s partly frozen, to make sure it stays well mixed.

ANOTHER NOTE, for other fruit: If you are using raspberries or cherries, or peaches or plums, which are sweeter than gooseberries, try using only 1/2 cup sugar for 3 cups fruit. You can taste the syrup and adjust it of course, so go lightly on the sugar to test what you want. I like spuma on the less-sweet side. I find it more refreshing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

FULL MOON BIRTHDAY REFLECTIONS

The huge moon that hung in the sky this evening, impossibly luminous and lovely, was a tad off full, for it was last night, in scattered dramatic trailing clouds that the moon was fullest. I had a lot of time to marvel at her then, for I was driving late at night, on almost empty roads, the two plus-hours from Grey County back to Toronto.

The dryness of my tired late-night eyes, painful and a little scary, drove me to close them at red lights (after putting the car in Park), and ask my travelling companion to tell me when the light turned green. That short respite, repeated several times, was enough to extend my stamina and get us back into the city safely. But the struggle to stay focussed and able made me think about all the times I have taken chances, and all the times all of us are pushed to take chances or choose to do it for a thrill. We get away with it most of the time. And then sometimes we don’t…and we and others suffer.

Yet still we push the limits. What is it in us that pushes us to take chances? Evolutionarily these tendencies must have been rewarded…but what purpose have they served? Well I guess they help us extend out boundaries and discover new possibilities. That kind of positive result in previous generations could have been advantageous in many ways to our ancestors.

But when we take chances and risks we’re not thinking about our forebears, we’re instead in the moment, either willing ourselves to come through despite discomfort or exhaustion (think of the soccer players, yikes) or choosing to take a risk for the thrill of it. And in the latter situation, is the thrill in the danger/risk itself? or is it also in the idea that we can get away with things we ought not to do?

Probably some of both…

I wrote those earlier paragraphs last night. Now it’s a bright grey Monday morning, getting more and humid, waiting to start into the promised rainshowers of late afternoon. Meantime the birds are tweeting and the garden is glowing green, the arugula sharp-tasting and inviting, the cucumbers twining and setting fruit. The eggplants are NOT flourishing though. It’s been too chilly at night, so they have not set fruit. The cayenne chiles on the other hand are already loaded and I have been picking their green shiny heat-gifts for two weeks now.

But back to Grey County… A lovely guy named Steve, a chef who has now turned to farming found himself entangled in a conversation with me about cardoons. He’s growing them, and globe artichokes too, even in Ontario’s tough climate. He’s promised me some in August, and I’m delighted, for I have a delicious Kurdish recipe to try.

The meal was anchored by a lot of food from our hosts (who were celebrating having lived on their land for thirty years) but it was also a potluck. Steve had brought over a big load of zucchini blossoms. He made a batter of egg and water and all-purpose flour, quite loose and liquid, dipped each blossom (with its handy and delicious stem) through the batter and deep-fried them in batches in peanut oil in a wok set over the wood fire. We’d used that fire earlier to grill loads of local beef (marinated round steaks) and a lovely lot of shiitakes that our hosts grow outside on maple logs. The beef we sliced across the grain and then dressed to transform it into Thai grilled beef salad, always a crowd-pleaser, flavoured mostly with mint rather than basil, and garlic scapes, as well as lime and fish sauce and a little chile heat. The shiitakes are so meaty that after a quick pre-grill dip in a mixture of oil and fish sauce (with some minced sage and garlic green tossed in for good measure), time on the grill, and slicing into strips with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were perfection and vanished very quickly.

There’s nothing like a potluck meal with people who grow their own food. (And this was even more wonderful because we had a fire and we were outdoors in a forest clearing.) The potato salads (ours with just a pounded pesto dressing of pistachios, mint and chervil, garlic scapes etc plus local vinegar; others with garden peas etc), rhubarb cakes, leaf lettuce greens…were all lively and vital on the tongue with freshness and familiarity too. Perhaps all that good food and good company were why I had the energy to drive back into the city (and I had been sesible about alcohol: I drank only water for the five hours before I set out home).

And so here we are already in mid-July, loving the summer and already noticing that the days have started to get shorter. It’s my birthday tomorrow, and that of a close friend today. We chatted yesterday evening, sitting outside sipping a delicious Chablis, about the stock-taking that July means for us because of our birthdays. What a pleasure to have time and ease to catch up with friends.

And today as I am thinking about all this, I sift through my birthday-time images in my mind’s eye, from childhood homemade birthday cakes heaped with blueberries and raspberries, to making the three day parikrama  round Mount Kailash in western Tibet, to swimming in the soft waters of the Gatineau River north of Ottawa, to last Saturday’s delicious swims in the clean waters of Grey County.


It’s a big stack of images… a lovely chance for me to appreciate being alive in this world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

CANADA DAY BOUNTY & GENEROUS RAIN

It’s Canada Day here in Toronto, the anniversary of the day in 1867 when Canada became a Confederation with a Parliament etc.

The city is quiet, with very  little traffic (many people being up north at cottages, or away on holiday). Around noon there will be the twenty-one gun salute and other ceremonies in Queen’s Park, the gracefully old-tree-rich park behind the Provincial Parliament buildings. It’s  just a few blocks from my house. I headed out that way this morning for a quick pedal, hoping to get my blood moving and get home before the rain and thunder storms that had been promised for 10.30.

But I was waylaid as I entered the park by the sight of a woman in white cotton pants and top picking from a huge old cherry tree at the corner. Its blooms were stunning six weeks ago and now the cherries were hanging ripe and inviting, almost black, and mostly too high up to reach. I put my bike down on the grass, said hi, and the woman called out “there’s plenty right here; the other branches are too high”. And so we held down a the trailing leafy and berried end of a mighty branch with one hand each and with the other picked and ate cherries one by one. They were small (“smaller than last year” she told me, a touch of the Caribbean in her voice) and intensely flavoured, at once tart and sweet. It felt like the best kind of luxury, and a wonderful way to celebrate Canada Day, to be picking cherries right from the tree, chance-met strangers sharing bounty.

Tall people with strong ladders may well pick the rest, all too far from the ground for us to reach…and so a few minutes later I headed off. The breeze freshened, the sky was greyer, and colours glowed in the eerie pre-rain light. A friend called me on my cel as I headed up a leafy side-street. I stopped and stood over my bike to chat with her. But then I tried riding one-handed (getting on and off are the hardest things of course) as we chatted, and all was well until the first rain started pelting down. We agreed to talk later and I tucked my phone away, hoping it wouldn’t get soaked.

That ride home was almost as pleaurable as eating the cherries. The rain was warm, a gentle lukewarm shower, that sometimes turned into more emphatic pellets but was never chilling, more like a water massage. One guy was running down the street in a big hurry but everyone else I saw just kept walking unconcernedly under an umbrella, or else paused under a tree to take shelter.

The whole ride was a reminder, one way and another, of how precious trees are, a shelter, a food source, and a reassurance that life goes on.

Now I’m back home, changed into dry clothes, and sitting by an open door typing this (how freeing a laptop is!). As I think about trees and their place in our world, I’m reminded of the wonderful books by John Vaillant: The Golden Spruce (a story from Haida Gwai aka the Queen Charlotte Islands) and The Tiger. I heard him speak a few weeks ago at a PEN event and now am deep in his tale from far eastern Siberia, about the tiger who hunted men. The writing is wonderful, with generous-to-the-reader limpid sentences and images of great beauty. Somehow there’s no self-consciousness in his writing, no ‘see how lovely this sentence is!’ feeling. Highly recommended.

Speaking of books, I have to get back to work. Now that I’ve hit my stride and am immersed in my Persian World book project, the days feel too short, and my head is full of lists of what needs to be done next. That includes getting more recipes drafted and tested once or twice before I can send them to friends for more test-driving. (I like the idea of recipes being taken out for a spin, like a new car.) And it’s summer, the season of cherries and other fruits, so important in the cuisines of the region. I mustn’t waste the moment!


Happy Canada Day, and an early happy Fourth of July, to all.