The Root of It All…

Root vegetables.  The staple of the winter dinner table.  Those vegetables which grow late in the season and keep well in the root cellar.  Those vegetables with the best price at this time of year, as hot house or tropical vegetables command prices well above their taste.

Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, squash after squash variety.  And let’s add cauliflower and cabbage into the mix as well, even though strictly speaking they’re not ‘root’ vegetables.    Vegetables that roast well and enrich stews and make hearty soups.  Still, by the time you get to the end of February… aren’t you just the tiniest bit anxious for spring and summer vegetables fill up your plate?

Asparagus!  Snappy thin stalks of emerald green asparagus with their purple tips.  Barely steamed, drenched in lemon butter served hot, or dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette served cold, either way reminding us that, oh thank god, spring is fully here.

Lettuce!  Soft, tender leaves support a dash of lemon juice, a swish of olive oil, and enliven a slice of roast chicken in a most temperate way, another gift of spring.

Tomatoes!  I want tomatoes that are heavy and sweet and make juice run down my chin when I bite into them.  The best of the locally-grown tomatoes is months away but they’re not the only, local, fresh vegetables for which I long.

Sparky scallions, crunchy pea pods and tender peas, the first crop of radishes, the first burst of spinach, tender baby spinach meant for salads, not older spinach in bags perfect for creaming and serving with (again!) root vegetables.

Even potatoes taste different in spring and early summer, when they are those lovely little nubs of tiny new potatoes, potatoes that are perfect for a pot of salty boiling water, cooked to tenderness, squashed open for a pour of parsley butter, a twist of fresh ground pepper.  These are not merely spuds, they are the taste of spring!

All this ruminating about root vegetables is a sign, I think, of how long this winter has been.  How long and cold and snowy, with little sunshine and seemingly no hope that we will ever see grass, or asparagus, again.  I pull dirt encrusted potatoes and parsnips out of burlap bags.  I go through my cookbooks once again, seeking another way to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear or, in this case, a delicious gratin of carrots and parsnips.  There is borscht one more time this winter, an excellent soup the first three or four times we slurped it down this season.  Roast cauliflower is coming to the dinner table this week, perhaps dusted with cumin and turmeric again.  Or perhaps smothered in a cheese sauce because everything, even root vegetables in March, taste better in a cheese sauce.

 Roasted-Root-Vegetables

Cooking inventively is the definition of cooking well with root vegetables, and certainly in the winter months, I think it’s definition of cooking inexpensively. Perhaps our mothers, definitely our grandmothers, knew this sort of cooking, in an age when there were few hot houses, little transportation from Florida or California, and really no food coming from Chile or Israel or Australia.  So perhaps, because they were not tempted by tomatoes both over-priced and also, sadly, mealy, or thick stalks of Mexican asparagus that has woody ends and the lingering hint of illegal pesticides, or bags of baby lettuce for seven dollars and no guarantee it would not wilt before you got home, perhaps without those temptations, they would continue to cook and enjoy root vegetables.  Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that our mothers and grandmothers understood and lived better with the cycle of food that our four season climate gives us.

Whatever this malaise that might affect my taste buds by mid-March, I will rally.  I will roast beets and roast onions to go with the pork chops and sauerkraut for supper. I will make another batch of carrot-ginger soup. And I just might “borrow” Neil Perry’s idea for squash pancakes and try a version of these unctuous and savoury treats for myself.  All of these choices will be delicious and nutritious, and because they are seasonal also inexpensives.  And I will try to remember that last summer, in the middle of corn and tomato and watermelon season, I scrubbed some new beets and roasted them, along with the some potatoes, to round out a barbecue meal because, as I said, “roasted beets are so yummy!”

 

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Sexy Is a Fabulous Kitchen

It’s very busy inside my head.

This is, apparently, one of the signs of a truly introverted person, that s/he spends much more time, and more contented time, with an internal life than mixing and mingling with others. And it is quite true, for example, that I don’t like going to parties, unless I know pretty much everyone there because the noise and the effort are too much.  I am at my happiest when I’m with a small group of friends and/or family, or even when I’m just alone.  I read a lot, I write a lot, I dream a lot — dream time spent both awake and asleep. And these are fully detailed dreams, even the ones asleep, complete with sounds and colour, texture and taste. This is a rich life I have going on inside my head — and rich may be the perfect word for one little “room” in there.

I love to cook. With possibly the exception of washing up, I love the entire process of cooking, from searching out meal ideas and recipes, to buying or finding ingredients, to prepping these ingredients, to putting it all together and then finally to enjoying a great meal, I love to cook.

When I’m not cooking, I’m looking at gorgeous, fabulous, sexy kitchens (yeah, I think great kitchens can be sexy; I also think mohair blankets, Jamie Foxx, ripe peaches, Monet paintings and Marvin Gaye songs are all sexy) in which I might see myself cooking. Of course, these are wonderful kitchens… if only this was so or that was different. I do this so much that I think I could do a drawing of “my” kitchen with almost all details. With that, and about $250,000, I could have the kitchen my sister-in-law Rita says is impossible — the kitchen that could make a member of the Staines family truly happy.

It starts with the oven/range and hood.  Meet my dream cooker:

La Cornue

It’s French (d’accord!) and made to order by a company called La Cornue. They also do much more than just this incredible double oven (one gas, one electric, for different kinds of cooking) with multiple burners and grills and a “plaque” for long, slow, braising of such comfort foods as cassoulet and coq au vin, not to mention keeping soup on the simmer for a few hours. Sigh.

However, the one other product of theirs which will go in my perfect, fabulous, sexy kitchen is this:

rotisserie-5-900x450

Doesn’t that look so delicious you need to have chicken and roasted veg right now?? (At our table tonight will be sausage w/grilled cherries, pineapple & onions, mashed potatoes, green salad, just so you know.)

I also want two 18 cu ft refrigerator columns and one freezer column, same size. I have been known to conjure up amazing meals out of pretty much nothing, but having a well-stocked freezer & fridge makes conjuring a little easier.

Cleaning up is easier with a dishwasher but with all of you showing up for dinner all the time, maybe I need two of these:

miele dishwasher

This one is a Miele, but I have to say there’s still an internal debate going on – Miele v Bosch. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Naturally, after an incredible meal, coffee. Or maybe cappucino, or tea, or hot chocolate!  Whichever strikes the fancy, I want the do-it-all machine built-in, and not taking up counter space. This is another Miele product:

integrated espresso

But most of all, what I truly need in that fabulous, sexy kitchen is great fenestration. I want there to be lots of natural sun light and fresh air pouring in not just from one set of windows over the farm sink…

great fenestration

…but from several sets of such windows around at least two sides of the kitchen. And please, no curtains.  Ick is just waiting to happen to kitchen curtains.

Earlier today I shared these ideas (and many more) with a friend — a physically distant but long-time friend — who thought the food that came out of such a kitchen, my such a kitchen, might actually be worth the expense.  That made me smile as I know the money tree we planted in the backyard hasn’t yet blossomed and it’s going to have to be one healthy, productive tree to make this kitchen happen.

Still, a girl can have her dreams — always plentiful, always cheap, and so sexy.

 

@onebigtable – Loving Molly O’Neill

Actually, as I’ve been perusing One Big Table, published by Simon & Schuster, producers of great books AND Carly Simon, I realized that I don’t just love Molly O’Neill, but I also love more than 500 people across the United States who look at food as a source of pleasure and entertainment and renewal, as well as required fuel.

I won this book in a Twitter contest and have been waiting what seems like years for it to arrive – although obviously that’s just my impatient 5-year old inner self talking.  So far, I haven’t cooked anything from it (which is partly because we were at my in-laws from where I picked it up, and partly because, as you may have read, we’re packing and cooking & packing don’t go together well), but I’ve already got about 14 little stickies hanging out with stars & exclamation points to indicate this must be made as soon as the pots are unpacked!

I will be making Chris Burrill’s Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette on Friday, when we go to Sally & Michael’s for dinner. (They eat from their root cellar all winter long and while Strattons Farm produces great pork, chicken & veg, I think by March they are probably getting a little bored with squash and cabbage so we’re bringing salad.)  Plus, I’m very tempted to make some ice cream, any ice cream, before we store the Italian ice cream maker away for the next two years.  Sigh.  There is no room where we are moving for the ‘fun’ appliances so it has to go away for a while….

Gosh, talk about detours… I did not intend to talk about ice cream makers when I started this.  I want to talk about this book.  I read on another wordpress blog that there is a bit of a contretemps about how a couple of the recipes in One Big Table wound up in the book, and I’m really sorry to hear that, and I’m quite sure that any challenges this may raise will be solved because…. the book is amazing!

All those contributors, all those kitchens & gardens, the families & friends who have been part of some many wonderful meals…. It’s making me homesick!  Can that make sense?  It makes me think about dinner with my parents and five siblings, and whatever neighbourhood or school friends who wandered and managed to stick around to have supper with us, when my mother would make “goof”, her peculiar hamburger-noodle-vegetable casserole that became so famous the hometown paper profiled it.  Or, before foodies (re-)discovered organ meat, having tongue or heart or liver and enjoying them because my mother made them taste good.  And then discovering new cooking methods and new ethnic cuisines, never forgetting the hearty Mennonite meals we came from.

What happened to us, our North American culture, that we have broken cooking and eating and food into two separate and definitely not equal camps:  One side tells us that food is fuel and we should stop glamorizing it or advertising it or doing anything with it other than eating a little of it, and making most of what we do it vegetable based (and in the extreme, not even cooked).  The other side waxes poetic about esoteric ingredients and demands authentic preparations, even if they don’t know what that is, and bores easily before moving on to some other craze.

Yucky!  On both your heads!

Cooking is a pleasure – it’s a way to take wonderful ingredients, as many of them locally produced and sourced as I can possibly do, and with the help of a couple of good kitchen implements, turn them into something that’s hot (or cold!) and savoury (or sweeet!) and comforting and delicious and… renewing.  I am not a crafty person – I don’t sew or knit or scrapbook.  I cook.  I turn raw pork into “pork brown betty” and make composed salads at the drop of a hat and will turn a package of pasta, two tins of crushed tomatoes and some shrivelled veg in the bottom of the crisper intoa Sharing the meals, even if just with Jeff, is renewing.  We have some time to talk or laugh or share, we argue a little over who’s turn it is to wash up, and we have renewed our marriage in a tiny but important way.  We have learned over the years that being in the kitchen at exactly the same time, sharing the work load 50-50 is a great way to argue a LOT, so when we are in the kitchen together, one of us definitely takes the helper/small task role, but even so, that’s great fun.

Look Ma! I Could be the New Julia Child!

Only trust me, without exactly the same c.v.!

Here’s today’s little known fact –  as much as I love theatre and good books and excellent movies, I think I love to feed my friends and family even more.

One of the reasons we wanted to live in this house is because it’s almost perfect for entertaining, and I had great hopes that there would be parties here all the time.  As things have turned out, we haven’t done as much entertaining as we would like, but the ones we have had have been GREAT!

And I’m not saying that just because I’m bragging (although apparently I am!) but  also because I know not just how to cook, but how to cook well and how to present the food, for sit down and more formal dinner parties to informal suppers to brunch to cocktail parties… all of which we’ve done in the past seven months in this house, and all of which were the norm in our lives in Owen Sound.

That house was small, adorable but small, so generally we kept our dinner and brunch parties at four to six guests plus us.  But then there were the cocktail parties that got a little… large.  My favourite may very well be the one we held after I performed with the Georgian Bay Symphony (I narrated Peter And The Wolf, a gig I would love to repeat, if anyone is looking for a really good, albeit non-musical, narrator!).  To this day, we are not sure how many people came, but we think it may have hit 85.  We were crowded.  But boy, was it fun.  And everyone was well-fed.  I did most of the food prep myself, but had a caterer friend come in to help set things up and bring in a couple of extra dishes.

One of my favourite tricks is to fill this giant white shell I inherited from my mother and fill it with cracked ice, and then mound cold poached shrimp on top of the ice, with small bowls of different dipping sauces around the shell.  It’s pretty easy to prep, looks spectacular all ‘dressed’ and, because almost everybody loves shrimp, it’s always popular.

I have also used the shell to hold chips or other salty nibbles.  Four or five bags of – and I always, always mix them – of potato chips (rippled) and corn chips and tortilla crisps and pretzels, and this time the shell is surround by bowls of home-made dips.  See, that’s the thing for me about entertaining – do some easy things like opening and dumping out salty nibbles, and then do a coupe of thoughtful things like making your own dips.

Probably the worst dinner party I ever had was one when I cooked both the main course and the dessert out of the New York Times Cookbook.  THEY WERE DISASTERS.  I followed those recipes religiously and they turned out so bad I could hardly stand to serve them.  It’s not like I was poisoning anyone but still…  Part of the problem with the dessert is – and I knew better – I made it for the first time for this party.  Such a no-no.  But I’m a pretty confident pastry cook and the recipe, although it had many steps, seemed to be pretty straight forward.  The multi- and very thin layer of chocolate cake with the chocolate cream filling turned out to be like giant cookies with a filling that didn’t stay put.  Really chocolate-y, which saved the day, but still…

Threw out the book the next day.  Which surprised Jeff no end, because it’s the only time I have thrown out a cookery book.

I can barely stand to recycle my cooking magazines, but sometimes I just have to do that.  But the cookery books? Not so much.  I love them.  I love to collect them, to read them, to dream about them, and even to cook from them.  My whole family is like that, actually.  My sister-in-law Rita likes to talk about one of her first Christmases with us that she calls “The Christmas of the Cook Books” – she counted 28 books that were gifted amongst us, and not one was the same with another!

When I was working in radio, I was very fortunate to interview a number of cookbook authors, including my friend Margaret Howard, as well as Christopher Kimball (“Cook’s Illustrated”) and Pamela Steele amongst many others.  And because I was interviewing them, their publishers sent me their latest book which would be like giving Paris Hilton a new Chanel purse… without the cocaine of course.

All of this takes us to the point of this post:  I’ve entered a favourite recipe of my own creation into the “Recipes to Riches” competition AND I’ve asked for an application form for Jeff & I to appear on “Dinner Party Wars”.  As I have the perfect face for radio, I’m not sure we’ll get anywhere with either of these applications, despite our fabulous success with dinner parties and the incredible goodness that is my entry for the entree category of the cooking contest.

This ultimate goal of this contest is to market President’s Choice products, because the winning entries are supposed to have the potential freeze and become part of the PC line of products.  As a devoted PC fan (have you tried their frozen balls of souffle goodness that you bake into souffles?  To die for!), this is very appealing to me and my cooking ego.  Also, I’m hoping it will give me a chance to meet Galen Weston.  I keep saying I’m going to write him and tell him that I really admire how much better he’s gotten over the past several years doing his commercials.

I really missed Dave Nichols when he left Loblaws, and I really missed the President’s Choice flyer that was produced under his watch.  I stopped reading it for about five years or so, it was so boooorrrring (I told that to a bunch of PC people at the Thornbury Chili Cook-off and they were really pissed with me, which I understand, but if you put out bad product to the consumer, people, you should be prepared when they tell you it’s a bad product). The flyer is a whole lot better, but still not nearly as much fun as it was, and frankly, when I’m spending that much money on a PC product, I would like it to come with a sense of humour too.  And Galen still has his moments of stiffness, but at least now I believe he likes his products and his company, and that’s a huge step up from what he was like!

Also, Galen, I want to know why Loblaws no longer produces soft drinks in glass bottles.  If you really are trying to be as green as you say you are, that’s a really, really good place to begin.

So back to the contest… First prize in each of the seven categories is $25,000 and the grand prize is $250,000.  This is why I want to audition.  I will be SHOCKED beyond any belief if I am accepted (remember, face for radio… plus I’m middle-aged and built like the German peasant I am… not TV friendly, even if I am as funny as hell and quite adorable otherwise) but it’s fun to enter.

Must run… the homemade mac & cheese timer just went off.  Bechamel sauce, flavoured with Dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce & roasted garlic, to which a lot of shredded cheese (medium cheddar & mozzarella) is added, and then mixed with penne.  Pour into greased casserole dish, sprinkle with a few panko crumbs and bake for about  20 minutes at 350 degrees.  Serve with a crisp green salad and a tall, cold glass of cider.  Mmmmm….

Who really wants KD now???

 

Molly O’Neill @onebigtable

I am one of those gorpy fan people.  I can’t help it.  I try not to embarrass myself, but somehow I always bloody do.

There was the time I stepped on, crunched on, Jane Fonda’s toes… in the midst of her exercise celebrity!  There was the time I ploughed into Robin Williams while he was shopping with his son (and this was literally the day before he started shooting DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, a movie on which I very peripherally worked)!  There was the time I baked Rick Moranis butter tarts, only to find out they were just about the only goy food he didn’t like!  And then there was the time, at the airport in Boston, where if I had stood staring at Dr Andrew Young for one second more, I think the Secret Service would have arrested me; I so wanted to go over & shake his hand and just say ‘thank you’ but no, I was the complete & utter gorpy fan person.

Sigh.

So now I try to avoid too many situations where I can be gorpy, but today, without leaving my house, it happened all over again.  See, I am a huge Molly O’Neill fan.  If there are 3 people who know who she is…yea!  You must be friends of mine.  For those of you who don’t… she’s amazing.  She writes about food and people and life with such gentleness and insight.  She’s the writer I would like to be someday, and she even has a ‘beat’ I would love to cover.

For about ten years, Molly (like I know her – Molly!) was a food writer and columnist for the New York Times/Sunday Magazine.  I cooked from her column a lot, and never had a failure/disappointment with her stuff.  But it was the way she wrote that always delighted me.  And to this day, I have a story of hers, saved in my “Writers I Wish I Was” file (seriously, I have this file, centre drawer, right hand side).  It’s about her dad and her brother (big time baseball player Paul O’Neill) and a taxi ride.  Simple stuff, and yet so not.

Anyway, I kind of lost track of what she was doing for a few years and then I found out about One Big Table on Twitter.  I am a Twitter freak and am always exploring for new people to follow, new (or old) interests to ignite, and amongst the several publishing firms I follow was hers!  Which lead me to follow @onebigtable on Twitter and eventually to her website.  And that got me all excited about finding her again, and following her, and longing to get her book but you know the state of my cookery bookshelf… it’s a little crowded.

But this afternoon she had a contest… and I won!  Well, I was one of three… but that still makes me a winner!  Coming soon in the mail to me is a brand-new copy of ONE BIG TABLE by Molly O’Neill.  Please picture me with big cheesy grin.

And it gets better!  I tweeted my thanks, she tweeted back… and now Molly Freaking O’Neill is following me on Twitter. Now please picture me with an even bigger and slightly stupid grin.  God, I’m so gorpy.

I really shouldn’t be this excited about someone following me on Twitter, I know that.  But I am.  More excited, in fact, than I was when J. Kelly Nestruck started following me as the tweeting voice of another life, and I was pretty damned excited about that!

I mean, have you ever met someone you really, really admire, and it turns out that you made a really good impression on them?  Do you remember how that felt?  Well, that’s sort of what this means to me.  My father loved MFK Fisher; to him, she was the perfect food writer, not just because of her love of food & place, but because she told the stories of food & place so well.  That’s who Molly O’Neill is to me, my MFK Fisher.

So when I get the book and have absorbed it, and when I know the website better, I will be cooking.  And I will be inviting friends to join us at our table as we share food & stories & life.

Thank you Molly O’Neill.  From the bottom of my Paderno stock pot, thank you.