Monday, March 26, 2012


Late again with an update. My apologies. Blame it on spring, the equinox, nu-roz (Persian new year; I made sabzi pulao for friends, and lots of green veg, as well as grilled chicken and grilled pork), a lot to get done... Anyway, here I am at last. This last week was my aunt Pen's 90th birthday (March 22); she has dementia, so any love or wishes are kind of without weight for her. Still even those with dementia can surely feel the warmth in the air, the singing of the birds, the feeling of optimism in the air....

Now we're back in some cold weather, crisp and bracing. It's just enough to make us grateful for the warmth that's promised in the next few days. In the back yard the earth got warmed last week, the rye I'd planted as a cover crop, and the clover, are both flourishingly green. So is the flat-leafed parsley that made it through the winter, and the garlic chives, already thrusting up their flat blades.

I had some of the chives, and the parsley, as well as some young dandelion, chopped into the pan a couple of days ago, flavouring some olive oil . The occasion was the visit of Lillian from Grey County. Just before leaving she'd checked her mushroom logs and, astonishingly, there was an early flush of shiitakes. This is a full month earlier than ever before. So she brought some down, moist and full of promise in a brown paper bag. I chopped them coarsely, tossed them in on top of the greens, and then once they'd softened and given off a little moisture, in went four whisked fresh orange-yolked large eggs from a farmer not far away. What a feast. We ate slowly, contemplatively, looking at the promising dark soil in the back yard and getting caught up on each other's news and thoughts and imaginings.

Now I feel that spring really has arrived.

On Saturday afternoon the biting cold wind was a good excuse to head into the warmth and watch a movie, not just any movie, but the brilliant Wim Wenders doc PINA. It’s in 3-D, and if you haven’t seen it, well, keep an eye open and grab a chance when you get it. The film is about the dance of Pina Bausch, a legendary choreographer and dancer, who died just before the film was made, and about the dancers in her company. I’ve now seen it twice (the first time was in January) and would happily go again. Thrilling is the best word for it.

Now the week has started; I should be doing taxes, but have been preparing my talk for the IACP (Int Assoc of Culinary Professionals), where I am giving two small sessions on food and travel. Should be fun. It’s always interesting to hear where people are coming from, what their questions and issues are. My job is to talk, but also to listen; I guess that’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but still very true and important to remember.

My kid Dom says people don’t remember much from talks (or lectures, he says, and he’s doing a PhD, so has some ground for knowing). He says the important thing is to have a basic message or theme that you can keep coming back to…the stories and examples are then embroideries and illustrations, all supporting the basic message. hmm I had thought to show slides (old language for images via power point). There may not be the necessary equipment, and in one way I’d be happy with no images. They can be a distraction when we’re there to talk about ideas.

On the other hand, I love to give people fresh windows for imagining the world, and photographs of daily life in other places are a great way to do that.

It’s in the lap of the gods, the image question. I’m ready for either scenario.

And I’m looking forward to seeing people I haven’t had time with for a long time, all of them coming to NYC for the conference itself and also to take advantage of the gathering of food people from all over.

And on the subject of food, I’ve just finished Empires of Food, by Fraser and Rimaz (published by Counterpoint Press in 2010). It takes a line through history that focusses on the food limits that various empires and societies have hit, and that we are heading for in our turn. The cycle is roughly that a food innovation leads to higher production, population growth etc, but eventually the society hits a ceiling, and then things fall apart or crumble. The first example is Mesopotamia, and it moves forward from there, often gracefully and in interesting ways. But it’s not a dreary march through bad news, it’s somehow fresh and undoctrinaire. Highly recommended.

It’s useful grist for my mill, that these days needs to be grinding through food history (with help also from Charles Mann’s 1493 and other books, and from blogs such as Rachel Laudan’s) to produce six two hour classes in May-June. I’m teaching a course called Foods that Changed the World at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. Here's the link. I’ve heard that the students at these courses are an interesting and varied group, so I’m looking forward to it all. I’m hoping to be able to do some tastings with the class. If you know anyone who might be interested, do let them know about the course.

Meantime the BURMA book gets closer and closer. There's a blad that's been designed, (stands for book layout and design, a kind of booklet that gives a feel for the look and content of the book) and the book itself will soon be in second galleys, hurrah! I'll have them sometime next week probably, to correct, and also to annotate with, for example, captions for the photos. And then before the end of April it wings off to the printer.

This project may be close to done, but of course life in Burma continues to unfold in all its complexity. The by-elections are taking place this coming Sunday, April 1, and after that presumably Aung San Suu Kyi will have a seat in parliament. I feel so committed to the place, after these three years of work and paying close attention. It's been extreme immersion, and I am reluctant to step out of it, want to continue my engagement with Burma and the geopolitics as well as the food and culture.

Now we all hope that recent progress continues in establishing real rights and freedoms for the people of Burma and negotiating real settlements with the Karen and Kachin and Mon and Chin and Wa and Shan, etc. It needs to happen. There needs to be a new Panglong-type agreement, to make real and strong the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi's father worked toward and achieved just before his death, of a consensual federation of Burma. Fifty years ago that ideal fell with the coup, in March 1962. Let's hope this really is a new era.

FIngers crossed. And happy spring everyone...

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Yesterday was “Pi Day”, that is, for all the non-geeks, the date (in AMerican style) that reads 3.14. The Greek letter pi is the symbol for the magic constant that helps us express the formulae for the area and circumference of a circle. And its first digits are 3.14. The sequence goes on to infinity. WIth its next couple of digits it reads 3.1415. Now that of course is a date sequence we’ll reach in three years.

Yikes! Where did the time go that we’re already nearing 2015. Incredible.

Anyhow, "Pi Day” is marked by various people on-line and elsewhere, talked about, celebrated. And yesterday for the first time I thought, I can do this, I can make a pie for pi day.

Long ago, before starting work on HomeBaking in 2000, I was cautious of pie, in fact I’d never made one. I thought it was specialised, only for those with “the touch” for pastry, which I assumed I didn’t have. But in working on the book I discovered that like all baking fears this one was not interesting, and should be discarded. And how lovely, to lose a fear and gain the confidence to embark on a silly delicious Pi Day project with no worries!

I made a large batch of cream cheese and butter pastry (a cup/half pound of each, creamed together), but I didn’t have enough cream cheese so I added 1 egg yolk; and I used whole wheat pastry flour and all-purpose, a cup of each, as well as a dash of sugar and some salt. The pastry went into the frig while I thought about filling options.

In the end the pastry extended to three pie shells and two tartlets. The first filling I tried was a version of Jane Grigson’s Lemon Tart (in her fruit book) which is an intensely flavoured lemon custard topped with slices of candied lemon. Delish and of course beautiful too. It made enough for two tartlets as well. The next filling was easier. I went back to Sean Smith’s Acadian grandmother’s cranberry pie, very simple: You combine 1 pound frozen cranberries with 1 pound (2 cups) sugar. I used a blend of white and sucanat sugar. Pour them into a pricked unbaked pastry shell (it should be strong, so a cream cheese crust or pate sucree are the best options) and bake at 375 for about thirty minutes. Beautiful, simple, delicious. And finally the third orphaned-feeling crust lined a pie plate that I filled with a (small) pile of chopped apple (I should have had one or two more), a few stray cranberries, and flavoured with some cinnamon and sugar and a little maple syrup. Partway through baking I added a “guelon” as they call it in the Swiss Jura, an egg whisked with heavy cream and flavoured, thus time with a little more maple syrup and cinnamon.

When you bake pies on PI Day (or any other time, it’s true) you feel rich – food and treats for whoever comes by are ready and waiting, made by hand, by you, with care.

Of course the other thing on pi day is to bake round things, pies or otherwise. All my pies were in round pans…

And now less than twenty-four hours later, the cranberry is all gone, ditto the lemon tartlets and a good part of the apple-cranberry pie. hmmm

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


The moon has fattened, but I wanted to check timing so I’ve just come from looking up the full moon calendar for 2012. There’s still another day plus to go: the moon is full in this (Toronto) time zone sometime after 4 in the morning on March 8. Now that date means International Women’s Day to me and to many. But the fact of its being a full moon day this year gives it extra heft and radiance. In Thailand it’s a special buddha day called Magha Puja in the original Pali, a day for honouring the Buddha. This year the holiday is on March 7; banks will be closed and there will be special candlelit processions at the wats/temples.

I started thinking about the timing of the full moon a couple of days ago when I went out in the early night and found the moon hanging high and bright in the sky and surrounded by a wide perfect pale circle of light. Yes, sometimes there’s a nimbus around a full-ish moon. But this was quite different, for the circle had a wide radius, and looked like a perfect line of white light bordering, encircling, the top of the sky’s dome.

All I could think of was that a slight mist in the air could have created enough water molecules to give a reflective surface for moon rays to bounce off. The steadiness of the circle was extra-strange because there was a strong north wind blowing little torn scattered cloud fragments south at a great rate. And so, though I (and Dom came up to look too, and was equally amazed, so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating) searched around for a practical explanation, I was left with just a lovely feeling of wonder and amazement.

That’s as it should be with these rare events, don’t you think? And in this modern era of scientific explanations, how lucky to stumble on the unknown and the seemingly miraculous. To be visited by a sense of wonder after childhood is one of the great blessings or treats that we can experience I think.

And speaking of light and light effects, I have just been going through the photos I made on my last trip to Burma, including some of the wild light effects at Shwedagon. I wrote here last time of the fairy lights around temple edges. Well seeing them on the screen was a reminder of just how fantastic the effects are, especially right after sunset.

I’m going to take another small (about a hundred images) batch of photos with me in JPEG format, on a stick, when I head to NYCity on Thursday. (Included in them, apart from Shwedagon and streetscenes etc, are shots from Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech in Myitkyina, with the excited crowd; so great.) I’ll be spending time at Artisan looking at the latest version of the book and trying to help with photo allocation.

There’s a tricky balancing act required: large photos are lovely, but with just those, the book can feel lumpy and stiff; on the other hand too many shots can make a book feel messy and jumbled. I’m hoping we can have photos that run large and also some smaller drop-ins to give rhythm and life at unexpected moments. Susan Baldaresini has done a brilliant job of designing the recipe pages: they are so elegant and clear, truly cook- and reader- friendly. They’ll be imitated for sure once the book comes out. I can’t wait to see all this.

And then the second galleys will come roaring to me in about three weeks, and will need to get dealt with and sent back within a week. That’s the scary part, the moment when there is no more chance to catch and correct errors or tweak things. It’s kind of like finally diving out of the plane on a sky-dive I imagine, nauseating, and then suddenly exhilarating because you’re floating free.

I want to talk about a delish quick supper improv from this evening. There are three things that Tashi loves, but his brother doesn’t: sweet potato, celeriac, and bacon. This evening, Dom being out, I chopped some bacon, heated it then poured off a lot of the fat, then added a pinch of turmeric and chopped celery root and chopped sweet potato. After a little frying, I added some cumin, and some powdered cloves, then water to just cover. With the lid on, it all simmered and cooked together for fifteen minutes. I added some leftover cooked rice. It absorbed the extra liquid and the whole thing was like a pulao. It needed a squeeze or more of lime juice to balance the sweet. And it was rich, for sure.

The bacon-root veg “pulao” was a good pairing with simple masur dal with cauliflower (added to the spices - nigella, fenugreek, mustard seed - and oil that tempered the dal, and then cooked to tender in the dal). A drizzle of chile oil on top of each serving, and more lime juice too, gave a last brightening kick.

It’s freezing cold outside, so there are no fresh herbs in the garden; it would have been extra-delish with some fresh coriander leaves or chopped mint on top.

Spring is only two weeks away – can’t wait.